Innovation Ecosystem

The art of story telling in an age of innovation

Everyone had their own tales to tell and sell at the MedMates second annual Life Sciences Expo, but finding where the stories converged remained the challenge

Photo by Richard Asinof

As Rhode Island makes plans to invest in the life sciences research enterprise to build out its innovation economy, understanding the differences between an innovation ecosystem and a life sciences industry cluster become an important part of the conversation.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/9/18
The second annual MedMates Life Sciences Expo had many stories to share, to tell and to sell about the potential future innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island. But not everyone agreed upon which was the best strategy to bet on when it came to investing in building out an innovation economy.
Why did the Life Sciences Expo choose to showcase a number of the pending 16 responses to the $20 million innovation campus initiative, without directly acknowledging that fact? When will Stefan Pryor, secretary of CommerceRI, plan a visit to the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, to learn more about how they have built an innovation campus and academic research hub? In particular, what lessons can be learned about the decision by the Institute for Applied Life Sciences to move away from its initial plans to build wet lab space? Why did the Slater Technology Fund plan an event on the same day as the Life Sciences Expo? How do innovations in public health connect with innovations in life sciences? Given the lack of news media coverage of the event, who will “control” the narrative about building an innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island?
One of Rhode Island’s successful, long-term companies in biotech, EpiVax, announced recently that they have moved their headquarters from the former Jewelry District to renovated space on Valley Street, reflective of their need for more room as they expand and the desire to involve more Rhode Islanders in the STEAM revolution [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics]. Stay tuned.

Part One

A relatively small but influential audience of about 125 attended the MedMates second annual Life Sciences Expo on April 4 in Providence at the Omni Hotel, listening to an impressive array of speakers and panelists attempting to describe and promote the ongoing efforts to transform Rhode Island into a life sciences research and innovation hub.

MedMates itself, organized in 2013 as an outgrowth of Making It Happen, with continuing support from The Rhode Island Foundation and CommerceRI, is somewhere on the bumpy road of aspirations: from serving as the convener and hub of the life sciences industry in Rhode Island, to becoming the voice of the state’s life sciences industry cluster group, to promoting the transition of Providence [if not the state] into an innovation ecosystem, positioning Rhode Island as an up-and-coming spoke in the regional innovation hub stretching from Boston to New York.

Call the latest iteration, MedMates 6.0, if anyone is counting. If the most important benchmark was the ability to attract industry exhibitors, then the 2018 Life Sciences Expo was a success, with 37 companies displaying their wares and services.

Still, the conversations around building an innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island remain a bit like the opening song from “Guys and Dolls,” where the gamblers all sing a fugue in convincing fashion about having chosen the right horse to win the upcoming race, but they all have made bets on a different horse. [See link below to YouTube video, “Fugue for Tinhorns.”]

Building innovation capacity
The morning keynote speaker for the event was Susan Windham-Bannister, the managing partner of Biomedical Innovation Advisors, and president and CEO of Biomedical Growth Strategies, who talked about the strategies for “Building a Life Science Ecosystem,” using the success of the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Center as her example, launched a decade ago in 2008 under the leadership of then Gov. Deval Patrick.

Windham-Bannister laid out, in succinct fashion, what she saw as the formula for success: investment in innovation capacity, which she defined as “the ability to provide and commercialize a flow of innovative technology, products and services over the long term.”

She added, as an important caveat but one not included in her slide deck: the importance of patients as the focus of new treatments and therapies.

Windham-Bannister then described what she called the “five key enablers” in investing in innovation capacity: translational scientific research, workforce development and job growth, entrepreneurial culture and capital, enabling infrastructure, and ecosystem.

Quoting from a 2011 study by the Harvard Business School, Windham-Bannister emphasized the economic benefits of investing in innovation capacity: “Geographies with high innovation capacity usually develop faster economically and attract highly skilled populations, and experience rising incomes and trade.”

In terms of crunching the numbers, Windham-Bannister added up the amounts invested by the Massachusetts Life Sciences initiative through FY 2017 – $5.1 million for collaboration, $6.2 million for K-12 STEM programs, $17 million for internships, $20 million for vocational and high school equipment, $44 million for early stage companies and entrepreneurs, $49 million for translational research, $76 million for advanced and biomanufacturing, $139 million for tax incentives, and $395 million for capital projects – a total of some $750 million, which she said had leveraged more than $2 billion in investments.

