Innovation Ecosystem

Will Rhode Island make and the world take?

Proposed innovation institute by Raimondo has lots of big potholes

Photo by Richard Asinof

Can you imagine a sign that says, "Providence makes and the world takes" on the Point Street Bridge?

The iconic sign on the bridge over the Delaware River connecting Trenton, N.J. and Pennsylvania is a throwback to an era of manufacturing in the 1930s. A campaign proposal to create an innovation institute in Rhode Island focused on advanced manufacturing by R.I. Treasurer Gina Raimondo in her campaign for governor has some major gaps in it.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/4/14
The campaign photo-op by R.I. Treasurer Gina Raimondo to propose building a Rhode Island Innovation Institute as a way to speed up the development of the former I-195 land has a number of big potholes. It fails to acknowledge the idea is borrowed from a successful initiative underway by President Obama. It does not detail the costs or where the funding will come from. It is not based on any in-depth analysis and research about successful models of innovation institutes, such as the one in Massachusetts. It lacks any collaborative framework to make the kind of matching state investments that are the basis for the federal initiatives. There has been no exploration of efforts in Massachusetts around the Mass. Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative. And, it seems to exclude the collaborative research enterprises with the greatest potential – the biomedical industry sector and the neurosciences research sector.
Why did R.I. Treasurer Gina Raimondo fail to credit President Obama and his ongoing innovation institute initiative focused on advanced manufacturing? Why has the news media been asleep at the wheel in covering this story? Is it possible to have a comprehensive discussion of future economic strategy that looks at how to grow Rhode Island’s knowledge economy beyond aspirational goals and campaign promises? Who would the candidates running for governor consider naming as the new director of CommerceRI? What will be the state’s strategic priorities? What kinds of resources can be made available for matching grants to make Rhode Island more competitive for major federal awards?
The convergence of health, science, innovation, technology, research and community in Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem is still not reflected in much of the state’s economic development policies or in its legislative agenda. There is no compelling story or map that has been created that focuses on the collaborative research enterprise potential in Rhode Island. There is no mapping that details the opportunities for the biomedical sector for the asset class of investors. There is no mapping that captures the research dollars coming into Rhode Island, what they are funding, who is doing the research, and what have been the outcomes. From the health care delivery standpoint, there are numerous innovative programs now underway but no map that captures that reality in comprehensive, accessible data. Until that work is done, the economic equation critical to cost control – and job creation – and new company formation will remain unsolved.

PROVIDENCE – Spanning the Delaware River, the Lower Trenton Bridge connects Trenton, N.J., with Morrisville, Penn., bearing the infamous sign, “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.”

Now in neon, the sign, first installed in 1935, bespeaks of a much-faded industrial manufacturing era in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital city. Although it was mentioned in N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention, the major export of both Christie and Trenton these days appears to be bridge scandals.

The Lower Trenton Bridge truss bridge bears a strong resemblance to the truss design of the Point Street Bridge in Providence, built in 1926-1927, which connects the former Jewelry District and emerging Knowledge District with the hospital and research campuses and with College Hill and Wickenden Street neighborhoods.

The Point Street Bridge also serves as a gateway to The Link, the redevelopment of the former Route 195 land, which has emerged as a potential pivotal campaign issues in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

The alleged “slow” pace of that development has emerged as a focus of political criticism, most recently by R.I. Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democratic candidate for governor.

On July 28, Raimondo, in a made-for-media event, in front of assembled members of construction unions supporting her campaign, proposed building a Rhode Island Innovation Institute campus to support a hub of applied research in advanced manufacturing. She promoted the concept: if you build it, they will come – predicting that companies would flock to be part of a new manufacturing hub.

“Places like North Carolina, Ohio and New York are investing in innovation institutes, and we should as well,” Raimondo said, touting her vision of the new campus construction which would, in her view, recreate Providence as a new hub of manufacturing, the “Providence Makes, The World Takes” vision of the 21st century.

Her vision, however, appears to be long on aspiration and short on details – on how much it would cost and who will pay for it.

More significantly, Raimondo failed to give proper attribution to where the “innovation institute” concept for advanced manufacturing came from – President Barack Obama’s administration.

Innovation institutes are an Obama initiative
Left out of the conversation – and not explored by any reporters – is the inconvenient truth that the concept of innovation institutes focused on advanced manufacturing are actually part of an ongoing comprehensive initiative developed and being implemented by President Obama’s administration.

The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, now known as “America Makes,” was launched in August 2012 as a pilot hub in Youngstown, Ohio, established in part with an initial federal investment of $30 million, to help advance 3D printing materials, technologies and processes.

The Next Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute at North Carolina State University was launched in January 2014 with a Department of Energy investment of $70 million to invent, design and manufacture the next generation of energy-efficient, high-power electronic chips and devices. The focus is on making new semiconductor technologies cost-competitive with current silicon-based power electronics.

The federal innovation institute investments were part of a competitive grant process, whereby collaborative public-private partnerships organized by the states matched a portion of the federal investments.

