Innovation Ecosystem

“We view this as ground zero for innovation”

The official opening of the Wexford Innovation Complex was hard work; but the task ahead of attracting new companies, entrepreneurs and creating jobs may prove equally challenging

Photo by Richard Asinof

The ceremonial cutting of the ribbon to open the Wexford Innovation Complex on July 17.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/22/19
Words matter. Context is important. Reporting what dignitaries say at pivotal moments is critical to understanding the politics behind the scene, such as at the official opening of the Wexford Innovation Complex, now dubbed “225.”
What kinds of congestion and traffic jams will be created as a result the opening of the new Wexford Innovation Complex? Will the branding of the new building as “225” stick? How will the pending state takeover of the Providence public schools impact the economic engine of the state’s knowledge economy and its ability to attract new businesses and talent? Will the breakdown of attempts by Gov. Raimondo to broker an arranged marriage between Care New England, Lifespan and Brown have reverberations within the state’s innovation ecosytem? How disruptive will the planned Fane Tower be to the overall innovation hub on the former 195 land?
When it comes to reporting on the knowledge economy and the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island, delving into the research enterprise beyond real estate development, there is a death of news media covering the “innovation” beat. What is missing – and what ConvergenceRI strives to do, is to provide accurate, in-depth reporting and analysis, breaking down the silos that exist around such important topics.

PROVIDENCE – The ribbon cutting to open the new Wexford Innovation Complex in the Providence Innovation and Design District occurred outside, in a tent, on steamy hot afternoon on Wednesday, July 17, with the first 10 rows on both sides of the aisle reserved for dignitaries from the 195 Commission, Brown University and CommerceRI.

The heat was reminiscent of another broiling hot day, two years ago, in September of 2017, when the groundbreaking for the Wexford building occurred on Sept. 25. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To life, liberty, innovation and the pursuit of jobs.”]

As a result, the grand opening had the feel of a summer revival meeting under a tent, with Stefan Pryor, the secretary for Commerce RI, serving as the emcee, preaching a sermon of hope and prosperity, singing praises to the converted flock of believers convened before the newly erected church of innovation, which has been rebranded as building “225,” the actual address of the gleaming new structure, 225 Dyer Street, in the heart of the newly opened hub of innovation in Providence. [All that was missing, perhaps, were cardboard fans for the congregants, in order to try and keep themselves cool.]

“Good afternoon!” Pryor began, exuding a tone of enthusiastic optimism. “What a gorgeous Rhode Island day!”

Pryor continued: “Thank you so very much for gathering on this auspicious day. We are very, very, very proud to be bringing to life the Wexford building.”

To introduce the official speeches from dignitaries gathered on the stage – including Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, Gov. Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza [who brought with him his son, Omar, about which Raimondo quipped, “I see you brought your chief of staff, Omar, with you”], Jim Berens, the founder and CEO of Wexford Science & Technology, and Bob Davis, chair of the 195 Commission, Pryor retold a modern version of a story from Aesop’s Fables, about Pandora’s Box.

“According to Aesop, the famous author of Aesop’s Fables, Zeus gave humankind a gift in the form of a jar,” Pryor began. “Over many, many years, that jar has been reinterpreted as box. You know what the box is called? That’s right – Pandora’s Box. And, you know, we humans have trouble keeping the box unopened.”

In Pryor’s reinterpretation of the myth, the opening of Pandora’s Box was then compared to the task of opening the new Wexford Innovation Complex – or, 225.

In the course of retelling the tale, Pryor praised the persistence and leadership of Gov. Raimondo, in her efforts to rally the resources. “Goodness gracious, there was a lot of work to do; it often felt like on route to opening this box [the Wexford building], we opened Pandora’s Box.”

But, if you look back at Aesop’s myth, Pryor continued, “There was a spirit that got trapped in that mythical box, it was called Elpis. Do you know what Elpis means in Greek? It means hope.”

Pryor then brought home the metaphoric meaning of his retold tale: “What was trapped inside was hope, and ladies and gentlemen, after all the cleaning and governing and preparing and financing, what we have behind us is hope for the future, hope for an economy that leans into the future, hope for innovation and entrepreneurship and opportunities for Rhode Islanders.”

