Innovation Ecosystem

Another study planned to jump start life sciences sector

The lessons about the need for public health investments as a result of the COVID pandemic appear not to have been learned

Photo by Richard Asinof

The acrylic paperweight distributed at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Providence Innovation Center in July of 2019

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/4/21
Another study is planned by a Boston consulting firm to analyze the potential opportunities of investment in Rhode Island’s biotech/life sciences industry.
What are the results of the $20 million invested in the creation of innovation campuses in Rhode Island, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island? Why not empanel a group of local leaders of the life sciences/biotech community in Rhode Island to create a road map for what needs to be done? Could the creation of free, wire-mesh WiFi network in Olneyville be replicated across urban communities in Rhode Island? What are the projected increases in medical costs as a result of the planned merger between Brown, Lifespan and Care New England? If increased drug costs are the major driver of higher health care costs in Rhode Island, is there a need for better regulation at the state level? When will Joe Paolino invite ConvergenceRI as a guest on In The Arena?
One area that Joseph Paolino pushed for in his op-ed was support for a new public health laboratory for Rhode Island, given the escalating need for better testing and analysis as a result of the COVID pandemic. The push to create the new public health laboratory has fallen off the radar screen three times – first in the proposed bond referendum questions, second in the proposed budget by Gov. Dan McKee, and third as a suggested part of the best way to spend the $1.1 billion in ARPA funds.
Surprisingly, there has been no apparent vocal advocacy for the public health laboratory from the R.I. Department of Health, from Brown University, or from the major health care systems operating in Rhode Island.

PROVIDENCE – When the “Providence Innovation Center” held its ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 17, 2019, one of the pieces of swag given away was a plexiglass paperweight, showcasing a 3-D image of the modernist design of the building that was attached to the back of the half-inch, beveled acrylic block, with its inherent promise that the new building would serve as the catalyst for jump starting a new innovation hub for the city and Rhode Island, driving the state’s innovation economy.

In response to the recent “news” that there had been yet another study commissioned to look at the potential of the life science sector to drive the future economic prosperity of Rhode Island, ConvergenceRI searched for and finally found the paperweight, on a book shelf atop the hard-bound copy of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.

There is no such thing as coincidence, ConvergenceRI mused.

The announcement of the new study, commissioned by the Rhode Island Foundation, had not come from a news release or at a news conference, but rather from an op-ed published on Monday, Sept. 27, by Providence real estate mogul Joseph Paolino, Jr., in The Providence Journal.

In the piece, entitled “Invest in science industries, not housing, for I-195 land,” Paolino had argued that the state did not need more investments in housing but rather investments in the life sciences industry sector.

“I’ve urged the state to become a player in the biotech and life sciences space. We need a shared vision and action plan to reap true economic development benefits,” Paolino urged. “The Rhode Island Foundation recently commissioned an analysis of the life sciences industry in and for Rhode Islanders by leaders who helped build the Massachusetts biotech community, and it will be made public when completed.”

In the meantime, Paolino continued, “The state should issue a request for proposals for the development of this land, identify a qualified developer with experience siting and building these types of facilities, and require them to lead the attraction of life sciences and biotech companies.”

[Editor’s Note: Paolino appeared to skew the facts about what really had happened in Massachusetts, creating a convenient but false narrative. It was not real estate developers or business consultants that created the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. The enterprise had been developed by the quasi-public John Adams Innovation Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, under the leadership of Patrick Larkin.

ConvergenceRI had an intimate knowledge about the history of the endeavor, having worked as a consultant for the John Adams Innovation Institute in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and having written many of the materials that helped to launch the $1 billion initiative.

Another error in Paolino’s piece, call it a Freudian slip, was his failure to include Care New England as one of the state’s health industry assets anchoring the Innovation District; Paolino had only listed Lifespan.]

The skinny on the latest study
ConvergenceRI reached out to the Rhode Island Foundation to get the skinny about the new study. Here is the response from Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the community foundation:

“After decades of hearing about the life sciences industry being a potential growth engine for Rhode Island and that companies would come from Boston/Cambridge, we recently engaged Jones Lang LaSalle [JLL] to conduct an evaluation of the life sciences industry prospects for Rhode Island and potential ideas for how the state can capture some of the ongoing surge within the life sciences industry,” Steinberg responded in an email.