Raimondo’s campaign literature and her public pronouncements [including her February campaign announcement] have so far failed to mention that her innovation institute is an idea borrowed from President Obama. [Of course, the information is readily available online, if an enterprising reporter chose to look for it.]

Indeed, in May of 2013, Sen. Jack Reed urged Rhode Island to form an effective collaborative coalition between industry, academia and government to compete and win one of the federal awards for President Obama’s advanced manufacturing innovation institutes.

Reed said: “Rhode Island is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and should be a part of the new revolution in advanced manufacturing that is taking place today. We are home to some of the world’s greatest minds in research and design and our state would make an ideal site for one of these new, advanced manufacturing centers.”

The problem is: no such collaborative framework currently exists in Rhode Island – and there is no capability to provide a level of state matching grants to be competitive for such awards, despite the strong track record of the state’s Congressional delegation in bringing home the bacon.

Nor is there any record of Raimondo, as Treasurer, actively promoting the development of such a collaborative framework.

When asked directly about the lack of attribution to President Obama’s innovation institute initiative, Raimondo spokesman Nicole Kayner responded without directly answering the question. “It’s great to see President Obama’s focus on manufacturing,” she said. “We agree that these innovation institutes are a great way to spur manufacturing growth.”

Kayner did not address Rhode Island’s current lack of a collaborative framework to compete for such federal awards. Instead, she said: “Of course, we will explore ways to attract federal funding,” adding: “As manufacturing jobs are coming back from overseas, we have to make sure that Rhode Island is attracting those jobs here.”

How much would it cost?
Left out of the conversation by Raimondo – and not pursued by any reporter – was any discussion around cost. How much would such an innovation institute in Rhode Island cost? And, where would the money come from – particularly when the state is still reeling from the bad $75 million investment in 38 Studios.

At her news event, Raimondo also cited the New York City initiative to create a new innovation institute campus on Roosevelt Island. That innovation institute is a partnership as a result of a competitive bid between Cornell University and Technion Israel Institute of Technology. It is a $2 billion initiative; with $350 million from a wealthy Cornell alumnus, Charles Feeney. Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife have donated another $133 million. An additional $100 million was allocated by then Mayor Bloomberg.

Raimondo’s responses to questions from ConvergenceRI, asking for specific details on how much such a Rhode Island Innovation Institute would cost, were vague at best. “The vast majority of the funding would come from private sources, and businesses and businesses organizations that choose to partner for the creation of the [Rhode Island Innovation] Institute,” Kayner said.

A better model for an innovation institute?
Less than an hour’s drive from Providence, a different kind of “innovation institute” resides in Westborough, Mass., the John Adams Innovation Institute. It was created in 2004 as an economic development arm of the Mass. Tech Collaborative, a quasi-public agency.

The Massachusetts Innovation Institute has been at the forefront of almost every major economic development effort in the Bay State since its inception a decade ago.

It provided the first money in for the MassChallenge. It led the way in creating the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative. It provided initial leadership to spearhead the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. It helped to develop the Massachusetts Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative. On an ongoing basis, it publishes the yearly Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy, creating fact-based metrics to measure the knowledge economy against leading technology states and global competitors.

It was worked to facilitate regional economy projects – from creative economy clusters in the Berkshires to advanced manufacturing in Fall River, from job skills training in Chicopee and Holyoke around the precision machine industry clusters to the development of a digital gaming institute in Massachusetts.

The Innovation Institute helped to facilitate the establishment of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, involving a public-private partnership with Cisco and EMC and Harvard, MIT, UMass and Boston University.

The Innovation Institute also provided key funding for the initial Gateway Cities study conducted by Mass Inc. and the Brookings Institute, focused on those urban areas – former manufacturing centers – that were left behind from participation in the economic growth realized by Greater Boston.

One of the primary functions of the Innovation Institute has been to provide matching funds for competitive federal research awards in Massachusetts. It has played in a critical role in helping Massachusetts secure competitive research awards from the government and private industry: investment of $20 million in state matching grants from the Innovation Institute leveraged more than $500 million in new research funding for Massachusetts academic research centers, a 25-to-1 return on investment.

A second phase of the state matching grant program is now underway, with the Innovation Institute charged with designing and implementing a program to invest $50 million in university-based research facilities. “These funds will be used to support collaborative efforts by Massachusetts universities and other research institutions to pursue large-scale [awards],” according to the Institute’s website. The goal is to “strengthen and expand innovation capacity for the Commonwealth’s innovation ecosystem and provide fresh resources leading to regional economic development in new and existing industry sectors with high growth potential.”

The Innovation Institute is also focused on increasing competitiveness of industry sectors with high-growth potential such as robotics, Big Data, mobile communications, social media, advanced manufacturing and health IT.

Clearly, the Massachusetts Innovation Institute provides a different model for how to approach creating a Rhode Island Innovation Institute, one that has proven very successful in Massachusetts.

