Research Engine

The dream of a RI innovation hub

Translating the hype into a working hub is a long-term journey, where securing the investment capital still remains a prohibitive process

Image courtesy of RI Bio

The promotional brochure for the latest RI Bio "Innovator Series," which featured a discussion of how to access capital investment.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/3/21
The pursuit of a Rhode Island-centric innovation hub of life sciences and drug development still remains a long-term journey, despite new investments secured to launch an Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Brown.
Does Rhode Island need to create a system of government-sponsored investments in the life sciences, similar to what was created in Massachusetts? What opportunities are there to create greater collaboration in brain science research between Brown and the University of Rhode Island? What is the connection between environmental toxins and endocrine disruptors and chronic brain diseases? What kind of research is being conducted around the use of CBD products for treatment of migraines? Is there a way that the Brown Center for Entrepreneurship can become involved with Providence public schools in designing new curriculum?
One of the initial ideas that was considered as part of the recent series of bonds put before voters was an investment in a public health laboratory in Providence. For whatever reasons, the proposal was dropped, not because of a lack of need, but rather because of an apparent political calculation.
The need for such a laboratory – and with it, the potential to create additional wet lab space, very much an unmet need for the life sciences community – could prove to be a catalyst for new job creation and new company development.

Part THREE

PROVIDENCE – For more than a decade, so much promise has been projected onto the biotech and life sciences sector in Rhode Island, as a fertile place where new startups and early stage companies can flourish and find success within a nurturing innovation ecosystem, building upon a robust academic research engine and creating a slew of good-paying jobs.

The reality, however, is that the leap from good idea to successful commercial company has often proven to be a bumpy road on a long-term journey, one that can take decades, with the biggest hurdle being securing the money to make the leap over the “valley of death” to a commercial-stage enterprise by securing long-term equity investments.

Indeed, the biggest challenge has often been attracting and securing capital beyond initial seed investments, given that Rhode Island has to compete with firms located in the Boston/Cambridge, New Haven, and New York innovation hubs for investment. For instance, if you look at the investments made by Cherrystone Angels, a local angel investment group, most of the money has flowed into Massachusetts-based companies rather than Rhode Island firms.

Rhode Island has nurtured a strong academic research enterprise, attracting more than its fair share of millions in federal grant money from the National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation, creating an impressive platform of collaborative research and COBRE centers.

Since its inception, ConvergenceRI has chronicled the journey of a number of commercial stage companies, including IlluminOss and its innovative bone fracture repair system, EpiVax and its immuno-informatics platform, and Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals [now known as Cadent Therapeutics], a neuroscience drug discovery firm that partnered with Novartis in 2014.

In addition, ConvergenceRI has covered the efforts by CommerceRI to create a series of new innovation hub campuses, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, using $20 million from a voter-approved bond in 2016.

Further, ConvergenceRI has followed efforts to create new neuroscience research programs at both Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, as well as efforts to establish a Providence Innovation District centered on the Wexford Innovation Complex.

And, the evolution of RI Bio, which began as MedMates, and then went through at least five different iterations before it arrived at its current form. The trade group’s mission is “growing our life sciences economy.”

Further, ConvergenceRI has reported on efforts to create a blue economy hub in Rhode Island, focused on ocean-related technology, as well as the efforts by MindImmune to build a new drug discovery platform for chronic diseases of the brain, focused on the brain’s immune system.

And, covering the continuing evolution of Slater Technology Fund, which has moved from its original model of state government supported investments to a platform of evergreen investments, dependent of picking successful companies.

The dream of a common platform
Dr. Jack Elias, the outgoing dean at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, who is now transitioning to a new role as senior advisor for health affairs, gave voice to the latest iteration of the innovation dream, to be fostered by the new proposed merger of Lifespan, Care New England, and Brown into a academic medical enterprise.

“One of the things I talk about is the dream that the next dean will look out the window of the dean’s suite at 222 Richmond and see a mass of biotech companies in the Jewelry District, all of which are making new products based on Brown, Lifespan or Care New England intellectual property, and all of them employing people and turning Rhode Island into a biotech hub,” Elias said recently, talking about his new role. “There’s no reason that biotech is booming in Boston and stops at the Rhode Island border.”

