Innovation Ecosystem

Talking about an innovation revolution

New report puts focus on creating a state strategy to leverage the revolution in life sciences, in order to grow the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem

Photo by Richard Asinof

Patrice Milos, Ph.D., left, the CEO of Medley Genomics, and co-chair of RI BioHub, and Carol Malysz, the executive director of RI Bio, at Olqa's Cup + Saucer, talking about a new report,"Leveraging the Revolution in Life Sciences."

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/28/19
A new comprehensive report provides a state strategy to leverage the revolution in life sciences in order to create a Rhode Island innovation ecosystem that captures a growing share of venture investment in new companies to spur economic growth.
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PROVIDENCE – A new report, “Leveraging the Revolution in Life Sciences: Growing the Rhode Island Innovation Ecosystem,” prepared by a new organization, The Rhode Island BioHub Group, and supported by RI Bio, the latest iteration of the industry cluster group formerly known as MedMates, is scheduled to be released on Monday, Jan. 28.

The succinct 11-page analysis, written in a mixture of dense innovation-ese prose and optimistic cheerleading, lays the foundation for a new investment strategy to support Rhode Island’s innovation economy. The goal: To transform the state into a globally recognized life sciences innovation hub.

“The life sciences [industry sector] is an economic engine for the country unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Patrice Milos, Ph.D., co-chair of RI BioHub and president and CEO of Medley Genomics. “It’s unprecedented.”

The report cited the fact that in the U.S., health care venture fundraising reached a record of $9.6 billion in 2018, with an increase of 50 percent in health care investments. The report, Milos continued, offers a detailed strategy for how Rhode Island can build its innovation ecosystem, leveraging its talent, research and expertise, to capture the flow of some of that investment.

What needs to be done is to foster a culture of interconnectedness and collaboration, Milos said. “What we need to do is to suspend what you knew in the past, because there is way too much of that here in Rhode Island. It’s about raising the game to a whole new level.”

This “bold vision” will be achieved, the report argues, by coalescing existing life science stakeholders, activities and investments, and building new capabilities, in order to create a true [emphasis added] “Life Sciences Innovation Ecosystem.”

The report’s major recommendations include:

Creation of a new private capital investment fund. The strategy involves bringing together “high-net-worth individuals” in Rhode Island to engage around life sciences capital creation, with the goal of establishing an initial $25 million private capital fund, with hopes to grow that amount to $100 million as successful ventures launch and grow.

Spur further investment in translational research. To accelerate the movement of academic research from the lab to the clinic and then to the market, the strategy seeks “to enroll university leadership at the highest level, to continue to drive change in university tech transfer/business development offices.”

Translated, the goal is to promote easier, seamless “externalization” of assets and intellectual property [IP] to create more new companies. [There is a parenthetical phrase inserted here, “We are open for business,” which appeared to suggest a PR campaign slogan to promote the effort.]

Support the infrastructure for new company creation. The recommendation seeks to support an innovation campus proposal that was not initially selected for investment – to create local development of new lab and research facilities, which would include wet lab space. The report says that no such facility exists today, with the result that local startups often have to seek out locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Strengthen the connections across academic research competencies in Rhode Island. The report suggests creating synergies within neurosciences, computer and data sciences, medical technology and design innovation, all considered areas of distinct strength and expertise.

As part of this effort, the report recommends sustaining the RI BioHub group to measure the progress of the strategy during the next two years. In addition, the report recommends continued efforts to recruit a large life sciences anchor company as well as supporting continued efforts to attract investments in biomanufacturing facilities in Rhode Island, such as Rubius Therapeutics.

In attempting to map out the future opportunities, the report provided a snapshot of the current economic contributions of the life sciences industry today in Rhode Island:

1 percent of Rhode Island’s private employment sector, including: pharma and biotech manufacturing; medical device and supply development manufacturing; R&D and diagnostic companies.

An additional 16 percent of private employment can be added on when the health care industry sector is included, which is seen as being closely aligned with life sciences.

There are some 3,673 life sciences workers [not including health care], earning an average salary of $85,864, significantly higher than the average private sector salary of $50,929.

The projected rate of job growth in life sciences for the next 10 years is 8 percent.

Deep background
The structural foundation of the new approach recommended by RI BioHub is based upon the philosophical framework of a number of think-tank studies and reports, and also appears to be influenced strongly by ongoing CommerceRI strategies.