Let’s make a deal?
For sure, many of the panels and participants had their own compelling stories to tell and to sell:

The efforts to create a CAR-T immuno-oncology center at Roger Williams Medical Center, one of 16 proposed innovation campuses in response to an RFP by CommerceRI but not mentioned as such. For what is supposed to be an impartial decision-making process, ConvergenceRI found it somewhat disconcerting to see one of the 16 proposals being given such prominence at the Expo, without directly acknowledging its status. [See link to ConvergenceRI stories below, “A giant step forward for the RI innovation economy.”]

The afternoon “keynote” was a panel entitled, “A vision for innovation in Rhode Island,” for which Robert Coughlin, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a trade group, served as moderator and cheerleading captain. The panelists included: Thomas Osha, senior vice president of Innovation and Economic Development at Wexford Science and Technology, the builders of the Wexford Innovation Complex now under construction on the former 195 land; Douglas Sherwood, co-founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, one of the anchor tenants of the Innovation Complex, and Kelly Ramirez, CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

[Once again, it was a bit disconcerting that another of the 16 responders to the RFP for the $20 million innovation campus initiative appeared to be featured prominently at the 2018 Life Sciences Expo. The innovation campus proposal would have Wexford partnering with BioInnovation Labs, with both the Social Enterprise Greenhouse and MedMates listed as potential collaborators to the project, in an initiative which promised to bring together researchers, entrepreneurs, and leading industry partners “to live, work, play, learn and discover.” Is it true, as Carl Jung once observed, that there is no such thing as coincidence?]

Coughlin framed the question for the panel discussion as: how do we do better as a region? It was no secret, Coughlin continued, that Rhode Island was “one of the best” places to build out the regional innovation corridor between New York and Boston.

Osha, in turn, seconded the emotion of Providence becoming an integral part of a regional innovation corridor: “It’s not about the real estate; it’s not about the economics,” he argued, saying that money followed the talent. What you want, he continued, “is density within a proximity,” connecting with university research. The watchwords of building an innovation ecosystem, Osha said, are: “collision, collaboration and congregation.”

By investing in Providence, Sherwood said, the Cambridge Innovation Center was “putting our money where our mouth is.” He cautioned: “Every great city suffers from brain drain.”

Ramirez said that the secret sauce of her work at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse was the network of some 250 volunteers that provided mentoring services to startups participating in her organization’s accelerator programs.

Coughlin got the biggest applause line of the day when he said that universities needed to understand that the innovation economy was not about preserving intellectual property, it was about the number of new licenses for products issued and the number of new companies that were launched.

Meeting of the minds
In addition to panels about health technologies and life sciences investment strategies, the Life Sciences Expo included an Alzheimer’s Disease panel moderated by Peter Snyder, the new vice president for Research & Economic Development at URI, featuring Paula Grammas, the executive director of the George & Anne Ryan Institute of Neuroscience, Dr. Stephen Salloway, director of the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital, and Robert Nelson, vice president at MindImmune, a drug discovery firm embedded at URI that is now partnered with Pfizer to develop potential new drug therapies looking at inflammation and the brain’s own immune system.

A couple of important nuggets emerged from the conversation, highlighting the inherent risks about investments in life sciences and the long-term nature of the research work. First, the reality that, as Grammas bluntly put it, “We have no disease-modifying drug for Alzheimer’s,” her observation buttressed by the recent decision by Pfizer to abandon its current clinical research on Alzheimer’s drug therapies.”

Second, the fact that some 50-60 percent of all cases of dementia are related to Alzheimer’s disease, according to Snyder, as well as the apparent reason why there is such strong bipartisan support in Congress for research into Alzheimer’s – “Alzheimer’s is bad and they [the people elected and serving in Congress] don’t want to get it.”

Third, there was a public acknowledgement about the need to learn from the clinical failures in searching for drug therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, according to both Snyder and Salloway. The recognition of the role that failure plays as part of the innovation process is most often lacking from the hubris of those advancing the innovation economy agenda.

Fourth, the need to build an army of volunteers to fight Alzheimer’s disease, as Salloway put it, suggesting an innovative way to build the database. The 1968 class reunion at Brown was planning to include a “reunion swab,” he said. [Given Rhode Island’s small population size, similar swab campaigns have the potential to build a remarkable database.]

[ConvergenceRI, who had previously interviewed Snyder, Grammas, Salloway and Nelson for stories, invited Salloway and Nelson and the team at MindImmune to talk together about the future direction of research into Alzheimer’s disease in Rhode Island and the potential meeting of the minds.]

The final session of the day was an address by CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor, entitled “Recent progress: making our vision a reality,” highlighting the work done by the Raimondo administration to move the needle on job growth and economic recovery.


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