The goal, according to Elias, is to further the relationship with the health systems to integrate medical innovation and pioneering research to inform clinical care in such areas as cancer, women’s health, and brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Clearing the capital hurdle
So it was with great curiosity  that ConvergenceRI joined an online conversation co-sponsored by RI Bio, “Clear the capital hurdle,” held on Tuesday, April 27, one of some 70 participants listening in to a panel discussion that featured serial entrepreneurs, financial investors, and innovation company executives. As the promotional brochure described the conversation, “Taking an idea from concept to product/therapy takes more a great idea. It takes serious capital.”

The takeaways from the conversation were both predictable and surprising:

• Dom Messerli, the president and CEO of Lenoss Medical, which offers a natural, biological implant solution for spinal fractures to be supplemented with new bone and for the fracture to naturally heal, talked about the importance of networking and the power of Rhode Island's  “I know a guy/gal.” Messerli described attending a networking event where he began talking with someone he didn’t know, who turned out to be Stefan Pryor, the secretary of Commerce RI.

• Stevin Zorn, president and CEO of MindImmune, spoke about the importance of his company’s novel relationship with the University of Rhode Island, where the firm was able to create a memorandum of understanding that involved creating a sense of trust around sharing proprietary information. He also talked about the importance of building a scientific team to support the enterprise, given that his firm was pursuing a different approach to drug therapies that challenged the traditional approach.

• Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, spoke about the ways that attracting potential investors had changed, given the ability to research databases of investors to similar kinds of ideas and then pursue them with zeal.

• Bob Miniutti, member of the Cherrystone Angel Group, talked about the importance of finding the companies that could provide what he called a “5x” return on investments, in terms of how he evaluated companies and their ideas.

Following the event, ConvergenceRI spoke with Carol Malysz, the executive director of RI Bio, who discussed the difficulty in being heard, given that there were now so many competing platforms and channels for news. As a result, RI Bio has launched a newly redesigned website, ri-bio.org, with the goal of becoming the voice of Life Sciences in Rhode Island and Southern New England.

New Alzheimer’s Center at Brown
It was serendipitous, then, that Brown announced the launch of a new Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research, supported by two gifts, one of $25 million and a second for $5 million, with the goal of accelerating the pace of development for novel treatments and cures.

The new center will be co-located at the Carney Institute for Brain Sciences and the Division of Biology and Medicine, home to the Warren Alpert Medical School.

In explaining the focus of the new center, Diane Lipscombe, a professor of neuroscience at Brown who leads the Carney Institute, said that there was much to learn about biology of Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Addressing such complex diseases requires the integration of expertise across multiple fields of study, and the goal of the new center is to convene that expertise at Brown.

Ultimately, Lipscombe said, “Our work will contribute to a more thorough understanding of the most fundamental mechanisms involved in neurodegeneration, which will enable earlier diagnosis as well as the creation of treatments that will not just slow degeneration but also prevent it.”

Predicting the future
In early 2020, CommerceRI published “RI Innovates 2.0,” a strategic plan laying out the vision of how investments in Rhode Island’s innovation economy could propel the state into a new round of economic prosperity.

The ambitious strategic approach was launched on the cusp of the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed a big hole in the plan: there was no strategy around making investments in public health, other than projecting that there would be a pipeline of new intellectual property and licensing income to be earned from the process of moving ideas from the lab workbench to the marketplace, with a particular focus on medical devices, products and services.

While the proposed merger of Lifespan, Care New England and Brown repeats that view of future economic prosperity, as articulated in Dr. Jack Elias’s vision, it remains unclear whether the current business model of health care delivery is sustainable, given the continued rise in medical spending.

Translated, the funding cycle for innovative startups in the biotech, life sciences, and brain science do not necessarily correspond with the election cycle. The reality is that much of the hands-on research conducted on new product development in pharma and biotech is often done by contract research organizations, often located outside of Rhode Island and sometimes outside of the U.S.

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