“JLL executives Robert Coughlin and Travis McCready, two Boston-based industry leaders who helped build the life sciences industry in Massachusetts, will lead this,” Steinberg continued. “JLL has a dedicated practice in this field and has conducted similar studies in other places. The study is expected to be completed later this fall. They will get input from universities, hospitals, investors and companies working in the sector and we plan to widely share the results, including the public and governmental leaders. Among other considerations, they will address strengths, weakness, opportunities and the business environment.”

Translated, the latest in a series of “studies” about the potential of the life sciences/biotech industry in Rhode Island – call it the innovation economy, is seeking to bring in outside consultants from Boston to define the opportunity as part of what business consultants call a traditional SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, rather than trusting and deploying the on-the-ground expertise here in Rhode Island. It is at least the third such study commissioned in the last eight years, highlighted by the misguided recipes for prosperity in previous studies.

Perhaps the Rhode Island Foundation would do better to engage directly with Carol Malysz, executive director of RI Bio, Dr. Annie De Groot, co-founder and CEO/CSO of EpiVax, Christopher Moore, associate director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown University, and Dr. James Padbury, the program director of the Advance-CTR translational research initiative, to design and shape the priorities around future investments in the life sciences enterprise in Rhode Island. [Their work has been prominently featured in ConvergenceRI stories].

Reframing the problem
The problem with the latest study, it seems, is that once again, the desire is to view everything through the myopic lens of the Boston/Cambridge market – and finding the best way to replicate that vision, based upon the false narrative that real estate development values are what have driven the successes of the innovation enterprise with our neighbors to the north.

That worldview was articulated by Tim Rowe, the founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, in an interview conducted on April 25, 2019, at the South Street Landing, at a networking sushi event promoting the message, “There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in Rhode Island.”

Rowe identified the problem facing Rhode Island as one of real estate prices – what he described as a “money problem.” The Cambridge Innovation Center, along with Brown University, had decided to become an anchor tenant in the new Wexford/Providence Innovation Center.

“Rhode Island has an economic challenge in that the price of real estate here is lower than the cost of building real estate,” he said. “That’s called upside-down. And so, Rhode Island is building its way out of that position.” The solution, Rowe continued, “is to get enough activity so that rents get up to the point so that it’s no longer upside-down.”

When ConvergenceRI pushed back, saying that the issue was not about money for startups, but not enough money being invested in the startup companies to get them over the hump to the commercial stage, Rowe responded: “You’re within driving range of Boston. So, the Boston VCs, for a good technology, they’ll invest here. I think there is a visibility issue more than a total lack of access to capital. I think there is a lot of respect for the research that happens down here, so I am cautiously optimistic.”

When asked how he viewed the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island, Rowe said: “You have strong universities. You have a lot of talent here that comes and works in Boston. So, you have the talent. What you need is a reason for people to want to stay here. I think there is potential here to build some research clusters that are considered primary research clusters in their fields. For instance, you are very strong in computational biology here.”

Rowe continued: “If you can get enough companies in that area together, you will start to build a thesis that if you’re somewhere else on the Eastern seaboard or maybe in Israel, this would be a good place [to come to] if you’re in that field. That’s what I would like to see here: picking three or four areas, deep areas, where Rhode Island is specifically strong because of research, and then try to draw people in from afar.”

[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The art, science of selling entrepreneurship in RI.”]

Rowe’s view of Rhode Island – that the state serves as a kind of research herbarium for Boston’s venture capital and real estate development markets – highlights many of the problems inherent with a top-down approach to the innovation economy business model, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

A brief history of past studies
The acrylic paperweight celebrating the opening  of the Providence/Wexford Innovation Center served as a poignant reminder that for all the in-depth reporting that ConvergenceRI had conducted during the last eight years, focused on the Innovation Economy, the needle of that narrative about the innovation ecosystem has remained stuck in neutral.

There have been at least three different studies commissioned, beginning with one conducted in 2013 by the Fourth Economy, a consulting firm from Pittsburgh, funded by the Rhode Island Foundation.

That study, surprisingly, had not targeted the growth of the life sciences sector as a primary focus of investment. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “This is a story for open, transparent, conversation purposes.”]

As reported by ConvergenceRI:

Did you know? The market opportunities that will shape Rhode Island’s economic future are a “Manufacturing Revolution,” the “Food Value Web” and “Marine and Water as an Economic Driver.”

That’s according to the results of a three-month, $75,000 process funded by The Rhode Island Foundation and led by The Fourth Economy, a consulting firm, to map out the future opportunities for the state’s economic development.

