Innovation Ecosystem

A day in the life, reporting on the Innovation Beat

A conversation with a college reporter, followed by a brief walking tour of the former Jewelry District

Photo by Richard Asinof

The Shake Shack is now open on Thayer Street, but the Innovation Beat story hiding in plain sight behind the signage is the opening of the new headquarters for the Nelson Entrepreneurship Center at Brown on the floors above Shake Shack.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/25/19
A conversation sparked by a question led to an impromptu tour of the former Jewelry District, now called the Providence Innovation and Design District, and how best to define the Innovation Ecosystem when covering the Innovation Beat in Rhode Island.
What are the problems with defining the Innovation Ecosystem in Rhode Island as an extension of academia or health systems? When the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship talks about encouraging “the kind of accidental collisions between experts and disciplines that are central to entrepreneurship,” how is that desire integrated with the community surrounding Brown and other educational institutions? What other reporters in the Rhode Island media market are willing to sit down with ConvergenceRI to talk about innovation, health care, research and technology? When will CommerceRI invest in creating a yearly index of the innovation economy in Rhode Island, something that Massachusetts has done for more than 20 years? When will the University of Rhode Island, or for that matter RI Bio and RI Biohub, lead a tour of the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst to learn about their model for an innovation campus in biotech and life sciences?
Last week, on Thursday, March 21, Biogen announced that it was halting clinical trials for an experimental Alzheimer’s drug, aducanumab, to the dismay of its investors, which resulted in the Cambridge, Mass., company’s stock plunging 29 percent, wiping out some $18 billion in market value, according to reporting by Larry Edelman in The Boston Globe.
The story by Edelman focused on why investing in biotech stocks was not for the faint of heart, because “stomach-churning” price drops are routine when a drug trial fails or regulators reject a new treatment.
But there is perhaps a bigger, more important, unexplored part to this story, one that has potential relevance to Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem.
Two years ago, the pharma giant Pfizer also halted clinical trials on its potential drug therapeutics to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Soon after that announcement, Pfizer announced an investment in an early stage company, MindImmune, which is developing new potential therapies for chronic brain diseases looking at the brain’s own immune system and inflammation.
MindImmune is a for-profit drug discovery research firm embedded as part of the Ryan Neurosciences Institute at the University of Rhode Island.

PROVIDENCE – The conversation was sparked by a question posed in the sidebar, “The questions that need to be asked,” accompanying a story in the March 11 edition of ConvergenceRI, which reported on the Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night. [Such questions accompany every story in ConvergenceRI.]

“Why is there an absence of comprehensive, detailed reporting on the innovation ecosystem and innovation economy activities in Rhode Island?” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Brown venture prize pitch night draws an overflow crowd.”]

The question resonated with a college newspaper reporter, who was considering revamping her beat to cover innovation.

And, she did what a diligent reporter might do: she reached out to ConvergenceRI to meet and to talk about what might be included in such an Innovation Beat.

Coffee at Olga’s
The reporter met ConvergenceRI for coffee at Olga’s Cup + Saucer on Point Street, still the hub of innovation in the former Jewelry District, on Thursday afternoon, March 14.

Having finished an exam, the reporter had jumped on a red JUMP Bike [sponsored by Tufts Health Plan] and rode to Olga’s, braving the congested traffic and the steady flow of trucks on Point Street in the early afternoon.

Like robins returning after winter, will JUMP Bikes become a new sign of spring as we enter the next age of innovation?

For the next hour, the reporter had peppered ConvergenceRI with probing questions, and ConvergenceRI answered as best he could: how long had ConvergenceRI been in business? [Six years.] What kinds of stories do you cover? [The convergence of health, science, innovation, technology, research and community, writ large.] What was the value proposition behind the venture? [To create an engaged community of readers, who share the reporting across their networks, the way that information flows best in the digital age we live in.] What had you done before you worked on ConvergenceRI? [It would take too long to answer; my career has never moved in a straight path.]

Instead of being the one asking questions, the roles were reversed; the reporter kept up a busy stream of questioning, writing down the answers in her notebook. It was, in many ways, a humbling – and refreshing – exercise.

