Research Engine

The future world of RI BIO promises to be bright

A conversation with Carol Malysz, the executive director of RI Bio, as the work on vaccines and therapeutics to combat COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the biotech and life sciences R&D enterprise

Image courtesy of RI Bio

Carol Malysz, the executive director of RI Bio, a life sciences industry association that serves as a catalyst to promote the research enterprise in Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/4/21
An interview with Carol Malysz, the executive director of RI Bio, an industry association focused on growing the research engine in Rhode Island and advancing the state’s life sciences ecosystem.
Will the R.I. General Assembly reconsider putting funding for a new state health laboratory in the proposed special bond election scheduled to go to voters early this year? How has working remotely changed the dynamics around lab work in a research setting? What are the opportunities to publicize and promote podcasts being produced here in Rhode Island focused on scientific research? Is there an opportunity to rewrite “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0” to more of a focus on public health infrastructure investment? How can “consumers” and “patients” become better integrated into the process of designing new health products?
One of the precepts of the innovation ecosystem is the intentional effort to create a method of interaction, a collision of ideas and people, often in a serendipitous fashion. The coronavirus pandemic, with its increasing demands to work remotely, often at home and not in an office setting, has created a crunch of Zoom meeting protocols, with their own rules about behavior, proper and improper attire, how to use a mute button – upending how communications occur.
In the health care arena, it has pushed telehealth applications from a novelty to a necessity. It has also challenged the future of the in-person office visit – and with it, changes in how services are billed and coded.
In education, the concept of the classroom has changed, as has the respective roles of the teacher, the parent, and the student.
In hospitals, the pandemic has created new rituals about saying hello and goodbye, many of them tragic, as family members confront the death of loved ones often from a distance, remotely, in isolation, where words fail and emotions are raw.

PROVIDENCE – With the successful rapid development and deployment of two vaccines to combat the spread of COVID-19, one by Pfizer, the other by Moderna, now being delivered into people’s arms in record time, with a third vaccine developed by AstraZeneca moving quickly through the regulatory process, it has highlighted the critical role that the biopharma industry is playing in halting the deadly pandemic, which has taken more than 350,000 lives and sickened more than 20 million people in the U.S.

Here in Rhode Island, ConvergenceRI recently interviewed Carol Malysz, the executive director of RI Bio, southeastern New England’s life sciences industry group, which is dedicated to galvanizing collaboration and growth among life sciences companies, hospitals, universities, sources of capital, and government partners.

RI Bio, founded in 2013 [originally called MedMates], described its work on its website as: “We convene, catalyze, and advise.”

RI Bio has played a critical.collaborative role in helping to shape investments in the future of the research enterprise in Rhode Island,. a key component of the state's innovation economy.

ConvergenceRI: What does the successful work to develop vaccines for the coronavirus teach us about the importance of the biotech industry sector as a driver of economic growth?
MALYSZ: Vaccine development typically takes many years, even decades. But the coronavirus vaccines have been a rare success story in the response to the virus, able to move forward because of a flourishing of new vaccine technologies, a backbone of prior work on emerging pathogens, and a mentality that rarely exists in the world of vaccine development – of governments and companies willing to devote nearly unlimited resources to make sure that a vaccine succeeds.

The race to innovate extends far beyond COVID-19. America’s biopharma industry is in constant pursuit of new life saving, life-changing health discoveries and advancements.

More than half of the roughly 8,000 treatments in development globally are byproducts of U.S. labs. These include 1,200 therapies to fight cancer, 566 medicines targeting rare diseases, and 200 treatments for heart disease and stroke.

Many of our current lifestyle changes were exacerbated by this deadly disease. In fact, “contactless” delivery options from restaurants, pharmacies and retail stores are the new norm.

Similar offerings will continue to evolve, and soon, a wave of innovation, designed for our new way of living and work, will spawn. Historians may likely mark today’s response to the coronavirus as the spark for long-term societal change.

ConvergenceRI: In particular, can you talk about the importance of government-funded research and the ways that Rhode Island has promoted the research enterprise?
MALYSZ: In Fiscal Year 2019, the National Science Foundation made more than $56 million in awards to Rhode Island in support of fundamental research, advanced technical education, entrepreneurial training, STEM teacher training, long-term ecological monitoring, small business development, major research instrumentation, and much more.

Improving the transfer of federally funded technologies from the lab to the market has been a key strategic initiative of our collective Rhode Island life sciences ecosystem, as demonstrated by our many partnerships and collaborative efforts, including co-sponsored webinars, workshops and educational events.

These have included:

• The RI Bio-sponsored webinar, “Commercializing Innovations in Alzheimer’s Research Through SBIR/STTR Funding,” sponsored by the 2020 National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging; and the Office of Small Business Research.