The report begins by citing Deloitte’s 2018 Global Health Care Outlook, which claimed that the global economy is entering a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – the Digital Revolution – characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

According to Deloitte [yes, it is the same firm that was responsible for designing the controversial, glitchy software system for UHIP], the life sciences sectors – including biotech, pharma, medical devices, medical diagnostics, digital health technologies and data sciences – are at the forefront of this revolution.

To buttress its argument, the report by RI BioHub then cites the 2016 Brookings Institution report, “Rhode Island Innovates,” which targeted life sciences as an attractive growth opportunity for the state, fueled by advances in science and technology.

[What got left out of the conversation was the work done by the Fourth Economy, a consulting firm hired by The Rhode Island Foundation in 2013 as part of the Make It Happen initiative, which completely left out the life sciences as a targeted growth area for economic development in Rhode Island, with only a brief mention of neurosciences.]

The evolution of MedMates, which began in 2013, once again as an outgrowth of the Make It Happen initiative, with funding from The Rhode Island Foundation, is also a large part of the story, which has been reported on extensively by ConvergenceRI. The transition to RI Bio, which, according to ConvergenceRI, is version 8.0, marks its marriage with a regional framework of similar “Bio” organizations, is very much the tale of an organization attempting to broaden its reach from its initial vision as a medtech industry association to becoming the voice of the life sciences cluster in Rhode Island.

At the same time, at the direction of Gov. Gina Raimondo, CommerceRI undertook an effort to bring together members of the life sciences community into a new group of stakeholders, RI BioHub.

The new report represents a “merger” of RI Bio and RI BioHub, moving from an industry cluster to what it described as: “Our desired end goal is to transform our state into a true life sciences “innovation ecosystem.”

The report acknowledged the important role that Susan Windham-Bannister, the founding president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, [the $1 billion initiative created by former Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick], who provided her expertise of what the report called identifying the “existing ecosystem enablers” to ensure that the foundation was in place to grow, attract and retain companies in Rhode Island.

The report’s recommendations are based in large part on the five key enablers of innovation capacity, as defined by Windham-Bannister: translational scientific research, entrepreneurial culture and capital, workforce development, enabling infrastructure, and ecosytem, defining the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

Talking about an innovation revolution
ConvergenceRI recently sat down with Carol Malysz, the executive director of RI Bio, and Patrice Milos, Ph.D., the CEO of Medley Genomics, a former Cambridge Pharma/Biotech senior executive, and co-chair of RI BioHub, to talk about the contents of the new report. The wide-ranging conversation took place at Olga’s Cup + Saucer, still the hub of innovation in the Jewelry District. [Sara Beth Fahey, an account manager at the Rhode Island office of Matter, a communications firm, sat in on the interview.]

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Malysz and Milos, exploring the new strategies around building an innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: What’s in the new report?
Maybe, before we start [talking about] what is in the report, Richard, let’s discuss: How did it come about? How did we wind up where we are today? And, where do we go from here?

Two and half years ago, I was returning from a job in Cambridge, Mass., and realized that, for the first time, I was going to take a little time off. It was a great opportunity to look and see what was around Rhode Island.

A group of us, who were all senior leaders from Cambridge-based companies, had a similar affinity – we were working in Cambridge/Boston and lived here in Rhode Island.

We [met and discussed] what was going on here [in Rhode Island], and what we could do to strengthen the environment here. We really loved living in Rhode Island, but we [understood] that much of our energy was devoted to growing the life sciences ecosystem in Boston and Cambridge.

And, we were feeling the pressure of how much there was going on there, and how more and more crowded it was getting. [We asked ourselves]: Wouldn’t it be great if there could be something here in Rhode Island?

Our small group was named the RI BioHub group, and a few of us met with Gov. Gina Raimondo originally. It came on the heels of the Brookings report, which was really just scratching the surface of what was happening in life sciences.

We began to think about how we could attract companies to locate here in Rhode Island, [using] all of our networks and influence up in Cambridge/Boston.

We quickly realized a number of things: first, everybody had full-time jobs up there; and to attract new business, we needed to understand better what we had to offer in Rhode Island, what was here, what existed. So, we reshaped the RI BioHub group to include leaders within the state who had the ability to understand and to influence the existing ecosystem, its strengths, gaps and weaknesses.