Give and take
ConvergenceRI praised the decision to consider expanding coverage to include the Innovation Beat, a missing ingredient in the news coverage by most media outlets in Rhode Island.

One of the questions that needed to be answered, ConvergenceRI continued, was how the new Innovation Beat was going to be defined: Was it an innovation beat as defined by academic connections? Was it an innovation beat that included the new innovation district in Providence as well as the proposed innovation corridor in Olneyville? Would it include innovation that was happening in the community, outside the walls of academia? Did there need to be a direct connection to academia in order to cover a story?

ConvergenceRI also suggested that there might be a need to redefine what was meant by “innovation,” an overused word, because its definition had been blurred or held captive in silos.

[Business Innovation Factory founder Saul Kaplan had tweeted the day before, “The good news: It’s the innovator’s day. The bad news: We’ve turned innovation into a buzzword,” referring to a story about how at SXSW in Austin, the word “innovate” had been said more than 650,000 times.]

The reporter pushed back, asking ConvergenceRI to explain what he meant. Answering, ConvergenceRI alluded to the poem, “Law, Like Love,” by W.H. Auden.

The reporter said she had not heard of either, so ConvergenceRI called it up on his phone, and in retrospect, in what was certainly a bit pedantic if not patronizing, he began to read the poem out loud:

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

The message in the poem, ConvergenceRI explained, was much like what happens when practitioners in the art of innovation are asked to talk about innovation: they define it according to their own views, a reflection of themselves in the mirror, often talking with a sureness and certainty that defies the ability to question their correctness.

One of the problems with that, ConvergenceRI continued, is that innovation is often thought to be the pathway to economic success, with success defined in financial terms, whereas, in reality, the process of innovation is often built upon failure, and the willingness to learn from mistakes, the ability to realize that you are driving in the wrong direction and you must turn around and go the other way [what is called “pivoting” in innovation-speak].

A great first story as part of the new beat, ConvergenceRI then suggested, would be to go around and ask numerous practitioners of “innovation” to define what they meant by innovation.

The reporter seemed a bit perplexed by the suggestion. Wouldn’t they all say something different and not agree? Where is the news story in that?

Yes, exactly, ConvergenceRI.

In retrospect, perhaps what ConvergenceRI should have added was this: Such an exercise provides the readers an opportunity to participate and to become involved in your journey to cover the Innovation Beat, so that the readers become part of the story as it unfolds, wanting to know what happens next. It would allow the newspaper to develop its own definition of the innovation ecosystem, and to allow for that definition to change and evolve, as a kind of living, breathing process.

Indeed, in the very first issue of ConvergenceRI, on Sept. 23, 2013, the question was posed to nine different practitioners of “innovation” about what the former Jewelry District should be called. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “What defines the emerging Knowledge District?”] In six years, the phrase, “Knowledge District” has faded from memory; firms have relocated; folks have changed jobs; buildings have been rehabbed, new buildings have been erected; all part of the natural ebb and flow on the river of commerce.

ConvergenceRI also suggested the reporter ask the practitioners in the art of innovation to define the connection between innovation, success, and failure. Most ventures fail, most equity investments do not pan out, and many experiments do not achieve the results sought.

A guide for the perplexed
Realizing that the conversation was getting a bit too abstract, ConvergenceRI brought it back to some tangible examples of innovation, occurring outside the world of academia. [The top two prize winners a the venture pitch night had been outward focusing – developing a better way to fill out immigration forms for asylum seekers and lawyers, and the marketing of a super grain, Teff, to benefit small farmers in Ethiopia.]

When was the last time you were in Central Falls? ConvergenceRI asked, and The reporter responded, never.

ConvergenceRI suggested that reporter visit the new Neighborhood Health Station in Central Falls and its new facility, the first major new building constructed in the city in two decades, where a community health center had developed an innovative concept around the delivery of health care, an integrated one-stop shopping experience where primary care and urgent care, pharmacy care and lab services could be delivered in one place, in walking distance, serving the majority of residents in Central Falls. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Reaching the promised land.”]

