Research Engine

The next generation of innovation campuses in RI

CommerceRI issues an RFP for the $20 million Innovation Campus initiative, with awards issued and expected contracts signed by the summer of 2018

Image from cover of RFP, courtesy of CommerceRI

CommerceRI released its RFP for the $20 million Innovation Campus initiative in mid-December.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/8/18
The RFP for the $20 million Rhode Island Innovation Campus initiative was issued in December, with the intent to catalyze the state’s research engine and innovation economy.
Will the Innovation Campus initiative look to explore other physical locations, other than downtown Providence and the URI campus, such as Newport, Pawtucket, Central Falls, or the West End of Providence? What kinds of affordable housing for students and researchers working in an Innovation Campus will be created, which does not displace existing residents in a tight housing market? How will innovation industry clusters be defined in Rhode Island – by government or by industry? How does public health play in the Innovation Campus equation? How will the Innovation Campus initiative address one of the biggest gaps in the current innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island: the lack of investment in early stage firms on the verge of becoming commercial stage firms? Could a Neighborhood Health Station, such as the one in Central Falls, serve as part of a potential innovation campus hub in coordination with URI’s Academic Health Collaborative?
Amidst the efforts to build up the synergies of Rhode Island’s innovation economy through the investment in one or more Innovation Campuses must be the recognition that the symptoms of entropy breaking down the health care delivery system can be seen everywhere: the financial frailty of hospital-based health systems; the overflow of hospital emergency rooms during the flu season in which the recommended flu vaccine is ineffective against the circulating strain of flu; the growing pressure on Medicaid to provide health care services to the poor, frail and most vulnerable residents, with the resultant squeeze on state budgets; and unmet needs for mental health and behavioral health care, which metastasize into crises such as the epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths.
Missing from the conversation – and perhaps from the discussion of innovation campuses, with the focus on academic research connected to corporate wealth – is one innovation where Rhode Island has emerged as a national leader: health equity zones. The concept seeks to empower communities to define what their own health needs are – and create solutions to address them – outside of the so-called medical industrial complex, given that 90 percent of health is defined by what happens outside of the doctors’ or nurses’ office.
Which candidates running for statewide office in 2018 can define what a health equity zone is? And where the current health equity zones are located in Rhode Island? And, which reporters, for that matter?

PROVIDENCE – The current view from downtown Providence might be aptly termed WaterFreeze, as a big chill sent temperatures plummeting below zero this weekend.

But flowing underneath the frozen surfaces, at least when it comes to the future economic development in Rhode Island, is what might be considered a stealth story: the release on Dec. 16, 2017, of the RFP for Innovation Campus Rhode Island.

The RFP is the next step in plans to invest $20 million in state funds through bonds approved by Rhode Island voters in November of 2016 in order to fund one or more Innovation Campuses affiliated with the University of Rhode Island. [See link to RFP below.]

[An initial request for letters of interest resulted in 31 responses, according to CommerceRI officials.]

As the executive summary of the RFP explained it, the goal of the initiative is to narrow “the gap between the high level of academic research occurring in Rhode Island and the comparatively low level of subsequent commercialization, business growth and job creation.”

Translated, the Innovation Campus investments seek to propel a new kind of collaborative research engine in Rhode Island – one that marries the state’s world-class research and academic talent to commercial enterprise investment.

Proposals are due on March 2, 2018; the awards will be made through a competitive process, according to CommerceRI officials. The current schedule is to announce the grant award winners either in the spring or summer of 2018 and to sign the final contracts in the summer of 2018, according to the RFP.

The conditions include a minimum bar of a requested $1 million match investment, but the preferred matching investment is between $5 million to $20 million, according to the RFP. The concept is to create an obligation under which the proposed funding matches exceed the state’s financial commitment of bond proceeds.

Translated, in theory, the matching investments would create a kind of evergreen funding source to expand the potential number of innovation campus hubs in Rhode Island, beyond the initial round of bids. In reality, it is unclear whether such funds can be targeted for similar investments, or instead be funneled into the state’s general revenue fund, with the potential to be used to plug revenue deficits in future state budgets.

Model of investment
The language in the RFP defines “Innovation Campus” as one or more physical facilities, dedicated or shared, that would provide space for collaboration between URI and other academic and industry partners.

Further, the RFP appears to place emphasis on the creation of “a team” of industry, academic, real estate and research partners to establish or expand their presence in Rhode Island, in order to “catalyze the growth of innovation cluster.”

The RFP cites similar kinds of collaborative partnerships as the working investment model, including the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research and The Bridge at Cornell Tech in New York City. [The Bridge, however, represents a magnitude of investment more than 100 times greater than what is envisioned for Rhode Island.]

One model not mentioned but perhaps worthy of investigation is the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, divided into three parts: the Center for Bioactive Delivery; the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, and the Models to Medicine Center. [See link to ConvergenceRI story, “The academic research enterprise lifts off in Massachusetts.”]

Collaboration with URI [hint, hint]
In the appendix listing additional URI academic information, the RFP lists a number of academic programs that might be considered ripe for potential collaboration, including:

The Academic Health Collaborative, which bridges the College of Health Sciences, the College of Nursing and the College of Pharmacy all under a coordinating dean. [The Collaborative, the RFP notes, “was created to join students, faculty, clinicians and researchers engaged in interdisciplinary work in health sciences.”]

The George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, which was described in the RFP as a “recently established research and discovery center based at [URI] with partners at universities, clinical centers, community organizations, and companies.” Further, the Institute’s mission is described as “dedicated to finding treatments and cures for neurodegenerative diseases.”

The Rhode Island Nursing Education Center, which opened in 2017, was described in the RFP as a “technologically advanced shared facility with Rhode Island College” which is located in close proximity to the state’s major hospitals and Brown University’s medical school.

Potential collaborators
Brown University President Christina Paxson, in an interview with ConvergenceRI in October of 2017, said that Brown was interested in potential collaboration with the Innovation Campus initiative, but declined to answer any specific questions regarding the effort. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below, “One on one with Brown President Christina Paxson.”]

Sources have told ConvergenceRI that Johnson & Johnson, one of the lead investors in the Wexford Innovation Center, has also had some conversations regarding the proposed Innovation Campus initiative.

One existing model of collaboration, involving MindImmune, a for-profit drug discovery research firm now embedded at URI, may offer some insights into how to structure Intellectual Property agreements between companies and URI. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below, “Entering a new Rhode Island state of mind.”]

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