Innovation Ecosystem

An arranged marriage between public health, real estate

Brown University triples down on investments in the Innovation District

Photo by Richard Asinof

The dignitaries gathered to toss the shovels of ceremonial dirt at the groundbreaking on Monday, Oct. 24, for the building that will house the new state public health lab.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/31/22
The official ceremonial groundbreaking for a new commercial real estate development that will include a new state public health lab occurred on Monday, Oct. 24, with the full throated endorsement of Rhode Island’s political establishment and investments by Brown University.
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What the public health laboratory does everyday – in analyzing infectious diseases, in protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat from toxic contaminants – should be a big-enough selling point for its value.
As the COVID pandemic continues to afflict our state, the nation, and the world, the importance of public health practices – from vaccines to masking in public to staying home if your sick – still remains a political football, as if somehow a person’s individual liberties are being threatened by protecting the community’s health and well being.
The growing connections between the persistence of toxins such as microplastics in our food, our water, our bodies and even human breast milk demand corporations be held more accountable for their actions and their detritus.
The South Providence waterfront, with its already overburdened communities, is a few hundred yards down the road for the Innovation District – but it often seems as if the distance is mythical in nature. As a pediatrician wryly observed at a public hearing last year, Allens Avenue is the state’s leading exporter of recycled metals and sexual transmitted diseases.

PROVIDENCE – A major rain squall had been predicted to rumble through the city, so there was a sense of urgency pervading the groundbreaking ceremony held on Monday afternoon, Oct. 24, for the construction of the new state public health laboratory as part of a commercial real estate development in the city’s Innovation District, to get the speaking part of the program done and the ceremonial toss of dirt from shovels by VIPs accomplished before the deluge.

A veritable who’s who of Rhode Island politicos were in attendance: Gov. Dan McKee; the entire Congressional delegation – Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Sen. Jack Reed, Congressman David Cicilline, and Congressman Jim Langevin; House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, who has emerged as the latest elected official to champion the creation of a new biotech/life sciences hub in Rhode Island, and Sen. Joshua Miller, standing in for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Everyone was all in on teamwork, partnership, and collaboration in an arranged marriage between a new state public health laboratory within a commercial real estate development, in the hope and the hype of triggering greater economic prosperity for the state.

Everyone kept their speechifying to the bare minimum, save for Gov. McKee, who seemed to be operating in full-tilt campaign mode – his rambling talk consumed nearly 10 minutes. [In contrast, the speeches from the entire four-person Congressional delegation took less than a total of eight minutes.]

“Today is a good example of actually getting something over the finish line that is going to be really important to our state,” Gov.McKee told the roughly 75 participants huddled under a tent at the gathering at 150 Richmond St, the future site of the 220,000 square foot life sciences building being developed by Ancora L&G. “Not only in the short term with the jobs that it is going to provide, but because when a recession is talked about, the best defense is spelled out J-O-B-S – good-paying jobs, and that is what you’re going to have on this project.”

[Editor’s Note: Listening to the Governor, the refrain from Tina Turner’s 1984 classic, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” kept playing in my head, with updated lyrics: “What does public health have to do with future prosperity?”]

The state’s new public health laboratory, which will occupy 80,000 square feet of the building, became part of the development, thanks to a $81.7 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, secured by the state’s congressional delegation.

In the audience under the tent were a number of key players:

• Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, who paid for a new study seeking to jumpstart the biotech/life sciences sector in Rhode Island, emulating what Massachusetts had done with its $1 billion Life Sciences initiative. [See link below to ConvergenceRI stories, “Life sciences lessons not yet learned,” and “What we don’t talk about when we talk about innovation.”]

• Stefan Pryor, the former Secretary at CommerceRI, and Dr. Michael Fine, former director of the R.I. Department of Health. Both drew shout-outs from the speakers.

