Innovation Ecosystem

Building a tech bridge to the future

New innovation campus, in partnership with URI, will be built in Portsmouth, focused on advanced materials and composites

Photo by Richard Asinof

All the best laid plans for the Wexford Innovation Complex, rebranded as 225 Dyer Street, the home of the Venture Cafe and the Cambridge Innovation Center, have been disrupted by the coronavirus. A new innovation campus, in partnership with URI, 401 Tech Bridge, will be built in Portsmouth, in part with $2.3 million in funding secured recently from the U.S. Commerce Department.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/24/20
One of the innovation campuses funded by a 2016 bond approved by voters is taking shape in Portsmouth, the site of a new facility to serve as the headquarters for “401 Tech Bridge.”
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PROVIDENCE – In the current world of economic development in Rhode Island, “breaking news” during the time of the coronavirus pandemic is often delivered through news releases, because in-person events are impossible to organize and virtual events are difficult to coordinate.

Last week, Sage Morander, a public relations account executive, working at SVMPR, reached out to ConvergenceRI to promote the “news” that 401Tech Bridge, “a newly formed economic development organization,” had closed on a $6 million funding round.

The organization had recently secured a $2.3 million implementation grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to support the launch of 401 Tech Bridge, and in particular, fund the construction of a new Advanced Materials and Technology Center in Portsmouth, R.I, according to the story pitch promoted by Morander.

In her story pitch, Morander wrote: “In a time where much of the economic news is less than encouraging, this is new and positive.”

Back to the future
Well, almost new, as ConvergenceRI recalled. The “401 Tech Bridge” initiative had first been announced nearly a year ago, at an Oct. 3, 2019, event at South Street Landing, attended by Gov. Gina Raimondo and CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor. The initiative was positioned as part of the latest of two investments being made by CommerceRI in innovation campuses, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, as part of a $20 million bond approved by voters in 2016. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Two more innovation campus awards announced.”]

As ConvergenceRI had reported at the time, “The initiative known as “401 Tech Bridge” [would] receive $1 million in state funds, and in turn will leverage $5 million in matching investments from other sources, including the U.S. Department of Commerce.”

The story continued: “The partners include: Polaris MEP, Toray, Composites One, Hope Global, the International Yacht Restoration School of Technology and Trades, the Composites Alliance of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Textiles Innovation Network, the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, and DESIGNxRI.”

According to the information accompanying the 2019 announcement, the goal was to create a “catalytic center” focused on innovation in advanced textiles and composites.

At the time of the innovation campus investment announcement, the state’s investment of $1 million in 401 Tech Bridge was expected to leverage financial support from 
the U.S. Department of the Navy, according to Susan Daly, the vice president of Strategy at the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association.

As reported by ConvergenceRI, “The project will be developing a new headquarters for its ongoing operations in Portsmouth; a potential location has been identified but not yet been made public,” according to Daly.

Now, some 11 months, the “401 Tech Bridge” initiative is moving toward fruition. Morander offered to connect ConvergenceRI with the potential to talk with three principals involved with the project: Commerce RI Secretary Stefan Pryor, Mary Johnson, the manager of 401 Tech Bridge, and Christian Cowan, Chief Operating Officer at the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation.

In response, ConvergenceRI sent a number of questions, asking also to speak, if possible, with Susan Daly, and with Pryor.

Here are the responses to the questions asked by ConvergenceRI, provided by Morander, who said the answers were put together by Johnson, Daly, and Cowan.

ConvergenceRI: Has the contract been signed with Commerce RI for the initial $1 million investment announced on Oct. 3, 2019, to create an innovation campus, and when was it signed?
JOHNSON, DALY and COWAN: The letter of intent with RI Commerce was signed on July 18, 2019.

[Editor’s Note: The answer does not indicate whether there has been a contract signed regarding the creation of an Innovation Campus, beyond the initial letter of intent.]

ConvergenceRI: Is the Portsmouth site now operational and functioning? How many people are working on site there? Is most of the work being done in a WFH mode for employees of the Innovation Campus center?
JOHNSON, DALY and COWAN: 401 Tech Bridge is a connected network, and we offer programming independently, and with our partners, in venues across the state.