• The SBIR/STTR Virtual Workshop on “Understanding the NIH Peer-Review Process,” sponsored by the 2020 National Institute on Aging, the Office of Small Business Research, the NIH Small Business Education and Entrepreneurial Development, the Center for Scientific Review, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

• The 2020-2021 RI Bio Entrepreneur Technical Service Suite, funded through an Economic Development Administration grant, to provide rigorous assessment of start-ups’ foundational technologies as they apply to present and future market opportunities, including one-on-one commercialization support, favorable positioning for venture and non-dilutive funding, grant-writing support, intellectual property portfolio development, and patent filing guidance.

• Through a 2020 competitive process, a RI Bio/Brown University team secured NIH funding to participate in a national I Corps cohort of 24 industry mentor/entrepreneur/university teams.

During a seven-week customer discovery process, the team explored the market potential for a hydrogel, developed by the Brown Biomedical Engineering lab, to become a commercially viable product/therapeutic.

The team interviewed more than 100 global industry experts to gain their insights and advice regarding the potential for commercialization. The next phase of the project involves returning to the lab to begin animal studies and also to pursue possible STTR/SBIR funding.

• The 2020-2021 RI Bio/RI-INBRE RI Innovator Series. These monthly webinars, co-sponsored by RI Bio and RI-INBRE, focus on promising local Rhode Island R&D, innovation and university-based entrepreneurial spinoffs such as Alcinous Pharmaceuticals [URI] and Bolden Therapeutics [Brown University], among others.

RI-INBRE has been awarded more than $80 million in federal NIH funds since 2001 to expand statewide research capacity in the biomedical sciences.

The RI Bio-RI-INBRE partnership is a new collaboration, intended to raise the visibility of the ongoing university research and development in Rhode Island and the resulting new commercialized products, devices and therapeutics.

ConvergenceRI: Were you disappointed that the R.I. General Assembly left out some $100 million in bond funding for a new public health lab?
MALYSZ: Yes, a project like this could help to advance the state’s ability to prepare for future crises such as the next pandemic. Having an updated facility would enhance Rhode Island’s potential to attract new talent, technology, and expertise. It would also offer the opportunity for new public-private partnerships and research, advancing our ability to put Rhode Island on the map as a science and innovation hub.

ConvergenceRI: A cohort recently graduated from your “training” educational program for biotech firms. What were the takeaways from that initiative?
MALYSZ: RI Bio’s leadership training to date has focused on critical thinking, problem solving, self- awareness, empathy, communication and building teams.

During these COVID-19 times, these skills are even more important in the virtual world employees now find themselves working in. When 2020 began, the average manager may have supervised a handful of remote workers. Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many or our Rhode Island employers are having some or all of their employees work from home for the foreseeable future.

Many employees have little to no experience working remotely. On a day-to-day basis, our training has helped employees learn how to be effective leaders and to build team perseverance and resilience as the pandemic continues.

For the longer term, the training has helped employees to think strategically and to consider the big picture of their company’s future operations in a post pandemic world.

ConvergenceRI: Some three years ago, Dr. Megan Ranney was a keynote speaker at MedMates annual gathering. Since then, Dr. Ranney has blossomed into a national media star, talking about the coronavirus and about gun violence as a public health issue. How does Dr. Ranney illustrate the critical role of women leaders in science, biotech and public health?
MALYSZ: Dr. Ranney has been an inspiration and model of leadership during these unprecedented times, not only for women but for all of Rhode Islanders. In fact, women leaders such as Dr. Ranney have inspired the development of our new RI Bio “Women In Science” initiative.

Our new monthly Women in Science Speaker Series will launch in 2021, and it will provide a powerful forum and supportive environment for emerging and advanced women leaders to share best practices, provide their insights and experience, and to offer advice on leadership and professional development.

The series is designed to educate, empower and inspire women to advance as leaders and change agents in Rhode Island and beyond our borders. It will provide a forum for women in science to connect, learn and provide mentorship for one another.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
MALYSZ: One question would be: As the state’s industry trade organization, how is RI Bio is helping to grow and advance our state’s life sciences ecosystem?

The answer: The future of economic prosperity of Rhode Island depends on our ability to build and to support an integrated life sciences innovation ecosystem, fueled by the engine of our local universities and colleges to accelerate the formation of new, innovative companies that ultimately then to attract venture capital, draw established companies seeking innovation, and collectively drive economic growth in our state.

Our desired end goal is to transform Rhode Island into a globally recognized life sciences innovation hub by coalescing existing life sciences stakeholder activities and investments and building new capacities to create a vibrant life sciences innovation ecosystem.

We are committed to advancing the growth of the Rhode Island life sciences ecosystem by providing entrepreneurial resources and support, education and training for new hires and existing workers, increasing the talent pipeline, providing access to capital and advancing advocacy and policy efforts.

As we move into 2021, we are really excited to continue leading the charge for the life sciences industry in Rhode Island. It’s more important than ever before to be a part of Rhode Island’s life-changing, life-saving life sciences community – and to work together toward building a brighter and more prosperous post-pandemic world.

For more information about becoming a member of RI Bio, go to www.ri-bio.org.

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