A fourth targeted intervention, under the heading “Business Ecosystem,” will look to develop “The Rhode Island Brand,” showcasing the state’s ability to market itself and “communicate exciting economic opportunities” regionally, nationally and internationally.

• “What’s missing? The absence of the academic medical research engine from the targeted market opportunities is striking, according to a number of sources, which attracts tens of millions of dollars in research grants to Rhode Island hospitals and universities each year.

Another glaring omission is the emergence of Rhode Island as a hub for neurosciences research and talent, particularly given the statewide collaborative efforts now underway in brain research.

Neurosciences were relegated to an “action to discuss” under “Innovation Services” in “Business Ecosystem,” with the suggestion given to hold a translational neurosciences symposium to bring together leading researchers in order to “increase awareness of neuroscience capability among investment community.”

The rationale given was that “high-growth companies spurred by innovation and utilization of technology have the potential to quickly create jobs in Rhode Island.”

Rhode Island’s health care reform “evolution,” with its emphasis on patient-centric primary care and its efforts to move toward more accessible, affordable health care and global payments, was never discussed in the document.

Also not discussed were Rhode Island’s strengths in community and diversity. Housing was also not addressed.

[Editor’s note: Also left out of the economic equation was racial equity, diversity, and climate change.]

The next really big study
The next big study, “Rhode Island Innovates,” a $1.4 million report written by the Brookings Institution, which was commissioned by CommerceRI and paid for in large part by the Rhode Island Foundation, was released in a splashy news conference at the Rhode Island Foundation headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A history lesson about innovation.”]

“Rhode Island Innovates” called for new investments between $70 million and $100 million in five targeted industry sectors and clusters in order to rebuild what Brookings labeled “Rhode Island’s high-value economic base.” These included: biomedical innovation; defense shipbuilding and maritime; IT/software, cyber-physical systems and data analytics; advanced business services and design; and food and custom manufacturing..

Brooking also targeted two broad growth opportunity sectors – transportation, distribution and logistics; and arts, education, hospitality and tourism.

Once again, affordable housing, racial equity and diversity, and climate change were left out of the equation.

As reported by ConvergenceRI: The study, which was unveiled with much hoopla at The Rhode Island Foundation on Jan. 19, called for new investments between $70 million and $100 million in seven targeted industry sectors and clusters.

The front-page headline in that morning’s Providence Journal, capturing the intended messaging that “The moment was urgent,” received a shout-out from Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, with a nod toward reporter Kate Bramson, who occupied a reserved seat in the front row, sitting in front of Christina Paxson, president of Brown University.

[Former Gov. Gina] Raimondo was equally effusive in her praise: “I couldn’t have written a better headline myself,” she said.

“We have what it takes,” she continued, “but we have to get going to make it happen, to seize the opportunity. We have everything it takes to move us into a new, innovation-based economy. Are we going to do it?” she asked rhetorically. “My answer is yes, we don’t have any choice.”

Five years later, the “urgency” of the moment appears to have diminished, with the construction of the Providence/Wexford Innovation Center and the launch of a $20 million innovation campus hub initiative, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, and the completion of South Street Landing still not enough to jump start the biotech/life sciences economy in Rhode Island. Why is that?

The innovation loop
The third big study, entitled “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0,” was released in January of 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

As ConvergenceRI asked in the prescient headline about the report, “What does public health have to do with future prosperity in RI?” [See link to story below.]

As ConvergenceRI reported: The featured author of the new RI Innovates 2.0 report was Bruce Katz, formerly with the Brookings Institution and co-author of the first report, now a principal at New Localism Advisors, an economic consulting firm. This time around, Katz’s fee of $468,600 was paid for by a mix of public and private entities, including: the R.I. Commerce Corporation [$178,600], the R.I. Department of Labor and Training [$150,000], the R.I. Division of Statewide Planning [$40,000], and the Heron Foundation [$100,000].

The reporting by ConvergenceRI continued: Consider the report’s up-front pronouncement: “Rhode Island’s economy has turned a corner and has made substantial progress since 2016.”

The state, the report continued, “has shown its ability to design, finance, and deliver a series of meaningful projects that support businesses, workers and communities. It now needs to move from individual transactions to structural transformation and to grow the distinctive assets and capacities of this special place into a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy. That will require a shared vision among multiple stakeholders and a collaborative, cross-sector approach to shaping and stewarding the economy.”