The next example of innovation occurring outside the walls of academia that ConvergenceRI shared was the Sankofa Initiative in the West End of Providence, which had built an affordable housing project in concert with urban growing spaces, a greenhouse and a commercial kitchen. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Sankofa builds healthy community oasis in diverse West End.”]

Another example of “innovation” was health equity zones; the reporter said she was familiar with those, having read a story about their planned expansion. ConvergenceRI suggested she visit some of the ongoing HEZ activities in Olneyville, particularly around their use of mindfulness, working with young parents. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “At home in the hub of Olneyville.”]

Further, ConvergenceRI brought up IlluminOss, a private, commercial-stage company headquartered in East Providence, which has successfully developed an innovative bone fracture repair system and is expanding its footprint in the U.S. market. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “IlluminOss expands its bone fracture repair system in U.S. Commercial market.”]

ConvergenceRI also mentioned EpiVax, Inc., one of the pioneering biotech companies in Rhode Island, which celebrated its 20th birthday last year by moving its headquarters from the former Jewelry District to the Rising Sun Mills in Olneyville. [See link below to ConvergenceRI stories, “FDA awards $1 million EpiVax, CUBRC, to assess generic peptide drugs,” and “Writing the next chapter at EpiVax.”]

How do all these initiatives fit into the definition of an innovation beat?

A brief walking tour
As the conversation wound down, ConvergenceRI was a bit frustrated with what he felt was his own inability to express himself, worried he had sounded too didactic. So, on a whim, ConvergenceRI suggested to the reporter that they take an impromptu walking tour in the immediate neighborhood around Olga’s.

First stop, of course, was to put more money in the parking meter [the Providence meter folks were ever-vigilant], and then to point out the new construction next to Olga’s, at the former home of Planned Parenthood, which was soon to open as a new pediatric dentistry office. Should that be included as part of any map of the new Innovation District?

Then it was off to the Social Enterprise Greenhouse to see if Meg Wirth, the director of Health & Wellness ventures [as well as the co-founder of Maternova] was available for a brief chat, but she was on vacation. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “Maternova launches new protective wear for women to combat spread of Zika,” “Nurturing social enterprise in Rhode Island,” and “Doing well by doing good at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.”]

We also quickly checked to see if Joanna Detz, publisher of ecoRI News, was at her desk on the second-floor workspace, but she was elsewhere. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To podcast, or not to podcast? Reaching your audience where they are.”]

We then went across the street to One Davol Square to visit the new offices of The Mindfulness Center, an initiative of the Brown School of Public Health, in search of Eric Loucks, the program director. ConvergenceRI had been trying to set up an interview with Loucks for a number of months, without success, to talk about the Center’s expansion.

The reporter had never been inside the vast, rehabilitated former factory complex, and was unfamiliar with The Mindfulness Center.

Loucks wasn’t in, but those at The Mindfulness Center were eager to talk with the reporter and pitch an article. Although ConvergenceRI had done a number of stories about The Mindfulness Center, they had not heard of the publication. So it goes. [See link below to ConvergenceRI stories, “The mindfulness center opens at Brown,” and “The best way to improve heart health may be mindfulness.”]

The reporter also had been curious about what was the Slater Fund, having read about it in the Brown Venture Pitch Night story. An old sign on the outside of One Davol Square had listed the Slater Technology Fund as a tenant, but they had moved out nine months ago. Also listed erroneously on the sign was The Tech Collective, which has been headquartered in the Rising Sun Mills for the past four years.

Next stop was the headquarters of ProThera Biologics, a firm pioneering therapies for inflammatory diseases, where Rich Horan has an office. Horan is the former managing director at Slater who is now the principal behind Biograph Venture Development LLC. But Horan wasn’t in. [See link below to story, “ProThera launches strategic partnership to help launch its biologic into the clinic.”]

Is this what you do all day? the reporter asked. Yes and no, ConvergenceRI answered, unsure of how to respond to the question.

[Again, retrospect, what ConvergenceRI might have said in response was that the process of reporting requires patience and persistence, the willingness to seek out stories that may take months to develop, and not to get discouraged when stories do not pan out. To know what was happening inside the edifices. Shoe leather reporting was important, even when there was no immediate gratification.]

