Innovation Ecosystem

A brief interview with Stefan Pryor

With cranes in the sky and progress on the ground, ConvergenceRI caught up with the secretary of CommerceRI for a conversation

Photo by Richard Asinof

Stefan Pryor, secretary of CommerceRI, spoke with ConvergenceRI as many of the state's economic development initiatives appeared to be moving toward fruition.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/16/18
A brief interview with Stefan Pryor, secretary of CommerceRI, revealed his thoughts as many of his economic development plans appear to be coming to fruition.
How will the growing disarray within the hospital industry sector impact ongoing plans for economic development in Rhode Island? What can the future academic research enterprise in Rhode Island glean from the experiences of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center? How will plans for a quantum computing center in Newport and a microgrid at the University of Rhode Island Kingston campus compete with the innovation campus proposals in Providence? Similar to the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, does Rhode Island need to be a similar benchmark report established for measuring health equity as a factor in economic development?
At the MedMates 2018 Life Sciences Expo, the keynote speaker, Susan Windham-Bannister, in an interview with ConvergenceRI, urged Secretary Pryor to hop on the Mass Pike and travel west to Amherst to visit the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass. At the Institute, some 16 companies work alongside more than 150 faculty members from 28 different departments, in efforts to create a regional hub of innovation connected to but separate from Boston and Cambridge.
Would Pryor accept an invitation to tour the Institute with ConvergenceRI, led by Windham-Bannister of by the director of the John Adams Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative?

PROVIDENCE – Looking at the city skyline with numerous cranes on the horizon, the stars in the Rhode Island economic development galaxy appeared to have aligned for Gov. Gina Raimondo and Stefan Pryor, secretary of CommerceRI, during the last few weeks.

First, Commerce RI released the 16 responses to the RFP for the $20 million initiative to build one or more innovation campuses in partnership with URI on Friday, March 16, funded through a $20 million bond approved by voters.

Then, the last steel beam was put in place atop the Wexford Innovation Complex on Tuesday, March 27, with the expectation that the new facility, with its anchor tenants of Johnson & Johnson, Brown University and the Cambridge Innovation Center will open in 2019.

That same week, the 2018 Power of Place Summit, hosted by Grow Smart RI on Thursday, March 29, featuring a program of speakers and workshops that seemed to be simpatico with many of CommerceRI’s ongoing economic development initiatives.

Next, the MedMates 2018 Life Sciences Expo on Thursday, April 4, showcased companies and enterprises in the life sciences industry sector in Rhode Island that many hope will evolve into a hub of a regional innovation ecosystem. The event featured Pryor as the closing speaker.

Finally, last week, on April 10, Amgen announced plans to build a new, $160 million, state-of-the-art, next-generation biomanufacturing facility on its West Greenwich campus, receiving approximately $9.5 million in tax credits from the state to help fund the project.

In a Rhode Island 15 minutes
At the Wexford Innovation Complex event, ConvergenceRI spoke briefly with Pryor, attempting to arrange a time to sit down and talk in a one-on-one interview.

Again, at the Grow Smart RI, being persistent, ConvergenceRI spoke with Pryor, who again promised to get it put on his calendar.

A phone inteview was set up and scheuduled for Monday, April 9.

The scheduled half-hour shrunk to 10 minutes, no doubt the pending Amgen announcement the next day being a factor.

Here is the brief ConvergenceRI interview with Stefan Pryor, secretary of CommerceRI, following a month of great expectations in economic development in Rhode Island seemingly coming to fruition.

ConvergenceRI: At the Wexford Innovation Complex topping off ceremony, you mentioned that you had been in Puerto Rico helping with the island’s recovery efforts. What brought you to Puerto Rico and what kind of recovery work were you doing?
My counterpart in Puerto Rico, the secretary of commerce there, invited me there, in order to observe the activities underway and the conditions on the ground, and to help him and his colleagues strategize.

As you may know, I worked on the team involved with the rebuilding and revitalization of lower Manhattan after Sept. 11. [Joining me in Puerto Rico], there were also representatives from Louisiana, individuals who had worked on recovery efforts post-Katrina, as well as a participant in the recovery after Haiti’s recent earthquake.

There are some very talented people working collaboratively in Puerto Rico on recovery and rebuilding.

Every disaster [recovery effort] has its own very unique qualities, and they can never be considered to be identical, though there are similarities.

There were lessons to be learned and notes to be traded; there was a very constructive dialogue based on experiences from Louisiana, Haiti and New York.

I believe that there will be a continuing dialogue around best practices that can be shared and replicated.

ConvergenceRI: Did you engage in any hands-on work?
No. It wasn’t relief work in the sense of personally handing out goods and the like. We worked closely with government officials at different levels to help them think through possible next steps.

ConvergenceRI: Are there any updates in terms of the latest plans by Infosys?
No, not at this time. There will likely be more that the company says about its plans in the near future. The company is advertising jobs and doing hiring right now.

ConvergenceRI: What do you believe were the most important takeaways from the recent Life Sciences Expo?
I was only there for the very last segment. Some of my observations to offer are: I was very encouraged by the interplay among representatives from Wexford, the Cambridge Innovation Center, and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

Wexford and CIC representatives have hit the ground running, interfacing with Rhode Island participants in the life sciences ecosystem. They are planning in ways that are intricate and smart.

ConvergenceRI: Similarly, what do you believe were the most important takeaways from the Grow Smart RI confab?
The Grow Smart RI agenda is, in many ways, the Raimondo administration’s agenda, in parallel and often in collaboration. We invest in those areas that are already blessed with infrastructure; we aim to promote transit-oriented development; we aim to ensure that lower-income communities and all communities within Rhode Island can benefit from the economic progress that we are now seeing.

I was struck, once again, by how aligned we are. We do work with the Grow Smart RI team. There is a deliberate [quality to our collaboration]. It is clear to me, that philosophically, we have a lot in common.

ConvergenceRI: Given that Wexford and Johnson & Johnson both have sent in proposals for the RFP for the campus innovation initiative, will it be difficult to maintain a level playing field in terms of your decision-making, given the investments already made with those companies?
No, I don’t think it will. We have appointed a high-quality [review] committee that consists of representatives from multiple state agencies, the University of Rhode Island, and the board of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, and each participant is a top-notch professional.

I know that the committee will take its job very seriously, I am confident that this will be a thorough and fair process, that each applicant has a fair shot, and that there a number of factors that will help drive the decision.

ConvergenceRI: Given the demographic shifts reported by Kids Count Rhode Island in their Factbook released today [on April 9], with a declining birth rate in Rhode Island, increasing diversity and a growing older population, and even the potential loss of a Congressional seat, what does that mean in terms of economic development priorities in Rhode Island?
I would prefer to read the report before making any comments.

ConvergenceRI: Is there an affordable housing crisis in Rhode Island, given the rise in the rise in median home sale prices and the increasing demand for new housing?
I do. Rhode Island Housing, in concert with a number of partners, released a report about two years ago, regarding the state of housing and the need for affordable housing. That report predicted many of the effects and the activities that we are now seeing the market.

The need for affordable housing and workforce housing is pronounced. That is why Gov. Raimondo proposed, and the voters approved, a $50 million bond, which allocated $40 million for affordable housing and $10 million for remedial [work] on blighted housing.

That bond is in the process of implementation. We need to do more, however. Press attention is enormously helpful. A healthy Rhode Island economy relies in part on affordable, healthy housing.


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