Innovation Ecosystem

We have only just begun

In an interview with ConvergenceRI, Stefan Pyror of Commerce RI voiced optimism about the future economic growth opportunities to be found in the state’s innovation ecosystem

Photo by Richard Asinof

Stefan Pryor, the secretary at the RI Commerce Corp., talked with ConvergenceRI about plans to create one or more innovation campuses, in partnership with URI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/12/17
In a one-on-one interview, Commerce RI’s Stefan Pryor details the ideas behind the creation of one or more innovation campuses in Rhode Island, in partnership with URI.
Will Rhode Island create its own Index of the Innovation Economy to serve as an annual benchmark? In parallel, will Rhode Island create its own Quality of Life index to create an annual measurement of what has been mostly anecdotal stories as a way to attract new companies and new talent to the state? Is there a way to better integrate safe, affordable healthy housing development as an economic development strategy? What can be learned from the Massachusetts experience in developing an advanced manufacturing collaborative? Is there a visit planned to the new Innovation Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to see how they partnered with businesses around translational research?
Innovation is a long-term investment, fueled by both basic and applied research, with, as Pryor noted in his interview, a high frequency of failure in ventures. The calculations around job growth do not conform easily to promises made within a four-year election cycle. Does Rhode Island need to adapt a more credible benchmark for job creation? In terms of workforce development, where does the capability to perform critical thinking tasks – what some universities have begun to label as badge skills to go with degrees – fit into the STEAM and STEM processes.

PROVIDENCE – On May 31, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and the University of Rhode Island issued an initial “Invitation for Expressions of Interest” for potential partners in creating what is known as the “Rhode Island Innovation Campus” hub, to be underwritten by $20 million in bonds approved by Rhode Island voters in November of 2016.

Under the plan, Rhode Island will create one or more “Innovation Campuses,” in partnership with URI, although the location of the new campus is not limited to an existing URI campus, according to Stefan Pryor, the secretary of Commerce RI, the state’s economic development agency, in a long-awaited, one-on-one interview with ConvergenceRI.

The new innovation campus, Pryor explained, could be located anywhere in Rhode Island. “President Dooley and I are working very closely with one another on this process,” he said. “URI is instrumental to the process itself and must be a key component of any application. However, don’t let the term campus confuse matters: the innovation campus need not be located on a pre-existing URI campus.”

“It could be,” Pryor added, “but it doesn’t need to be. It could be in collaboration with additional universities in Rhode Island. It could even be in collaboration with additional universities not yet in Rhode Island.”

The use of an initial “invitation” for expressions of interest was an attempt to make the process seem less “bureaucratic,” according to Pryor. Following the deadline for expressions of interest, which is Sept. 15, there will be an RFP released later in the fall of 2017, with a “designation” of partner[s] scheduled for the spring of 2018.

The goal, Pryor continued, was to create a lower barrier of entry for businesses and researchers to apply, and to enter into dialogue about what is possible. “It’s a lighter weight document than you typically find in a procurement process,” he explained, to serve as a preview for the later, formal RFP.

All partners selected to be part of creating such an innovation campus will have to match the state’s investment, Pryor said, with the potential to leverage the $20 million to create $40 million in total investment.

In response to question about what he had learned in this two and half years on the job, Pryor voiced an unbridled optimism about economic development in Rhode Island.

“What has been splendid is the realization that there’s so much more that’s possible,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Stefan Pryor, the leader of Rhode Island’s efforts to grow the state’s economy, with plans to expand the focus on investing in the state’s innovation economy.

ConvergenceRI: What is the thinking behind the creation of an innovation campus hub in Rhode Island?
PRYOR:
There are several ways in which we need to promote innovation in Rhode Island. One of them is to create physical nodes, where innovation can occur. What does that mean? Places where scholars from academic institutions, practitioners from medical centers, and business people can collide and collaborate.

Let’s take it even one step back. There are many places in the world that aspire to create innovation centers.

I would assert that Rhode Island truly does have the necessary ingredients; other places may have the aspirations but don’t have the ingredients.

We have in our midst truly outstanding academic and medical institutions, many of which are accustomed to collaborating with one another.

But, as the Brookings [Institution] report demonstrated, although we have these assets, the translation into startups and patents and licenses is not happening at the velocity it should.

That’s the fundamental finding of the Brookings report, in my view. There are many findings, but at its essence, that’s what the Brookings’ observers of our scene found.

ConvergenceRI: How does that fit in with the innovation campus?
PRYOR:
What we’re aiming for with an innovation campus is the creation of a physical node, or nodes, where collisions and collaborations can happen.

The way to ensure that is to [recognize] that we from the government don’t aim to proscribe how these things happen. Instead, we [want to] let the private market, the academic [entities] and industry collaborate and tell us the way that this ought to happen.

That’s why there is an [invitation], an open call, for expressions of interest. The two-stage document begins with this invitation document.

ConvergenceRI: Are there other models for innovation campuses that you are considering replicating as part of this process?
PRYOR:
Yes, there are. I embrace the idea of seeking other examples and emulating them, borrowing from them, adopting elements from them, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying we’re seeking to replicate them, because there are unique aspects of the Rhode Island environment.

