Innovation Ecosystem

Stefan Pryor and the blue tech horizon

An interview with the secretary of the Commerce Corporation as new hubs of innovation take shape in Rhode Island

Photo by Richard Asinof

Stefan Pryor, secretary of the Commerce Corporation, shares his thoughts in a one-on-one interview with ConvergenceRI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/16/20
A brief interview with Stefan Pryor, secretary of the Commerce Corporation, provides a compelling snapshot of thinking around future investments in the blue industry cluster and other advanced industry clusters.
How will the potential economic downturn and recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic transform the current marketplace around the way that business and education are conducted? How will the development of the blue industry cluster in Rhode Island merge with efforts around building resilience to man-made climate change? Is Rhode Island positioned to become a champion of collaborative academic research?
The future workplace and how decisions are made when more and more employees are working from home in the near future, as efforts are made to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, offer some fascinating opportunities to rethink and redefine traditional hierarchies in the corporate world and relationships between managers and workers. Many of the assumptions around “value” in the marketplace will need to change. Many workplaces are attempting to improvise solutions that keep families and workers safe while providing for engaged conversations. Which college or university in Rhode Island will jump into the fray and create new metrics and benchmarks around the need to redefine both the workplace and the community of ideas?

PROVIDENCE – For the last five years, Stefan Pryor, the secretary of the R.I. Commerce Corporation, has been walking on the sunny side of the street for the Raimondo administration, pushing a jobs creation agenda focused on capitalizing on the Ocean State’s best assets – its quality of life, its ability to attract talent, its academic research expertise, and its potential to grow advanced industry clusters within an emerging innovation ecosystem.

Pryor has been an indefatigable cheerleader for making deals and promoting Rhode Island as an innovation hub, leading the effort to invest in a series of new innovation campuses in partnership with the University of Rhode Island.

The most recent economic victory was the decision reached by Ørsted, a global leader in wind energy, with annual revenues of more than $10 billion and more than 5,600 employees, to locate its first innovation hub outside of its headquarters in Denmark in Providence, ensconced within the Cambridge Innovation Center at the Wexford Innovation Complex.

In a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, part of a frequent series of one-on-one conversations that Pryor has engaged in with ConvergenceRI over the last four years, Pryor described the nature of discussions that led Ørsted to make the decision to locate its hub in Providence.

“We have engaged in a dialogue over a couple of years with Ørsted,” Pryor began, explaining how that decision was reached. The conversation, he said, focused on looking at the ways in which Ørsted wanted “to advance the off-shore wind industry and grow their operation worldwide.”

In the course of that dialogue, Pryor said, “We were able to expose them to some of the possibilities in Rhode Island, and to explain how our Rhode Island innovation ecosystem has the ability to [support new] ideas and R&D activities, new products and product adaptations.”

As the result of that ongoing dialogue, Pryor continued, “Ørsted sent two or three executives in expedition mode, in examination mode, to Rhode Island. They checked out our smaller start-up firms, our long-standing existing companies, and our university ecosystem, and they came back with a vote of confidence.”

The result: Ørsted established at the Cambridge Innovation Center its first innovation hub outside of Denmark.

Ørsted plans to use its new innovation hub location in Providence to host periodic “pitch” sessions, at which companies from around North America can demonstrate their new, potential technologies to Ørsted executives, according to Pryor.

Translated, that means that in order to pitch Ørsted, Pryor said, “You need to come to Rhode Island.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Stefan Pryor, the secretary of the Commerce Corporation, which took place on Monday, March 9, at Honest Green, the café located within the complex where CommerceRI is headquartered, as the escalating events surrounding the dramatic spread of the coronavirus began to swamp the state.

Later that afternoon, Pryor would accompany Gov. Raimondo and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the R.I. Department of Health, at a news briefing at the Department of Administration building.

ConvergenceRI: I appreciate you making the time and sitting down to talk with me during such a busy time.
My pleasure.

ConvergenceRI: There seems to be a lot of energy and excitement being generated around the blue economy industry cluster as a positive force. How do you see that playing out in the next six months?
We’re very pleased that the R.I. Innovates 2.0 report has focused upon the Blue Economy as a leading theme. We believe that ocean technology can be the basis for further economic growth for Rhode Island. One of the central pieces of data offered by the report pertaining to the ocean economy is that in the offshore wind field, by 2028, it is anticipated that 20,000 to 35,000 jobs will be created on the East Coast of the United States. We need to ensure that Rhode Island secures a very healthy share of those jobs.

ConvergenceRI: A disproportionate fair share?
That’s my view. We have efforts underway; we need to ensure that they are strong enough. In addition, there are jobs to be grown in the broader blue economy.

It is definitely the case that, as the Ocean State, with our flagship state university, URI, being pre-eminent in ocean science globally, and with so many other assets, inclusive of great maritime industry companies, and with additional universities with expertise that they can bring to bear, we ought to be able to grow this sector of our economy.

