Innovation Ecosystem

Stefan Pryor shares his positive view of the economic future of RI

The biggest challenge, according to Pryor, is following through on implementation

Photo by Richard Asinof

Stefan Pryor, the secretary of CommerceRI, shares his insights about the latest economic development news in Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/11/17
Stefan Pryor, the leader of state economic development efforts in Rhode Island, shared with ConvergenceRI the latest developments in planning for a new innovation campus, the efforts to create industry micro-clusters in health and wellness, wearable devices and textiles, and brain computer interface technologies.
How will existing deep-pocketed individuals and institutions in Rhode Island be enticed to invest in Rhode Island startups and early stage companies? What can be learned from the success of the Slater Technology Fund in its strategic investments in startup companies? Is it realistic to pursue the opportunity to attract Amazon to locate its newly proposed headquarters in Rhode Island? Can investments in building more affordable housing become a potential advantage for Rhode Island? Are there strategies that can leverage Rhode Island’s diversity to attract young talent to the state? What opportunities are there to replicate the MOU that MindImmune has created with URI to create a research partnership?
The concept of population health management analytics as an economic development tool to improve health outcomes and not just cut costs is still an underappreciated concept in health care. The development of Neighborhood Health Station facilities in Central Falls and Scituate offer a different business model for health care delivery, one that can translate into helping towns and cities in Rhode Island become more economically sustainable and resilient. Similarly, the work to develop community needs assessments through health equity zones in 10 different Rhode Island communities offers a different kind of economic development tool.

PROVIDENCE – When it came to economic development in Rhode Island, it was a topsy turvy week. It began with the announcement that Magellan Health was expanding its workforce in Rhode Island, promising to add to 100 new jobs, doubling its existing workforce. It ended with the announcement that Benny’s was planning to close its 31 stores in Rhode Island, touching off a wave of nostalgia and regret.

In between there was the finalization of the Commerce Corp.’s commitment to invest $250,000 to establish MassChallengeRI, becoming part of MassChallenge's global network supporting startups and early stage entrepreneurs that includes accelerators in Boston, Israel and Switzerland. And, the announcement of a new trade mission to Ireland the week of Sept. 18 that will include visits to Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway, Clare and Kinsale.

The man at the center of the economic development storm in Rhode Island is Stefan Pryor, who welcomes the description of himself as a “glass half full” kind of optimist.

The biggest challenges facing Rhode Island on the economic development landscape is implementation, according to Pryor.

“We are not daunted by these challenges,” Pryor told ConvergenceRI. “I don’t reference implementation with concern; I reference it in order to underscore that it is a priority.”

In Pryor’s view, “We are sprinting toward the groundbreaking for Wexford’s innovation complex. Johnson & Johnson is already in at One Ship Street and hiring away. We need to get the New England Medical Innovation Corporation going next door within that same building.”

Pryor emphasized the follow through needed: “We need to stay focused and get the job done.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Stefan Pryor, as he described the economic landscape and challenges facing Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: What is the current status of plans for an innovation campus or campuses in Rhode Island?
PRYOR:
We are seeing a lot of interest in the innovation campus application process. The first deadline is Sept. 15; it is approaching rapidly.

ConvergenceRI: What do you expect to receive for that deadline?
PRYOR:
The first phase of the two-phase application process involves expressions of interest, in response to what we call the invitation for expressions of interest. I believe we will receive a solid handful of applications.

ConvergenceRI: When you say “a solid handful of applications,” what does that mean?
PRYOR:
We’re hearing and seeing enough interest that I think we will be pleased by the quality and diversity of the applicants. I believe that there will applicants from a number of fields.

I’m always hesitant to speculate because it is up to the applicants to formulate their submissions and advance them. But I believe that we’ll see an array of fields represented.

ConvergenceRI: The big news today seems to be about Magellan Health deciding to add 100 new jobs.
PRYOR:
Yes. Its mainstay business is as pharmacy benefits manager.

ConvergenceRI: It appears that there is an industry cluster developing here in Rhode Island around managing the health benefits of employees. Is that accurate?
PRYOR:
Yes. I think it is very interesting that Magellan has made a decision to grow here in Rhode Island, with its pharmacy benefits management system and related products and services.