Translated, this is what a top-down innovation economic policy looks like. Unlike the first report, it does talk, in a commendable but somewhat obligatory fashion, about quality of place, affordable housing, diversity as an asset, improving public education, and making infrastructure investments – but always through the lens of a top-down corporate vision.

In comprehensive fashion, ConvergenceRI then provided a detailed analysis of the failure to include public health as a major factor in determining Rhode Island’s future economic prosperity, a reality driven home by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. There was also an interview with the author of “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0.” [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

Back to the future
ConvergenceRI, with the acrylic paperweight in hand, decided it would be worthwhile to be persistent and to include the coverage from the groundbreaking and the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Providence Innovation Center, beginning with the groundbreaking in September of 2017.

As ConvergenceRI had reported: “The new Innovation Center, envisioned as the jewel in the crown of Rhode Island’s future Innovation Age economy, was hailed as delivering on the campaign promise made by [former Gov. Gina] Raimondo to rebuild the state’s economic future – and create new jobs.”

“The groundbreaking occurred under the clear blue skies of an unseasonably hot autumn morning, with what seemed like an interminable hour-long speaking program, enabling all the VIPs a chance to share in the glory, addressing some 150 movers and shakers [and reporters] who had gathered on what was termed by Raimondo as “for too long, nothing but dirt” of the former I-195 highway land.”

Everyone was sweating profusely by the time the 17 dignitaries’ shovels finally dug into the pile of dirt in front of a John Deere excavator carefully posed to frame the money shot.

The former Jewelry District had now been officially consummated, so to speak, as the Providence Innovation and Design District. To life, liberty, innovation, and the pursuit of jobs.

[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To life, liberty, innovation, and the pursuit of jobs.”]

Nine months later, there had been an arranged media tour of the building under construction, led by Commerce RI Secretary Stefan Pryor. As reported by ConvergenceRI: “The spectacular view of the city from the sixth floor of the Wexford Innovation Complex now under construction is unimpeded, for now.”

“If approved and built, the proposed Fane Tower luxury high rise would cast its dominant shadow over much of the footprint below, now a staging area for construction activities, including the pedestrian bridge over the Providence River and the Wexford building itself.”

“Yet, on a gorgeous spring day in May, everywhere you looked, there were clear blue skies extending toward the horizon, the downtown Providence skyline sparkled under the bright sunshine [even the Superman building appeared dazzling], and across the panorama there were numerous cranes, resembling Transformer bots, as new buildings were being erected, mostly new hotels and higher-end residential properties.”

“Stefan Pryor, the secretary of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, was ebullient, as he led an entourage of news media on Thursday, May 24, up the six flights of concrete steps, to the first public viewing from the top floor of the Wexford Innovation Complex, scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.”

Members of the tour, including ConvergenceRI, Channels 6 and 10, and The Providence Journal, all had received thick packets, including the newly released, 65-page “2018 Overview of the Rhode Island Economy.” The cover featured a photo of the nation’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Block Island, a sign that “Rhode Island’s infrastructure is strengthening,” according to the report.

[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Buildings with a revealing view.”]

Ribbon cutting
Fast-forward to the actual ribbon-cutting held in July of 2019.

As ConvergenceRI had reported: “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.]”

In his address, 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 Jim Berens, the founder and CEO of Wexford Science & Technology, saying: “This is your facility, and it is your microphone now.”

The gospel of entrepreneurship
The ConvergenceRI story continued: 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.

One last story
In May of 2021, ConvergenceRI reported on “The dream of RI innovation hub,” where translating the hype into a working hub is a long-term journey, where securing the investment capital still remains a prohibitive process, detailing a seminar hosted by RI Bio. [See link to story below.]

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. [See lik below to ConvergenceRI story, “Making RI a hubbub of innovation.”]

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.

Where do we go from here?
Last week, the Childhood Lead Action Project held a news conference in front of the State House, urging that the state invest $500 million in removing all the lead pipes carrying drinking water in Providence. In terms of measuring outcomes – in promoting better public education results, in equity, in improving public health, in the creation of better affordable housing, in total job creation and in growing the state’s economy, strong arguments could be made that such an investment of state funds would do more for the future prosperity of Rhode Island than investments in the life sciences sector.

In the forthcoming analysis being conducted by Jones Lang LaSalle, it might prove worthwhile to compare the benefits of investment in the life sciences sector with the investment in removing all the lead pipes in Providence.


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