So we moseyed around the corner to the Alpert Medical School where ConvergenceRI wanted to renew his long-standing request for an interview with the dean, Dr. Jack Elias.

As ConvergenceRI explained, sometimes a visit and making a request in person can produce better results than trying to fight your way through the maze of bureaucratic hierarchy, particularly for someone with such a busy schedule as the dean. We talked briefly with Elias’s executive assistant, who explained that the next few months would be crazy busy, starting with Match Day, tomorrow, for Brown medical students, where they discover where they have been “matched” to do their residencies.

Walking back to her JUMP Bike and to ConvergenceRI’s car, as we took in all the ongoing construction in what is now referred to as the Providence Design and Innovation District, ConvergenceRI asked out loud: Wouldn’t you think that a traffic study would be part of any design for an Innovation District?

What do you mean? the reporter asked.

Well, ConvergenceRI answered, there will be hundreds of new employees coming to work each day at the Wexford Innovation Complex, and while there has been some discussion around parking, there doesn’t seem to be any traffic studies or plans about what to do about the coming congestion. And, it would not necessarily be a safe place to ride a JUMP Bike, ConvergenceRI added.

How many of the new employees were going to be living in the neighborhood, walking to work? Where are the amenities that would attract families with young children – schools, playgrounds, and grocery stores?

It was like a collision between the visions of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, ConvergenceRI continued, happening again. Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, talked about the importance of building cities on a human, walk-able scale; she battled with Robert Moses, an infamous New York City urban planner, who believed in urban renewal and big highways. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Diversity, serendipity versus the pursuit of loneliness.”]

Such collisions that are so important to the vitality of an innovation ecosystem need to happen outside of an enclosed work space, walking on the street, chance encounters and conversations, call it serendipity, not just behind walls or gated corporate communities.

A million stories in the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem
With more time, ConvergenceRI would have extended the tour to include NEMIC, the New England Medical Innovation Center, and RI Bio and RI Biohub, the latest efforts to organize an industry cluster group around the Rhode Island biotech and life sciences community. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Talking about an innovation revolution.”]

There are, of course, the three new Innovation Campuses being developed in partnership with URI, which were announced in December of 2018. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

And, the opening of the new home of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, in the same building complex where the new Shake Shack is located, at 249 Thayer St.

“We envision this home, located right across the street from the Brown bookstore, as an integral part of the Brown ecosystem,” as the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship described it on their website. “This built-from-scratch, 10,000-square-foot four-story building will provide space for new student ventures, events, entrepreneurs-in-residence, visiting faculty and student organizations.”

For the last few years, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship has occupied a temporary home at the Brown Hillel center. The new building, according to the recent official announcement, “will encourage the kind of accidental collisions between experts and disciplines that are central to entrepreneurship and to the missions of both the center and Brown.”

In the meantime, most of the attention about the new building has been focused on the tenant occupying the first floor: Rhode Island’s first Shake Shack. A feature story in the Brown Daily Herald proclaimed: “Shake Shack shakes up Thayer: Opening day for the national burger chain brings long lines, eager students, tasty treats.”

In the story, there was not a single mention of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. Sometimes, the innovation ecosystem can be hiding in plain sight. So, too, can other important stories.

ConvergenceRI did stop by the Shake Shack on opening day, his first-ever visit to the chain eatery. Standing beside him in line was an 80-year-old, born-and-bred resident of the East Side, an African American woman, who told ConvergenceRI she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Was there a different way to look at the customer base for the Shake Shack, beyond students, beyond the assumptions about who actually lives on the East Side?

The expediter at the counter, handing out meals to waiting customers, was a middle-aged man with gray hair peaking out from under his cap. “Exactamundo!” he exclaimed, when matching an order to a customer, using a phrase popularized by the Fonz, Henry Winkler’s character on the hit TV series, “Happy Days,” from the 1970s. Would the demographics of the army of worker bees behind the counter at Shake Shack tell a different story about the relative health of the Rhode Island economy?


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