Virgin Pulse, with its employee wellness related technology, has also decided to grow in Rhode Island, absorbing Shape Up and, instead of evacuating the state, expanding their presence here.

Johnson & Johnson, with its software development activity, many of the apps that they are developing, in some instances, are related to health and wellness.

There is an emerging cluster, a micro cluster in this domain. It is encouraging, because as a Rhode Island-centered point [of emphasis], we are blessed with professionals skilled in crafting digital tools, and we are also blessed with medical professionals. So, it fuses the two [strengths], writ large.

It is encouraging because of the contributions to humanity these companies are making, helping to prevent health problems, which from a cost-effectiveness and from a health and wellness perspective is so crucial.

ConvergenceRI: The wearable device is a growing market; it’s projected to hit $30 billion in next few years. Is there any exploration at CommerceRI to harness the kind of creativity in manufacturing and design talent that exists in Rhode Island to grow that industry sector here?
PRYOR:
I have a few thoughts on the subject. First, you are right to reference this micro-cluster of companies in the health and wellness domain. They are clearly exploring the utilization of all the “surfaces” that humans use in the course of a day, including their blue-tooth enabled watches.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have a FitBit?
PRYOR:
I don’t, but I do have a Motorola blue-tooth enabled watch. I chose that product. It has much of the same functionality.

ConvergenceRI: Do you share your data with anyone?
PRYOR:
I don’t.

MATT SHEAFF [communications director at CommerceRI]: I’m an Apple watch guy.

ConvergenceRI: You and the Red Sox.
PRYOR:
[laughing] Two additional observations. In the textile sector, a number of our Rhode Island companies are integrating what you might call wearable technology – they are literally stitching it into clothing for military applications and for everyday purposes.

There is a textiles coalition that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse helped to bring together that is supported by URI and the Commerce Corp., among others.

A third observation is that the five institution consortium working together on brain science in Rhode Island excels in several areas; one of them is brain computer interface, or BCI.

Brown, through its Braingate project, has invested in this area and truly distinguished itself.

These are related fields – wearable technology and BCI. Over time, I think we will see these subsystems attach to each other.

ConvergenceRI: Is there another micro industry cluster to be developed there?
PRYOR:
I believe there is. The consumer applications of BCI are fewer at this moment in time than what we more conventionally think of as wearable technology. But, over time, that will not be the case, which is to say that BCI will become more of a mature set of technologies and activities.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about how you see the overall landscape for economic development? Are there promising developments and, at the same time, some worries?
PRYOR:
There is more reason for optimism these days than worries.

Just in the past week, MassChallenge received a $250,000 investment from the Commerce Corp. in order to roll out the MassChallengeRI accelerator.

It will involve an open call for applications and it will incorporate the system of judges and mentors that they are renowned for. They will ultimately be involved in the selection of 10 to 20 startups.

They will also host a Boston bridge-building event that will expose 15-20 Rhode Island high-impact entrepreneurs to Boston area investors and third-party providers.

ConvergenceRI: There are conflicting models for startups, focused on whether you seek out equity investors or whether you focus on revenue generation. Is CommerceRI agnostic about the different models?
PRYOR:
We believe in promoting a diversity of models. I will say that MassChallenge has been very successful with their own non-equity investment method.

That approach ensures that entrepreneurs’ independence is preserved; MassChallenge is not looking to take a stake in the enterprise.

Whatever you may think of their model, whatever I personally may think, it’s proven to be enormously successful. They are growing worldwide.

We recently sent a team to Israel about four months ago, it was a trade mission, and our team visited with the new MassChallenge in Jerusalem. It is quite literally an international network that our entrepreneurs in Rhode Island will now be able to plug into, with its network of investors and mentors.

It matters that MassChallengeRI anchors itself in Rhode Island. MassChallenge will be helping to foster a set of investors and mentors right here in Rhode Island – and in the larger metropolitan area. But it matters that MassChallengeRi will help to familiarize Rhode Island’s own deep-pocketed institutions and individuals with the entrepreneurs who are growing here. That is an important part of the ecosystem.

Simultaneously, we are also helping to create physical spaces where companies can plant themselves and grow. The Cambridge Innovation Center [a planned tenant of the Wexford Innovation Center] is a key example. In addition, in Newport, at the Sheffield School, there will be co-working space that will be established in part through funding from the Commerce Corporation.

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