Innovation Ecosystem

The art, science of selling entrepreneurship in RI

Venture Café Providence will soon be opening its doors

Photo by Richard Asinof

Tim Rowe, the founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center and Venture Cafe, which are coming to Providence soon.

Photo by Richard Asinof

Patrice Milos, Carol Malysz and Dr. Annie De Groot at the April 17 gathering at EpiVax headquarters in Olneyville.

Image courtesy of RI Bio

The RI Bio slide presented at the April 17 gathering at EpiVax, listing its accomplishments and momentum.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/29/19

As the new innovation district takes shape in Providence in the former Jewelry District, the efforts bear a distinct resemblance to those undertaken to develop large shopping malls in the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, to recreate the vibrancy of city life, where collisions are promoted and branded.

How will the regional research engine relationship between Boston/Cambridge and Rhode Island be redefined? What is the role of ocean sustainability as a potential hub of blue tech innovation in Rhode Island? What role does community play in leveraging a bottom-up approach to innovation in Rhode Island? With the long-term sustainability of the business model for hospitals in jeopardy, what kinds of investments can be made in innovative approaches to health care delivery, such as ERs dedicated to older patients? How will ongoing discussions about state health plans and state education plans tackle the barriers that are constricting the free flow of information? Are sushi events outdated?
The hub of innovation in the former Jewelry District still remains Olga’s Cup + Saucer, where collisions, conversations and convergence happen on a daily basis, always with a sense of serendipity, always in a face-to-face interaction. It functions as a kind of oasis, built on a human scale.
Trying to bottle the process of innovation, package it, brand it, and market it as a form of economic development is a risky business, because there are so many disruptors in a rapidly changing marketplace.

PROVIDENCE – Many of the “usual suspects” attended the free sushi networking event on Thursday evening, April 25, at South Street Landing, hosted by the Slater Technology Fund, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship at Brown University, and Venture Café Providence, celebrating “innovation, inspiration, interconnectivity and investment,” according to the sales pitch for the event.

There was a large contingent from CommerceRI, including Pete Rumsey, director of the Rhode Island Innovation Campus Initiative at CommerceRI, which has invested $12 million out of $20 million from a voter-approved bond in three new innovation campuses, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, along with a number of other members of the CommerceRI team, including Hilary Fagan, Executive VP of Business Development, Brian Hodge, deputy director of Communications and Marketing, and Christine Smith, managing director of Innovation, among others.

There was Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, and Richard Horan, who has formed his own venture-driven investment fund, Biograph LLC, while still maintaining a consultant contract with Slater. [More on that later.]

There was Patrice Milos from Medley Genomics and Carol Malysz from RI Bio, who are deeply enmeshed with spearheading the promotion of a Rhode Island-centric life sciences industry sector.

There was Danny Warshay, the executive director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship at Brown University, which will be officially opening its new headquarters on Thayer Street across from the Brown Bookstore next week.

There were a number of entrepreneurs in the crowd: Pat Sabatino from Datarista, a firm backed by Slater, who is also now serving as the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition of Entrepreneurs, which is holding its inaugural event for people starting companies on Saturday, May 4.

There was also Stevin Zorn and Frank Menniti, half of the founding team from MindImmune, a for-profit drug development research firm embedded at URI targeting the pathologic process of neuroinflammation to treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Selling entrepreneurship
The message being promoted at the event was: “There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in Rhode Island!”

Indeed, for those who see the glass as being half-full, there are lots of signs of an economic spring in Rhode Island, focused on growing the innovation ecosystem. The Wexford Innovation Complex is scheduled to open later this year, and the Brown University School of Professional Studies will move into a 50,000 square foot space in the new facility, having signed a 15-year lease, with a total investment for the move expected to exceed $35 million.

The other anchor tenants confirmed for the new facility are Johnson & Johnson and the Cambridge Innovation Center. The ground floor of the new facility, according to Thomas Osha, senior vice president of Innovation and Economic Development at Wexford Science & Technology, is designed to help “encourage the kind of collaboration and collisions where new ideas come from,” as reported by The Brown Daily Herald.

The keynote speaker at the sushi event was Tim Rowe, founder of the for-profit Cambridge Innovation Center and the nonprofit Venture Café, which will soon be entering the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem, in late May or early June. [See interview with Rowe later in story.]

As part the festivities, there was a grip-and-grin ceremony, with an oversized check being presented to one of the 2019 Brown Venture Founders award winners: Kevin Eve, co-founder of a plant-based milk company. [The other winner, Rishabh Singh, the founder of Gradly, a software concierge that assists international students moving to the U.S., was traveling and could not attend.

The event, which took place in the cavernous ground floor atrium, was more conducive to mingling and chowing down but not for listening to a speaker presentation, because the sounds echoed and bounced off the walls in the tall, three-story space.