For instance, earlier this summer, 401 Tech Bridge held an event focused on Defense Innovation with Venture Café [Providence], including Rhode Island small business flash talks, interviews with prime contractors and discussions of NUWC’s Tech Transfer resources.

We have a two-part SBIR webinar coming up on Sept 3 and Sept. 16. We are actively planning programming, and it will be posted on our website.

We will begin construction on the 401 Tech Bridge Advanced Materials and Technology Center in Portsmouth in 2020, and anticipate it opening in 2021. The funding from the U.S. Commerce Economic Development Administration, which is supporting the construction, was approved last week.

The Innovation Campus funding specifically supports auxiliary space and equipment sited at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus.

ConvergenceRI: Can you provide a breakdown of all of the actual financial investments in the “401 Tech Bridge” innovation campus, and how they will be utilized? At the Oct. 3, 2019, announcement, an additional $5 million in matching investments had been expected to be leveraged, for instance. How much of that $5 million was realized? How much of the new Opportunity Zone investment announcement was part of the anticipated leverage of additional investments?
JOHNSON, DALY and COWAN: $6 million has been realized, including:

• $1M Innovation Campus bond

• $2.3M U.S. Economic Development Agency award to support the construction of the Advanced Materials and Technology Center

• $1M US Dept. of Commerce NIST MEP

• Additional funding [$1.7 million] has been provided by the Office of Naval Research, the RI Commerce Corporation, the Rhode Island Foundation and the van Beuren Charitable Foundation.

ConvergenceRI: What kinds of collaborations, if any, are planned with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center and the Defense Fabric Discovery Center at the Lincoln Laboratory? Would it be accurate to describe the “401 Tech Bridge” the U.S. Navy’s “answer” to the U.S. Army’s investments in Natick and in Lincoln?
JOHNSON, DALY and COWAN: 401 Tech Bridge is making connections with a wide variety of potential partners in industry, government, defense and academia to foster innovation and commercialization of advanced materials and technology.

These connections will create pathways for Rhode Island companies to compete in innovation challenges and sponsored research opportunities, and to participate in programming, workforce initiatives, educational events and networking.

401 Tech Bridge partners with the NavalX North East Tech Bridge, which leverages our expertise to help the Navy connect to businesses and academic resources to find innovative solutions for technical problems in their focus: maritime composites and textiles, undersea vehicles, sensors and technologies.

401 Tech Bridge and NavalX North East Tech Bridge collaboration is a model for NavalX Tech Bridges nationwide, and also serves as our model as we develop partnerships with other military branches.

ConvergenceRI: One of the news releases about the project touted the national “Opportunity Zone” investment strategy by the Trump administration as the source of new investment in this Innovation Campus. Could you please explain the ways in which Portsmouth qualified as an “opportunity zone” as part of this project?
JOHNSON, DALY and COWAN:The reference to the “Opportunity Zone” was in the media release sent out by EDA, and this question should be directed to them.

ConvergenceRI: What kinds of overlap is there with the Back to Work RI initiative and the "401 Tech Bridge" initiative?
JOHNSON, DALY and COWAN: 401 Tech Bridge is focused on building pathways to commercialize technology and grow the advanced materials and technology sectors in Rhode Island.

The work we do will support startups, early-stage and mature companies as they create business opportunities, which will result in the creation of jobs.

The R.I. Department of Labor and Training provides critical jobs programs through Real Jobs RI and the new Back to Work Initiative.

401 Tech Bridge will partner closely with DLT and be a key component of creating highly skilled, high paying jobs to support the Back to Work Initiative and the economic recovery of Rhode Island.

Additionally, we work closely with companies to alert and connect them to opportunities that can help them reach their goals, such as the Back to Work Rhode Island initiative, the Real Jobs Rhode Island program, the RI Commerce Corporation’s Innovation Voucher program, MassChallenge, NEMIC, SBDC and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business program.

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