Innovation Ecosystem

Is RI willing to change its “not made here” culture?

The Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst offers Rhode Island a different vision on how to connect the academic research enterprise with early stage biotech industry product design and development, if anyone is willing to look

Photo by Ridhard Asinof

Peter Reinhart, founding director of the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/4/19
The Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst offers a different approach to building out an innovation ecosystem, one that marries together industry and the academic research enterprise, one that Rhode Island could consider replicating.
Will Stefan Pryor consider leading a delegation of university and business leaders as well as legislators to visit the Institute for Applied Life Sciences? What kinds of core facilities are needed in Rhode Island to expand the research and product design capabilities, such as roll-to-roll manufacturing facilities? Could a voucher program similar to one created at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences be replicated, as a way for early stage companies to conduct research here in Rhode Island? What academic research institutions in Rhode Island would consider creating IP-free zones?
One of the important attributes in the success of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, according to Peter Reinhart, was the ability to start with a clean slate, without having to be burdened with previous expectations by industry or academia, in order for the Institute to serve as a catalyst for culture change. The unwillingness of universities or companies to let go of control of what they see as the needed outcomes remains a big challenge. So does the question of geographic orientation.

AMHERST, Mass. – As Rhode Island grapples with strategies about how best to grow its life sciences innovation economy, investing in new innovation campuses, creating new financial incentives for biotech companies in Cambridge and Boston to relocate to Rhode Island, and spurring new translational research opportunities to accelerate the development of new company formation, a pioneering model of how to achieve those goals exists a scant two hours away.

The problem is: apparently few if any economic development or university leaders from Rhode Island have ever visited the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst since it opened in 2016, to learn more about its operation or talk with its director.

Roughly 90 miles from Providence, the Institute offers a working laboratory for how the biotech industry and academic researchers can work together to build a different kind of relationship, featuring “collaboratories” with embedded companies that exist within an “intellectual-property-free zone.”

Under the leadership of Peter H. Reinhart, Ph.D., the founding director, the Institute has been organized around three large centers, focused on technology platforms that enhance human health and wellbeing.

The centers include: creating state-of-the-art wearable devices in the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring; developing new types of biomolecule/delivery vehicle combinations in the Center for Bioactive Delivery; and discovering novel disease-related cellular pathways, drug targets, and therapeutic candidates in the Models to Medicine Center.

Innovation at its core

As part of its operation, the Center has incorporated more than 30 core facilities into its research and product design activities, which are equally accessible to academic, government and industry collaborators.

The core facilities include an array of technologies to support translational research: Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication [AddFab]; Atomic Force Microscopy; Device Characterization [for verification for wearable and point-of-care devices and other medical devices]; Device Fabrication; Electron Microscopy; Electronic Materials; High Frequency Sensor Development; a Nanofabrication Cleanroom; Roll-to-Roll Fabrication and Processing; Sensor Integration; and X-Ray Scattering.

In a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, Reinhart described the importance of the expertise available with the core facilities.

“We have 30 core facilities, we have professional staff managing them, and there are no restrictions on any of the work that they can do, so that they can take on industry-sponsored work,” Reinhart said.

As an example, Reinhart continued, “One of the core facilities we have is light microscopy, which is available to undergraduate and graduate students as well as post docs.”

“[The] state-of-the-art light microscopy facility here is managed by somebody who understands the instruments,” Reinhart said. “In fact, Nikon came through and saw what we did, and declared our site a Nikon Center of Excellence; I think there are only 12 of them across the whole world. There is no other one in Massachusetts. We’re it, because we have such a high level of service and training.”

If you are a new faculty member coming to UMass, Reinhart continued, “It’s not like you have to train your students to become expert microscopists. You send them to that core facility, and our director trains them to be expert microscopists.”

Roll-to-roll manufacturing
Other key components of the core facility enterprise are 3D printing facilities and roll-to-roll manufacturing, Reinhart said, describing the roll-to-roll fabrication facility as “phenomenal.”

“It allows you to build flexible electronics, but as very thin printed electronic layers that are like Band-aids,” he said, “that sit on your body, that conform to the curvature of a forearm or a shoulder, and yet, can collect micro-fluidics and biomarkers.”

Reinhart continued: “We’re working on one program now that collects stress-related peptides from the surface of your skin, and [it can] actually give you a readout of how stressed you are, from minute to minute.”

Vouchers
As part of the core facility enterprise, the Institute has developed a voucher program to enable small- and medium-sized companies based in Massachusetts to get a price reduction. “It’s very dramatic; it’s 50 percent,” Reinhart said.

Applying to participate in the voucher program has been simplified for companies. “All they have to do is put one paragraph together on what it is that they want to do, and one sentence that indicates how the work would be supportive of economic development in Massachusetts.

Most companies write back and say: if I can get to this next pilot stage, I would be able to hire two more people, and that would have some impact. If you click on our website, fill in three lines of text, and you’ve got a price break.”

The voucher is geographically fixed to Massachusetts.

Collaboratories

Another innovative approach that the Institute has pursued under Reinhart is to create what are known as “collaboratories” – industry laboratories embedded into the research enterprise at the Institute.

One of the truly innovative approaches with the collaboratories is the fact that they operate as “intellectual-property-free-zones,” according to Reinhart.

“These are really IP free zones,” Reinhart said. “These are zones where companies can come in, develop model IP, but the campus does not take advantage or have a stake in it.”

The concept, Reinhart continued, “is a real sea change, to admit that we want to facilitate our startup companies developing their own intellectual property.”

Too much noise
Being located in Amherst has often made it difficult to compete with all the background noise coming out of Boston and Cambridge, according to Reinhart.

“To rise about that background noise is extremely difficult,” he said, “particularly if you are a couple of hours away. Is that a challenge for us? Absolutely.”

Reinhart continued: “Every single person from Boston that we’ve brought to our facilities and walked through [with them] ends up with a variation of: Oh my God! I had no idea that all this stuff was out here. Why don’t I know about this? We could definitely take advantage of it.”

Reinhart said that the issue has been how to expand the Institute’s marketing capacity. But, even if there was a great marketing engine, he continued, it would still be difficult, “Because there are a thousand companies on a weekly basis that are producing interesting outcomes in the Boston/Cambridge area. You are always going to be struggling to rise above the noise.”

The main thing, Reinhart said, is just to be in [the game]; to make the effort, go to Boston, knock on people’s doors, have printed materials ready to go, be presenting at meetings, be writing white papers, to have a good web presence.

“We found that there is no magic bullet; the most effective thing for us has been face-to-face interactions, with companies, one at a time.”

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