ConvergenceRI: In business terms, a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
Exactly. We worked with Susan Windham-Bannister to bring the framework that she used to manage the Massachusetts investment that Gov. Deval Patrick made of a billion dollars over 10 years.

What we did was to have her come do a workshop for our team, and extended invitations to various leaders beyond those who were members of the team. I think we had about 30 people attending.

We worked as a group, we met once a month, and used her [expertise] to do a deep exploration of the ecosystem, to understand what existed here, what investments had been made, what the universities were doing, what [investment] capital existed – using as a foundation the five elements of building innovation capacity that are necessary to be successful.

ConvergenceRI: Much like Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?”
[laughter] You will see [the elements] in the report. Those are what we inventoried, made spread sheets, and then reported back to each other.

MALYSZ: We had teams working on each of them.

MILOS: We rolled [the activities] under MedMates [umbrella]. Most of us who started the group did not initially know what MedMates was. When Carol joined MedMates, she joined us.

We put together the key themes: the ability to support an entrepreneurial ecosystem; to launch more startup companies and support them with infrastructure and capital; and to get ideas coming out of Brown and URI into a commercial mindset.

Really, what we did were extensive inventories of the current ecosystem, had discussions about what were the strengths and what were the gaps, pulled [that information] together in a summary, and then came up with four or five key recommendations.

ConvergenceRI: One of the more successful companies in the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem is IlluminOss. Is Robert Rabiner participating in the discussions? Has he been invited?
You know, we talk about IlluminOss all the time. And Rich Horan represents them really well. I don’t know him personally, but I sent him notes congratulating him on their FDA [de novo] acceptance [for his innovative bone repair system] He is a big part of the ecosystem, as is Moses Goddard [the co-founder of CytoSolv and vice-president of surgry at Semma Therapeutics]..

ConvergenceRI: Stepping back a bit, can you define what you mean by innovation?
The way we describe it is as an innovation engine that leads to economic growth in the life sciences industry.

ConvergenceRI: Different than, say, a research engine?
That is a component. But the innovation ecosystem is meant to drive economic progress, to grow the economic base for what we do in life sciences. So, really, it is all about building innovation capacity.

The idea is that in order to get an economic engine of innovation, you have to get [ideas] out of the universities and into commercial entities, entities that can be founded, fostered and grown, with the [goal] to try to advance and commercialize [ideas] with the intention of improving the quality of human life.

ConvergenceRI: In reflecting upon the announcement of the first three investments announced in December for the new innovation campuses, in partnership with URI, what struck me was the absence of women at the podium, save for Gov. Raimondo, as well as the lack of persons of color, save for Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president at Arizona State University.

Is that a fair observation? Does the current work, as reflected by both of you, underscore a change to the involvement of more women in the equation?
I think we [as women] have the ability to be better collaborators. I think it [reflects], in some small [way], the fact that the Governor was interested in what could we do, the fact that the first three women responsible for this were myself, Kate Motte [founder of the CORE Consulting for Pharma/Biotech], and Meredith Curren [from Gov. Raimondo’s office].

MALYSZ: I think it is evolutionary. You have the governor who is a woman, you have three women leading the initiative, and you have the administrators of the projects who might be men. This is really a balancing effort.

MILOS: I think this is a whole separate topic that we shouldn’t get into right now. But, there is a tremendous problem [with the lack] of women in executive roles at innovation venture funds, at innovative tech companies. It absolutely exists.

ConvergenceRI: The lack of capital that startups encounter, trying to move from an early stage company to a sustainable, commercial-stage firm, is often referred to as “the valley of death.” How does the strategies outlined in the report seek to address this gap?
One of the key recommendations [addresses the fact that] we lack the capital; we need more capital to [encourage] more investment. We need an investment hypothesis, to get [ideas] out of Brown, URI, RISD, to serve as a core nucleus. Capital comes when the ideas are there.

MALYSZ: We have to be technically ready. A lot of companies today don’t know what that means, so we will have to work with these companies, so that they are [prepared] to attract new capital.

If you put someone before an investor who is not ready, who is not prepared, that is the worst thing.

MILOS: That is why the Cambridge Innovation Center [an anchor tenant at the Wexford Innovation Complex] is going to be such a big engine here, because they know how to prep companies. The innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island needs to have this as a substrate.


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