With that, Pryor turned the podium over to Berens, saying: “This is your facility, and it is your microphone now.”

The gospel of entrepreneurship

Berens began by alluding to the hot temperatures at the groundbreaking in September of 2017, saying about being under the tent: “This is much more civilized than the groundbreaking.”

On behalf of Wexford and their partners, Berens said he was “delighted to show you this beautiful building.”

One thing that Berens wanted to make clear, up front, was that: “This would not be possible, we would not be standing here or sitting here without the uncompromising support of Gov. Raimondo and the state and Mayor Elorza and the city; thank you.”

According to Berens, this was actually the fifth project that Wexford has been a partner in developing, including the parking garage, River House, South Street Landing, and Davol Square, which he said was now under redevelopment.

Berens reserved special praise for Brown University and President Paxson. “The primary reason we are here today is because of Brown University,” he said. “Without Brown’s investment on this side of the river,” Berens continued, there wouldn’t be anything that you see around us.

“We view this as ground zero for innovation,” he said. “We believe, at the end of the day, that this will be the epicenter for innovation for Providence and the greater region.”

The building will create an effective intersection between private industry, discovery and education, Berens continued, praising the decision by the Cambridge Innovation Center to become an anchor tenant, with 50,000 square feet of space dedicated to attracting, nurturing and maintaining the work of “serious entrepreneurs.”

The promise, Berens said, is that when the Cambridge Innovation Center gets done ramping up, “there will be dozens of companies and hundreds of entrepreneurs operating in that space.”

A beehive of innovation

In introducing Gov. Raimondo, Pryor, changing his role from pastor to cheerleader, promoted the context of the economic success that has been achieved under her leadership – higher wage growth, lower unemployment, and serving as a steward of a new economic engine of growth in the state.

“It’s no exaggeration for me to say,” the Governor began, “that I have literally been waiting for this day for years.”

When I ran for office in 2014, she continued, “You don’t know how many people said to me, ‘Can you really get something done on that 195 land?’”

Raimondo said she told them yes, admitting that she hoped that would be true.

The gorgeous 200,000 square foot building us, Raimondo continued, will become “a beehive of innovation,” with the promise of generating nearly 2,000 jobs, high-paying jobs, in high-growth industries. “I think it was worth the wait – and a few gray hairs for all of us in the process.”

Raimondo also offered an honest appraisal of how difficult the project had been to complete. “Let’s be honest about this project. It’s very hard to get the first big project done,” she said. “To go from tumbleweeds and dirt to 200,000 square feet of innovation, with top-notch developers and top-notch tenants, is difficult. There were a lot of twists and turns along the way.”

Raimondo added: “I still think we're in the early innings of a Rhode Island economic comeback. We are a city and a state on the rise; we have talent that people want to hire. We are just beginning,” adding: “There’s a lot more to do, so let’s keep the band together.”

All in

Brown University, along with the Cambridge Innovation Center and Johnson & Johnson, is one of the anchor tenants of “225,” serving as the home of Brown’s School of Professional Studies.

President Christina Paxson said that Brown was “all in” in investing in the former Jewelry District. “While Wexford doesn’t have to invest here, we kind of do; we’ve been her for 250 years,” she said.

“This was an empty area where there were tumbleweeds,” she continued. “Now it is coming alive.”

Paxson also praised the creation of a new entity, Brown Biomedical Innovations, Inc., under the leadership of medical school dean Dr. Jack Elias, with plans to invest in research and discovery that can be commercialized in Rhode Island.

Beyond the speeches

There were a couple of fascinating news tidbits that ConvergenceRI learned while attending the grand opening: the pedestrian bridge is scheduled to open in mid-August; and the Boston Globe’s Rhode Island news reporting division will be operating out of a third-floor office in the Wexford building, apparently following the suggestion of Dan McGowan.

The open house following the speeches and the ceremonial ribbon cutting featured both food and music, much to the delight of many attending the festivities.

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