Deal Flow

Making RI a hubbub of innovation

$12 million in state investments in three new innovation campuses announced, in partnership with URI, leveraging $122 million in corporate investment

Photo by Richard Asinof

Gov. Gina Raimondo announces three new innovation campuses which will receive some $12 million in state investment, in partnership with URI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/19/18
In a somewhat hasty news conference, the state announced $12 million in investments in three new innovation campuses, focused on cybersecurity and Big Data analysis, new business incubation, and food technology. A second round of $8 million in investments are planned for 2019.
If housing is the place where jobs go to sleep, what kinds of new investments in housing need to be made by the state to support new innovation campuses and hubs? How does innovation in health – such as healthy equity zones and neighborhood health stations – factor into the equation? How will climate change and clean water insecurity affect the efforts to develop a sustainable food agriculture tech innovation campus? In creating new innovation campuses, how can the investments reflect two key demographic trends in Rhode Island – the increasing number of aging residents and the growing diversity of the state’s population? What are the boundaries of the new campuses and who gets to interact and participate in the conversations? Will they be open access or gated communities?
One of the apparent missing ingredients in the innovation soup in Rhode Island is a lack of investment capital in new startups and emerging companies. Innovation is a long-term process, and along the path to success, failure and reinvention is a common thread, particularly for disruptive technologies. As much as the focus of discussions around innovation are often around “collisions,” no one, it seems, has commissioned a traffic study for what will happen – whether you call it the former Jewelry District or the Providence Design or Innovation District – once it is flooded with new employees at the Wexford Innovation Complex and the various planned new innovation hubs. Collisions, indeed.

KINGSTON – Christmas came a week early for three of the 16 respondents to the first round of the $20 million Innovation Campus initiative, when their proposals were announced as having been selected to become “transformative” new campuses at a news conference held on Tuesday morning, Dec. 18, at the University of Rhode Island Welcome Center.

In a media event that seemed to have been put together with some haste, Gov. Gina Raimondo and URI President David Dooley announced that the three winners would receive $12 million in investments from the $20 million bond authorized by voters in the 2016 statewide election. In turn, private investment leveraged by the three new innovation campuses is projected by CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor to be more than $122 million, roughly 10 times the state’s investment.

A second round of funding of the remaining $8 million from the bond is expected to be awarded in 2019, according to state economic development officials.

The three proposals chosen, in response to an RFP issued in mid-December of 2017, included specific targets of future innovation economy growth in Rhode Island:

An innovation hub focused on cybersecurity, Big Data analytics and the Internet of Things, as a collaborative venture between URI, Arizona State University and Cisco Systems, Inc. In addition, Fidelity has expressed an interest in becoming a working partner of the collaboration.

The hub will initially have two locations: one at a central Innovation and Entrepreneurship space on the URI Kingston Campus, and a second at an unidentified location in Providence, envisioned as an industry gateway and co-working, incubation space. The state will be investing $5.5 million from the bond, to be matched by $5.5 million by the corporate partners.

A startup incubator and accelerator to be known as the Rhode Island Innovation Hub, or iHub, a collaborative venture between URI, Brown University, IBM, Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel, and MassChallenge, to be located in what is now being called the “Providence Innovation and Design District,” formerly known as the Jewelry District.

The iHub will be incorporated as an independent, nonprofit 501 [c] 3 enterprise, with the goal of serving as an “innovation community,” working in partnership with Brown’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and URI’s Start-Up Program/Accelerator/Resource Center, or SPARC. The state will be investing $2.5 million, with approximately $8.7 million being leveraged by investments by the corporate partners.

A Rhode Island Agricultural Innovation & Entrepreneurship Campus in West Kingston, to be built on 50 acres adjacent to the URI campus, which will include some 25 acres of greenhouses, in partnership with the Rhode Island Mushroom Company and American Ag Energy, Inc. Additional corporate partners include Verinomics, a genomics and computational biology firm, and VoloAgri, a vegetable seed company.

The goal is to secure Rhode Island’s position as the “agricultural technology hub” of the Northeast, with the capability of producing 10 percent of the state’s total vegetable needs. The state will be investing $4 million, with corporate partners investing approximately $111 million in the new campus.