Innovation speed dating
The April 25th event was the third gathering in the last few weeks that ConvergenceRI attended, all promoting the emerging innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island, all featuring food and wine and beer as the lubricant for mixing and matching, yet all happening in what seemed to be silos, with little overlap between the participants attending each event.

The first was held on Wednesday, April 3, at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, sponsored by Slater Technology Fund, featuring a talk by Paul Mandeville, entitled “Raising Growth Capital: Tales from the Front Line,” focused on ways to improve your slide deck when pitching your enterprise to venture capital investors. Mandeville offered his insights and tips into how to reshape slide decks to capture more, bigger investments.

The second, two weeks later, on Wednesday, April 17, was an event sponsored by RI Bio and RI Bioscience Leaders, held at the headquarters of EpiVax on Valley Street in Olneyville, entitled, “An evening with Annie De Groot, M.D., and Bill Martin,” the co-founders of the firm, one of the original biotech firms in Rhode Island that is celebrating its 21st year in business.

RI Bio presented a slide deck that told about its aspirations to serve as the catalyzing force as a trade association to create a flourishing life sciences ecosystem in Rhode Island. [See third image above, a slide listing RI Bio's momentum and accomplishments.]

De Groot followed with a slide deck that told the impressive story of EpiVax’s journey, which she called “21 years of Fearless Science,” having arrived at the point where 12 of the world’s largest pharma companies are now engaged in working with the firm, which has grown its immuno-informatics platform into a formidable technology platform, with 30 employees.

A spin-off company, EpiVax Oncology, which creates therapeutic vaccines that are customized and specifically designed to treat each patient’s tumors, can now sequence an individual tumor in a month for roughly $1,000.

Interview with Tim Rowe
As the sushi event wound down, ConvergenceRI spoke briefly with Rowe. The takeway from the interview reinforced the notion that there were numerous “hubs” focused on the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island, yet they all appeared to be happening in silos, without much intersection, cross-fertilization, or convergence.

ConvergenceRI: When will the Venture Café officially launch here in Rhode Island?
ROWE:
I am the founder but not the head of it. So you need to ask the director to get the date.

ConvergenceRI: How do you view the innovation ecosystem here in Rhode Island?
ROWE:
You have strong universities. You have a lot of talent here that comes and works in Boston. So, you have the talent. What you need is a reason for people to want to stay here.

I think there is potential here to build some research clusters that are considered primary research clusters in their field. For instance, you are very strong in computational biology here.

If you can get enough companies in that area together, you will start to build a thesis that if you’re somewhere else on the Eastern seaboard or maybe in Israel, this would be a good place to [come to] if you’re in that field.

That’s what I would like to see here: picking three or four areas, deep areas where Rhode Island is specifically strong because of research, and then try to draw people in from afar.

ConvergenceRI: Are you familiar with MindImmune? They are an embedded research drug development at URI?
ROWE:
I may have heard about them.

ConvergenceRI: They developed a model where they are embedded at URI as part the Ryan Neuroscience Institute…
ROWE:
Is this the Alzheimer’s company?

ConvergenceRI: Yes.
ROWE:
I do know about them. I like that model.

ConvergenceRI: The model [of embedding a for-profit research company] has not yet been adopted by Brown…
ROWE:
Stevin [Zorn] will tell you: yes, it’s a great model. But it’s not scalable.

ConvergenceRI: What do you mean by scalable?
ROWE:
Scalable meaning there are two companies using those resources. There are not enough resources for another five.

ConvergencERI: Do you see that as a money problem?
ROWE:
Rhode Island has an economic challenge in that the price of the real estate here is lower than the cost of building real estate, if that’s what you mean.

That’s called upside down. And, so, Rhode Island is building its way out of that position.

That would be, I think the vision for that, I think Pete Rumsey is here, I’m sure you’ve talked to him, the vision is to get enough activity so that rents get up to the point so that it’s no longer upside down.

Yes, that’s an issue. I’m not sure if that was your question, though.

ConvergenceRI: My question was different. There is money for startups, but there is not enough money being invested in the companies to get them to the commercial stage market.
ROWE:
I thought you were talking about the real estate side. Yes, but you’re within driving range of Boston. So, the Boston VCs, for a good technology, they’ll invest here.

I think there is a visibility issue more than is a total lack of access to capital. I think there is a lot of respect for the research that happens down here, so I am cautiously optimistic, particularly if you can build a bandwagon effect around a vertical.

What you’ll sometimes see in particular cities, ones that are not the world-leading city in everything, is that they’ve become the world leading in something. In fact, that is the history of Providence. The Jewelry District itself.

ConvergenceRI: In Boston, there’s a new blue tech innovation hub, SeaAhead…
ROWE:
Yes, it’s based at CIC.