I’m very pleased that that has been the point of emphasis [in R.I. Innovates 2.0].

ConvergenceRI: The fact that Ørsted has located its headquarters at Wexford is another feather in Rhode Island’s cap.
We’re energized by the vote of confidence expressed by Ørsted.

ConvergenceRI: How do you think investments in clean energy, renewable energy technology, off shore wind energy, will change the dynamics of the market? Is there an opportunity to grow the role of distributed generation in Rhode Island, such as roof-top, behind-the-meter solar, equipped with batteries, as a way to lower peak demand and reduce energy costs? And, and to develop a more resilient grid, with the potential to create public power authorities?
I guess my response would be, in the context of the Governor’s pledge that Rhode Island go renewable for 100 percent of its demand upon the grid by 2030, we need to examine all options. What you are describing is worthy of exploration and pursuit.

ConvergenceRI: If you read my critique of RI Innovates 2.0, I was somewhat surprised to see how investments in public health infrastructure seemed to get left out the equation.
I haven’t seen your critique, but I don’t see that as, and it depends on how you define health care, but I don’t believe that to be the case, because there is a quite significant section on bioscience.

ConvergenceRI: Yes. But that was more about pumping up the economy through research dedicated to increased licensing, intellectual property and patents around products for the pipeline for the health care delivery system, such as new medical devices. I was defining investments in public health infrastructure as something different. As we have seen with the spread of the coronavirus, public health can be really critical to future economic prosperity.

Is there any anticipation, given what’s happening with the coronavirus, that there might be an addendum or something else written detailing the importance of public health investments?
It is unlikely there will be an addendum to the report. We are all focused on the coronavirus scenario as it is evolving.

The CommerceRI team is heavily involved with developing responses pertaining to workplaces and workers.

It is certainly the case that public health is a key contributor to a healthy economy as is the education system, as is the transportation system.

One needs to be careful not to write a report on everything, so that there is the ability to focus upon the set of things that are truly within economic development.

I wouldn’t say that an addendum to an economic development report is the best way to approach the public health investment strategy of the state.

I would say that not only in Rhode Island, but indeed across the county and across the globe, we need to look at whether we are appropriately establishing policies, protocols and the like, as well as resourcing the programs necessary to keep our populations healthy.

ConvergenceRI: You still have some money left over from the initial bond funding the Innovation Campus hubs. Is there the potential to use that money to make an investment in a blue economy innovation campus?
It is possible. I would say that it is less necessary to use that particular pot of money because the Governor has proposed a new bond for the blue economy, it’s the bond entitled, “The Center for Ocean Innovation,” it’s a $10 million bond, proposed in the Governor’s budget as part of larger bond package.

The bond for The Center for Ocean Innovation aims to enable URI, on its Quonset Point-based land, to establish a innovation center linked to a “Smart Bay” concept.

The notion of the Smart Bay is that we will have sensors in Narragansett Bay deployed in a way that enables experimentation and research pertaining to ocean technologies.

The possibility exists to pilot prototypes, to deploy, test and otherwise develop such ocean technologies, in the context of such a Smart Bay. The bond proposal is currently before the General Assembly and we hope that they will enact it and place it before the voters.

ConvergenceRI: You’ve been on the job now for nearly six years. What have you learned in your work that you carry with you as you move forward? What are the ways that your thinking has evolved about the Rhode Island innovation economy?
Can we reserve another session for that one question?

ConvergenceRI: For sure. But I wouldn’t want to wait six months for it to happen. Can you reflect briefly on how your own thinking, your own approach has changed?
I think what is enormously helpful about the Bruce Katz report is that it takes a close look at the policies and programs under the Raimondo administration and CommerceRI and related domains.

The chief message of the report was to “double down.”

I would say, as I reflect upon the past five years, I am forever searching for lessons learned that enable us to improve upon what we have done.

But I do embrace the conclusions that the R.I. Innovates 2.0 report sets forth, which is that our programs are working,

We need to build upon them, to be sure. We need to fill the gaps where more is required. We need to enhance the initiatives that are under way.

But advanced industry jobs are growing at a rate that is greater than the economy as a whole; and, as a whole, the economy is doing quite well.
We need to be mindful of the fact that Rhode Island has had a poor track record as it pertains to the case of emergence from a recession when it does occur.

The lasting after-effects of the Great Recession lasted too long, so you can’t rest on our laurels.

But I do think that the mission that we invest in advanced industries that are well embedded in what Rhode Island does well is a sound notion, whether it is the blue economy, as articulated in this report, or bioscience, or IT cybersecurity, or advanced business services.

Rhode Island excels in these areas, and we need to continue investing to ensure that we build these nodes of activity out further.

ConvergenceRI: If you are willing, you have an open invitation to write something for ConvergenceRI and expand on your thoughts.
That’s not going to happen anytime soon, I apologize for that. We would be happy to entertain the offer, but not right now. We are much too busy with coronavirus.


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