Research Enterprise

Finding common ground

Amid urgent climate threats, a new innovation hub seeks to connect Alaska, Hawaii and RI in a collaborative research venture, marrying the green, blue and defense economies

Photo courtesy of Peter Rumsey

Peter Rumsey and members of the RISE-UP AK/HI/RI team hike the Savage Trial in Denali Park on a team-building exercise..

Courtesy of Pete Rumsey

The team is visiting one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' unique, natural Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility in Alaska, Fairbanks. The tunnel has captured critical climate information for the last 40,000 years which is significant data for researchers studying carbon sequestration and rate of thaw - used for climate change modeling. 

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/18/23
With funding from the Office of Naval Research, state universities from Rhode Island, Hawaii and Alaska are collaborating to find common ground around the convergence of what are known as the Blue and Green economies, seeking to create new products through collaborative research.
How can the wisdom and knowledge of native and indigenous culture in Hawaii, Alaska, and Rhode Island be integrated into the ideation process? Will the book, “Floating Coast,” by Bathsheba Demuth, a Rhode Island-based writer, be considered as a text for students involved with the ideation studio? Similarly, will the ongoing research and writing by Rebecca Altman on plastics become integrated into the coursework and the studies at the University of Rhode Island? How can environmental protection of at-risk communities, such as South Providence, factor into the equation? How can ongoing clinical research of saliva swabs of newborns at Women & Infants Hospital be used to identify cancer-causing endocrine disruptors?
The search for economic wealth in biotech and blue technology research often envisions a system of top-down innovation, rather than bottom-up innovation. For 10 years, ConvergenceRI has promoted the break down of silos and the convergence of news reporting on health, science, innovation, technology, research and community. Time and again, the value of convergence and collaboration has been proven to be an effective force within the innovation ecosystem.
Asking questions, listening to what people have to say, and engaging at the community level are critical components of the process. So is story telling. Pat Larkin, the founding director of the John Adams Innovation Institute in Massachusetts, offered this advice:
“No matter who you are, or what your landscape is, storytelling and remembering the history of where you’ve been, to help inform how to move forward, is important. It is always about the next frontier. These economies are changing. We are in a digital economy. We’re seeing a convergence of cluster growth theory, the likes of which we have never seen before. You need to kind of understand what has worked in the past, so it can help build your understanding and your strategies in the current environment.”

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – If you were to ask the question, what do Alaska, Hawaii and Rhode Island have in common, the answer might surprise you, according to Erin Read, the marketing lead at Polaris MEP.

Beyond being home to miles and miles of ocean coastline, major “blue” economy opportunities, significant defense spending, and research-driven universities, the three states are now home to a new $2.4 million initiative, RISE-UP, or the “Resilient Innovative Sustainable Economies via University Partnerships,” funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, according to Read.

The goal of the initiative is to create a pipeline of collaborative research, in a partnership coordinated by the three state universities, focused on developing new ventures that seek to capitalize [pun intended] on new products, including the potential creation of innovative solutions to the growing number of urgent climate threats.

Or, translated from the enthusiastic language of economic development into more digestible phrasing, “to develop commercialized scalable technologies as well as build a workforce for the Navy and industries of the future.”

As described in a recent news release, the RISE-UP program aims to: “accelerate the translation of nascent intellectual property [IP] into products and university-affiliated ventures and to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship in potential ‘dual-use’ technologies at the strategically located ocean-adjacent and -focused universities of Rhode Island, Alaska and Hawaii.”

A team from Rhode Island, led by Peter Rumsey, a RISE-UP program executive and Chief Development Officer at the URI Research Foundation, recently met with their colleagues from Alaska and Hawaii at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, to uncover common ground in developing a collaborative research approach in launching what is known as an “Ideation Studio.”

The concept is an outgrowth of work at the RI Innovation Hub, created as part of the collaboration between the University of Rhode Island and the state to jumpstart entrepreneurship, targeting what is known as the “Blue Economy.”

It comes at a time when the horrific images of wildfires on Maui and the flooding caused by melting glaciers in Juneau, Alaska, are still prominent in people’s minds – along with the flooding caused by heavy downpours in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The images of the havoc and destruction caused by extreme weather events have driven home how vulnerable coastal areas – as well as inland communities – can be to climate change threats.