ConvergenceRI: I just did an interview with Mark Huang, the co-founder, and it seems to me that the enterprise has real potential to grow its footprint in Rhode Island.
ROWE:
They are backed by a Rhode Island company, and I think there is interest in working here as well.

ConvergenceRI: I am not sure if people are focused on ocean sustainability, it is not the first thing that comes up in conversations with VCs
ROWE:
There is a lot of ocean tech here, though. Again, probably Mark’s your expert on that, more than I. I know that they’ve expressed interest in working down here.

ConvergenceRI: Last question. I’ve heard tonight that you doing an informal survey here to try to figure out whether an effort to develop wet lab space would be worth the investment…
ROWE:
I wouldn’t say survey, but we’re asking people for their thoughts. What are your thoughts?

ConvergenceRI: It depends on who is the target audience for that.
ROWE
: I think the concept is that, and Stevin [Zorn] would probably say the same. Let me put it this way: Without the URI partnership, they wouldn’t exist. He believes there are a lot more potential companies in Rhode Island that are limited by their access to those resources. I overheard him telling Pete Rumsey if there were such resources, many more companies would start here and be based here.

ConvergenceRI: There’s a company called EpiVax; are you familiar with them?
ROWE:
I don’t think I know that one.

Should I stay or should I go?
At the April 3 event at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, ConvergenceRI also spoke briefly with Thorne Sparkman, the managing director at the Slater Technology Fund, which does not currently have a permanent home, having chosen not to renew its lease at 3 Davol Square last year, its headquarters for two decades.

Slater describes itself as “an evergreen not-for-profit seed fund dedicated to supporting new venture development in Rhode Island.” Originally, it had been launched as a state-supported investment vehicle in seed-stage technology startups in Rhode Island; it has since been weaned from any state funds. In 2019, it claims to be the most active seed-stage investor in the state.

Sparkman and Medley Genomics are now operating out the Nabsys 2.0 headquarters, while Rich Horan has office space at ProThera Biologics.

ConvergenceRI: You are currently located at Nabsys. You have a cubbyhole there. Are you planning to move into the Wexford Innovation Complex?
SPARKMAN:
Investors go where the entrepreneurs are. I’m currently in the Nabsys space, with two portfolio companies, Nabsys and Medley Genomics.

And, when the CIC opens, I expect that it will be filled up with young companies, and I may move in there.

ConvergenceRI: Is Slater in the process of raising money for itself?
SPARKMAN:
Slater is still investing [funds] out of a contract which is capital from the U.S. government that comes through the state government.

We look forward to investing the $1.5 million that’s remaining on that contract in the next year or so.

The world is awash in investors right now. Over $100 billion was invested from venture capitalists into technology-based businesses right now. There are all kinds of sources in the world for capital for the right deals.

For every dollar Slater invests – we’ve invested maybe on the order of $35 million in the last two decades, [more than] $600 million has come into those same companies. So, there is no shortage of capital when the stars align.

Going forward, I’ll expect Slater to have capital from new sources and, yes, I think that will probably include non-governmental sources.

ConvergenceRI: What kinds of leverage will Slater pursue to obtain new funding sources?
SPARKMAN:
So, the question is: where will the capital likely come from? You’ll know it when it happens. Government is not a typical source for venture capital funds to get money. I expect we will look all over the place.

[At the April 25 event, according to sources, no decision has been made by Slater about the potential move into space at the new Wexford Innovation Complex, given that there was no exigency to move out of Nabsys.]

Where do collisions happen?

Leaving the sushi event at 7:30 p.m., walking back to his car parked a few blocks away, on a pleasant spring evening, ConvergenceRI reflected upon all the different plans underway to “encourage the kind of collaboration and collisions where new ideas come from,” to promote Rhode Island’s emerging innovation ecosystem.

What was missing, it seemed, was a sense of convergence. If collaboration was hard work, sharing was even harder. It was bothersome that CIC’s Tim Rowe was unfamiliar with EpiVax, one of Rhode Island’s premier biotech firms, given the April 17 event showcasing the company. Who was he talking to? Where was he getting his information? What was he reading?

It was irksome that a member of the CommerceRI team said that he was unaware of the recent feature stories in ConvergenceRI about SeaAhead, the blue tech innovation hub, or the interview with Kelly Ramirez, the CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse. Why weren’t the stories being shared? What were the barriers to sharing information across platforms and networks?

It was as if each circle of innovation existed within its own silo, and the conversations were all focused on self-promotion. Then, in an epiphany, it struck ConvergenceRI: there were no pedestrians on the street. For the next half-hour, on a whim, ConvergenceRI walked around the former Jewelry District, to see if he would cross paths with anyone walking on the sidewalks. Not one single pedestrian was encountered, until finally, right before arriving back at his car, a woman walked by. For all the talk of collisions being the birth of ideas, the sense of community appeared to be missing.

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