Ed Hawrot, Ph.D., Senor Associate Dean for the Program in Biology at Brown and program coordinator for Advance-CTR, which works to leverage the resources available to translational researchers. [With a new strategic report released on that same day by Brown University, emphasizing the school’s future investments in research, the value of the infrastructure for collaborative research in the state is still not well understood.]

• Missing from the gathering was Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who had served as director of the R.I. Department of Health from June of 2015 through January of 2022. Politics being what they are, none of the elected officials spoke her name out loud.

Getting to yes on the public health lab
As Speaker Shekarchi described the ongoing efforts to build a new state public health lab, he said he had kept saying no to budget requests about investing in building the lab.

“I said ‘No,’” Shekarchi said. “Seventeen no’s just means ‘Not now.’”

What changed was that the Congressional delegation secured the “$81.7 million that we did not have,” Shekarchi explained. Because it was a grant, Shekarchi continued, “We don’t have to pay it back. So, thank you, Sen. Reed, Sen. Whitehouse, Congressman Langevin and Congressman Cicciline. We are now $81.7 million in the green.”

Shekarchi also praised the work of Stefan Pryor, the former secretary at CommerceRI, for being persistent in pushing for the state health lab. “Thank you, Stefan, for being so persistent and making it happen. This new lab will have a significant benefit for public health as well as serve as a catalyst for economic development, creating a new life sciences hub of world-class institutions, like Brown University and our hospitals and our health care systems.”

What can Brown do for you?
The real star of the show was Brown University, which was represented by Dr. Megan Ranney, MD, MPH, the deputy dean of the School of Public Health at Brown as well as the director of Digital Health. Speaker Shekarchi aptly described Dr. Ranney as “Rhode Island’s own rock star.”

Indeed, Brown University has served as the catalyst for the building out of the innovation ecosystem in the former Jewelry District – the Warren Alpert Medical School, the South Street Landing, the Wexford Innovation Center, and now, the new state public health laboratory, serving as the launchpad for the biotech industry in the state. “We’re four for four,” said Sen. Whitehouse.

Dr. Ranney illuminated the way that Brown has stepped up to the plate during challenging times. “All this is happening through the difficult challenges of illness, aging, biology, cancer, addiction, firearm violence, and public health,” she said.

Brown has signed a letter of intent to lease 20,000 square feet of laboratory space in the new building for a period of 10 years. In addition, it has selected an architect to design a new life sciences building in the former Jewelry District.

“As someone who has been on the front lines of medicine and public health not just for the past two and half years but for almost two decades, I am just so honored to be here today to say that Brown University is absolutely thrilled to be a partner.”

More, better investment by Brown
In a story covered by Providence Business News reporter Nancy Lavin, three days after Monday’s ceremonial groundbreaking for the state public health lab building, Brown University also announced plans to lease out the top two floors of the Wexford building.

“Despite ambitions to attract life science companies to the Wexford Science & Technology building in Providence, the top two floors – designated for those uses – have sat empty since the building opened more than 3 years ago [in 2019],” Lavin wrote on Twitter, as a teaser to her story. “Not anymore.”  The floors will be developed into wet lab space to spur further research.

In July of 2019, when the Wexford building held its official ribbon cutting, then Gov. Gina Raimondo had promised that the new building would serve as a “beehive of innovation.”

ConvergenceRI had reported on how Brown University President Christina Paxson had described the investment strategy for the school as being “all in.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “We view this is ground zero for innovation.”]

As ConvergenceRI had reported: Brown University, along with the Cambridge Innovation Center and Johnson & Johnson, is one of the anchor tenants of “225,” serving as the home of Brown’s School of Professional Studies.

President Christina Paxson said that Brown was “all in” in investing in the former Jewelry District. “While Wexford doesn’t have to invest here, we kind of do; we’ve been her for 250 years,” she said.

“This was an empty area where there were tumbleweeds,” she continued. “Now it is coming alive.”

Paxson also praised the creation of a new entity, Brown Biomedical Innovations, Inc., with plans to invest in research and discovery that can be commercialized in Rhode Island.

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