The new research enterprise being undertaken by “Ideation Studio” offers a different approach to finding solutions to the climate urgency. It is, in many ways, an answer to the wake-up call of weather disruptions, more than a briefing by Gov. Dan McKee about preparedness in the face of Hurricane Lee, which swept up the Atlantic Coast this weekend. Or, the need for emergency repairs to the marble base of the “Independent Man,” the statue atop the State House, allegedly caused by climate change according to R.I. Department of Administration officials.

Moving beyond jargon to an action plan
Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Peter Rumsey, Chief Development Officer at the URI Research Foundation, conducted through email during his recent engagement in Alaska, talking about the promise of the new collaborative research platform being created in a partnership between Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Alaska.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about your visit to Alaska and your meetings with collaborators and how it may help shape the launch of the Ideation Studio?
RUMSEY: We are here now meeting face-to-face with our Alaskan and Hawaiian teammates onsite at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to review our progress since we began [the work] this past spring.

[We are meeting] with our sponsors at the Office of Naval Research to learn as a team and to improve and to integrate our hard-learned best practices across our “Blue” states. [We are strategizing] how we can improve, cooperate and integrate our efforts even further as we accelerate our programs, separately and together.

We are finding that the “Ideation Studio” is really the core baseline Innovation and Entrepreneurship support program at our universities, where everyone from undergraduate students to graduate students to faculty to alumni – and even community members – can come to ideate and even start new ventures. [In Rhode Island, we are partnering with Lisa Ranglin and the Rhode Island Black Business Association.]

ConvergenceRI: Is the research collaboration between Alaska, Hawaii, and Rhode Island the first of its kind? What are the points of convergence?
RUMSEY: To our knowledge, this is the first-of-its-kind program for the Navy, the Department of Defense and our universities, linking us all to accelerate and harness the translation of the treasure trove of nascent ingenious ideas, research, and intellectual property [IP] into products and services.

And, in selected cases, [we will be translating the ideas] into full-fledged new business ventures, producing “dual-use” [commercial and DoD-viable] Blue Tech products.

We are amazed how ingenious this partnership by ONR is, bringing together three partner universities.

[The three states]:

  • Are highly “Blue Economy” focused, with miles and miles of ocean coastline
  • [Possess] significant and unique U.S. defense resources, installations and interests.
  • Have world-class, research-driven universities, motivated to accelerate their innovation and entrepreneurship programs together.

ConvergenceRI: Can you define what are the “scalable business models” that are a part of the entrepreneurship program being promoted?
RUMSEY: We all are using the now proven and repeatable “Lean Launchpad” methods of entrepreneurship, made famous by Steve Blank and others.

These methods give anyone who is interested and motivated a “standard toolkit” of tools and processes to help them create a simple, one-page, “Business Model Canvas, ” [one] that you iterate over time with your team, to help clearly and simply outline the “big idea” that you will bring into the world to solve one or more real customer problems – and to grow or “scale” a new business venture.

Entrepreneurship [can be] a scary, confusing, and even “snooty” word to many, and we are here to show you that anyone who is motivated and willing to learn can bring a new business to life.

ConvergenceRI: How will ongoing research reflect the urgent environmental issues raised by the wildfires in Maui and the glacier flooding in Alaska — and potential new products to foster resilience here in Rhode Island?
RUMSEY: We are already welcoming all big ideas and thinkers across our three universities and states – especially around the “Blue” and “Green” economies. [We are now] beginning to plan for focused events, contests, and “accelerators” that may focus on climate change, coastal resilience and sustainability, addressing climate change.

ConvergenceRI: Recent research conducted at URI has identified that Narragansett Bay has a growing layer of microplastics within its ecosystem. Are there potential new products being studied, researched and developed through the Ideation Studio to address the clean up of these microplastics?
RUMSEY: We are just officially beginning the “Ideation Studio,” in partnership with URI Launch Labs and also RI Hub, in the Fall 2023 semester.

We are certain that microplastics will be one of the key challenges that students and faculty will bring into the studio now and for years to come.

We are even discussing setting up special “wet labs” where researchers and students can come outside of the classroom to test and ideate around potential solutions to challenging problems like microplastics.

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