Raimondo, when ask if she was familiar with the Innovation Institute in Massachusetts, or had any conversation with them about what kinds of programs and investments and strategies they have pursued that would be applicable to Rhode Island, indicated that she had not engaged with them.

“It’s too soon to say exactly what model the [Rhode Island] Innovation Institute would follow,” Kayner said. “But we know this much: to make Rhode Island a destination for manufacturing jobs, we need to be a leader in innovation.”

Kayner continued: “But certainly as the conversation about [the Rhode Island Innovation Institute] continues, the stakeholders involved will be in contact with other innovation institutes throughout the country to gather best practices, recommendations, etc.”

A lack of strategic research
ConvergenceRI attempted to delve deeper into Raimondo’s strategic research behind her proposed plan for an innovation institute, asking her to expand on her statement at the news event: “The Rhode Island Innovation Institute will be an applied research campus, focused on innovation in advanced manufacturing.”

ConvergenceRI asked: Are you familiar with the Massachusetts Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative and its work? Do you think it provides a potential road map for Rhode Island to follow?

Further, was Raimondo familiar with Bolt, a Massachusetts seed stage fund that invests capital, staff, equipment in startups at the intersection of hardware and software, a kind of “maker” incubator?

Kayner’s response: “Same answer as above.”

ConvergenceRI pursued the issue of strategic planning further: Before embarking on building an innovation institute campus in Rhode Island, wouldn’t it be important to have a strategic plan based upon evidence-based research that identified and quantified how industry sectors in Rhode Island could benefit from the applied research? Does such a strategic plan exist?

Raimondo’s response: “There have been a number of economic development plans put forth by a variety of organizations, including the Rhode Island Foundation and Fourth Economy, many of which call for the creation of something akin to an innovation institute,” said Kayner.

Kayner acknowledged that as the project moved forward, further studies would likely be conducted to identify how the Rhode Island Innovation Institute could have the most strategic impact on our economy.”

ConvergenceRI attempted to pin down Raimondo to be more specific on the industry sectors and clusters the new innovation institute would target.

ConvergenceRI asked: At your news event, you identified three potential industry sectors that the new innovation institute would target – food sciences, marine industries and health sciences. Can you be more specific? Can you prioritize those choices? What research is your targeting based upon?

Raimondo’s response: “These choices reflect areas where Rhode Island already has a competitive advantage,” Kayner said, though she didn’t identify how that competitive advantage had been quantified. “The Rhode Island Innovation Institute would seize on these advantages to help generate new products and new jobs.”

Raimondo and her team do not appear to have done any research on innovation institutes in advance of staging a photo op to suggest that Rhode Island was ready to begin building the campus for such a Rhode Island Innovation Institute campus as a way to speed up development of the former Rte. 195 land known as The Link.

Further, she and her team did not credit the Obama administration for successfully launching a series of innovation institutes focused on advanced manufacturing, either though she cited as examples two such institutes in North Carolina and Ohio as lessons for Rhode Island.

In addition, Raimondo and her team were unfamiliar with the successful work being done by the Massachusetts Innovation Institute, had not engaged them in any conversation, had not researched the Massachusetts Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative as a potential model, and knew little about programs such as Bolt, an innovative “maker” initiative.

What’s wrong with this picture?
The two sectors that offer Rhode Island’s research engine some of the best opportunities to grow the state’s economy and give the state a distinct competitive advantage are the biomedical research sector and the brain research sector.

About $200 million a year in federal and corporate research dollars flows to Rhode Island as a result of these research enterprises. Yet, surprisingly, they did not emerge as a significant targeted area in the Rhode Island Foundation’s action plan conducted by the Pittsburgh-based Fourth Economy.

Given the Obama administration’s targeted investment in brain research – and the collaborative effort being developed around the Brown Institute for Brain Science, the Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute, the Ryan Institute at the University of Rhode Island and the two hospital systems, Care New England and Lifespan, it seems strange that any discussion of an innovation institute in Rhode Island would not involve this existing collaborative framework.

The Prince Neurosciences Institute is beginning to build out its collaborative research capabilities, with new investments in imaging research and in biostatistics, recruiting new academic research members to its team, according to John Robson, the institute’s administrative director.

As a result of the collaborative research framework being built around brain science, the potential is for Rhode Island to become a national and global hub, attracting top talent and research funding.

Creating an “innovation institute” that could offer matching grants would potentially increase the likelihood of the collaborative research framework attracting further research investment from both foundations and competitive federal awards.

While it is unlikely to receive gifts of the magnitude of the recent $650 million gift by Ted Stanley to the Broad Institute for biomedical research into mental illness, the potential is there to build upon small grants.

For instance, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, which has given more than $200 million to support research on autism, gave a $1.2 million grant in 2013 to create a first-of-its-kind confidential registry of every individual diagnosed with autism in Rhode Island, undertaken by the R.I. Consortium for Autism Research and Treatment.

While the idea of creating a Rhode Island Innovation Institute has merit, it requires more than a photo op. The concept also needs to be grounded in fact-based research and investigation of successful models.

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