Translated, the three new innovation campuses will be focused on cybersecurity, data analytics and agricultural technology as the diving board to launch the next growth spurt of innovation and jobs in Rhode Island.

What was said
“Innovation is not just a relic of our past, it’s a door to our future,” Raimondo said at the news event.

“We are expanding URI’s global footprint in a hyper-competitive, hyper-connected world,” Dooley said at the news event, claiming that it placed the state “at the frontiers of knowledge.”

“I think it is a wonderful example of what partnerships can do to advance regional and national economies,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of the Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer, talking about the opportunities created by the innovation campus around cybersecurity and Big Data. “We are really excited about this.”

Daniel Behr, the executive director of the Brown University Office of Industry Engagement and Commercial Venturing, told ConvergenceRI that the location for the new iHub had not been determined yet. “We’re considering where the best place is to locate the innovation hub as an accelerator and incubator for startups. It will be in the Jewelry District, but we are not 100 percent sure of exactly where.”

The iHub is very much part of the strategic focus of Brown and the innovation economy, Behr continued, leveraging Brown’s strengths and supporting Brown’s interests but also to help build the local innovation economy, Behr continued.

The focus is on collaboration, saying that the iHub would be a place where both students and faculty from Brown and URI can collide and interact more. “There is already a lot of interaction between the two universities from a research perspective, and this will be just another avenue for them to do so,” Behr said.

The next step in the process, mentioned almost as a footnote at the news event, was the fact that contracts for each of the new innovation campuses had to be drawn up, negotiated and signed. No timetable was given for when the contracts would be completed and signed.

A brief history
The idea of an innovation campus in Rhode Island was first suggested by Raimondo during her 2014 gubernatorial campaign, focused on creating such a campus on the former I-195 land, with the initial focus on building a maker campus for advanced manufacturing. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Will Rhode Island make and the world take?”]

In October of 2015, the Brookings Institution presented its initial findings of a $1.5 million study of the future economic agenda for Rhode Island. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Informing the future economic agenda of Rhode Island.”]

The analysis targeted seven high potential growth areas, with five promising sectors identified for advanced industry, including: biomedical innovation; cyber and data analysis; maritime’ advanced business services; design materials and custom manufacturing.

As ConvergenceRI reported: The only surprise was that biomedical innovation, a sector that had been left out by previous economic studies, now had achieved a more prominent position. The team had found that “there was a there there,” as one local president and CEO surmised.

In January of 2016, The Brookings Institution presented its final report at The Rhode Island Foundation, with a clarion call for new investments between $70 million and $100 million in seven targeted industries and clusters. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A history lesson about innovation.”]

“The moment was urgent,” was the front-page headline in The Providence Journal. Raimondo quipped that she couldn’t have written a better headline herself.

But, as the story detailed, there were a number of topics left out of the conversation: health care delivery, affordable housing, and health equity zones.

“Health was just not our charge in this project and how we think about the world,” one of the principals who conducted the study explained in an interview with ConvergenceRI. “We were brought in to think about the economy.” The principal said he was unaware of the work being done on creating health equity zones in Rhode Island.

Fast forward
The proposal to create one or more innovation campuses through a $20 million bond was approved by voters in November of 2016. An RFP was issued in mid-December of 2017, and there were 16 applicants who responded. [See links to ConvergenceRI stories below, “The next generation of innovation campuses,” and “A giant step forward for the RI innovation economy.”]

Context and subtext
The day before the Innovation Campus news event, Partners Healthcare and Brigham Health announced that they filed an application with the R.I. Department of Health and the R.I. Attorney General, in accordance with the Rhode Island Hospital Conversion Act, seeking approval of Brigham Health’s planned acquisition of Care New England. The news release noted that the Federal Trade Commission had recently announced its decision not to challenge the acquisition.

In addition, as part of the planned acquisition, the news release announced that an agreement had been finalized with Brown University establishing the university’s Warren Alpert Medical School as the primary academic research and teaching institution of record for the affiliation. One of the outgrowths of the planned acquisition is the potential to create a new medical research institute in Providence.

Further, on the day before the news event, Sanofi announced that it had signed a lease for two new buildings totaling 900,000 square feet at the Cambridge Crossing development in East Cambridge, Mass., a development that spans 45 acres in Cambridge, Boston and Somerville.

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