[In the “invitation” document, three examples cited are the Tannery Innovation Center in Kitcherner-Waterloo, Ontario; the Bridge@Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in New York City, and the Clemson University ICAR in Greenville, S.C.]

Let’s acknowledge that $20 million is, for some, a great sum, and for others, a modest sum. Some of the dollar amounts invested in these examples are much bigger.

ConvergenceRI: Could you talk, in a broader sense, what you mean by innovation? It’s one of those terms that is invoked in conversations around economic development, but many do not a clear definition of what innovation means.
PRYOR:
Your question is: what do we mean by innovation? I believe that central to the concept of innovation is drawing from research conducted at an ed or a med – an educational institution or a medical center – and translating such research into patents and products that yield economic activity and jobs.

ConvergenceRI: One of the tools that Rhode Island doesn’t seem to have at this point is something that Massachusetts has been doing since 1997, an Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy, comparing Massachusetts to benchmarks against other technology states as well as countries. Do you think there is a need to create something like that to give Rhode Island benchmarks to measure its progress?
PRYOR:
I do like that idea; I’d like to examine it. Could you send me a link?

There are multiple national indices of innovation; in fact, Brookings released a job-growth related index, in which Rhode Island performed best in New England.

ConvergenceRI: One of the weaknesses identified by the Brookings report in the state’s innovation ecosystem, as I recall, was the lack of investment by local private industry in the state’s economic development. There was some money for startups and accelerators, but it was hard to get investment beyond that, to cross the chasm to market viability. What kinds of incentives you are seeking to create to grow investment by private equity in Rhode Island?
PRYOR:
Part of the answer is developing credible platforms on which stakeholders can build and invest. One such platform is the CIC [Cambridge Innovation Center; MassChallenge is another. We are also investing in locally grown intermediaries.

Let me begin there, illustratively, with the Social Enterprise Greenhouse; they are doing a phenomenal job in the social enterprise space. They are well known in the Rhode Island innovation environment. We have invested in them to enable them to help the growth of new businesses.

ConvergenceRI: How much have you invested?
PRYOR:
I don’t know the exact amount.

We’ve invested in half a dozen small business lenders, nonprofit banks and lenders, and they in turn lend money in small business loans to Rhode Island businesses. We’ve invested $5.4 million in that network of lenders.

The loans to small businesses are not made exclusively to innovation businesses, but innovation businesses are eligible.

We’re trying to seed the environment to enable more access to capital, to technical assistance, more access to supports that businesses in order to grow.

We’ve invested in creating more access to research through innovation vouchers, we are up to 34 and counting, [through which] business are matched with Rhode Island colleges and universities, both public and private, to pay the bill for R&D that otherwise would not get done.

We’re excited about the kinds of matches that are happening.

Having said all that, we’re also aiming to develop a platform that strengthens the elements within our Rhode Island ecosystem, those elements that are very credible from an investor perspective and very effective from an emerging venture perspective.

Which brings me back to the points about the Cambridge Innovation Center [CIC] and MassChallenge.

CIC is one of the best-regarded shared space/accelerator models in the world. Many jurisdictions are competing to open the next CIC.

As you know, we will become a replication site for CIC in Providence; that plan is very, very, very far along.

What CIC offers is access to space, access to technology, access to mentors, and access to capital.

Investors look to the CICs in the U.S. in order to identify emerging ventures they may wish to invest in. It’s hugely advantageous that we have a CIC in Rhode Island as a result.

MassChallenge has become one of the most credible, most successful competititons for ventures in the U.S.

We’re drawing from the best in class to help foster the [innovation] environment.

But, much, much more has to occur in order for us to have an adequate environment for ventures to grow.

ConvergenceRI: MindImmune, a startup company, has developed a model for a research hub at the University of Rhode Island, the first model of its kind that imbeds a for-profit company within a research enterprise at a university in Rhode Island? Is that the kind of potential model for innovation campus research hub?
PRYOR:
It is a spectacular development. MindImmune is a recipient of an innovation voucher.

Rhode Island excels at brain science. I don’t need to tell you, but rather to remind your readers, that five institutions have teamed up around brain science, to promote and collaborate in research in neuroscience.

We already have best in class in neuroscience research activities. We are in a fertile time for the MindImmunes of the world.

The challenge is how we wrap ourselves around them, to help them grow. Not every venture will be successful; we need to be ready for that fact. These are fragile ventures; not every research effort is successful and goes all the way through the FDA process and results in product [reaching] the market.

Among the multiple industries that are ripe for consideration in advancing applications for the innovation campus, neuroscience is definitely one of them.

ConvergenceRI: Do you think it would be valuable for the R.I. General Assembly to do what the Massachusetts legislature did and create a Joint Committee on Emerging Technology and Economic Development?
PRYOR:
I’d need to learn more about the model. I’d be open-minded.

ConvergenceRI: What lessons have you learned during your first few years in Rhode Island? How have you grown?
PRYOR:
Our administration [began with ] a great sense of optimism. We knew that there were remarkable assets in Rhode Island – our emerging ventures, our eds and meds, our universities and medical centers.

Nonetheless, every single day, I’m amazed and encouraged by the greatness of what we have in Rhode Island. We have not yet come close to reaching our potential.

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