Innovation Ecosystem

Is RI shovel-ready to replicate the MA-model for life sciences cluster innovation?

An interview with Patrick Larkin, the founding director of the John Adams Innovation Institute, who has piloted the success of the Massachusetts Life Sciences initiative for the last two decades

Photo courtesy of Patrick Larkin

Patrick Larkin, founding director of the John Adams Innovation Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/5/23
As Rhode Island embarks on a $45 million venture to build out a quasi-public RI Life Sciences Hub, ConvergenceRI interviewed Patrick Larkin, the founding director of the John Adams Innovation Institute, who led the Massachusetts investments in Life Sciences and the collaborative research enterprise, offering sage advice on the lessons learned.
When will the state invest in a data-driven annual benchmark of the innovation economy in Rhode Island? Why hasn’t there been an objective analysis conducted of the state innovation hubs created in partnership with URI? When will Commerce Secretary Elizabeth Tanner be willing to lead a delegation to tour the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the UMass Amherst campus, in order to learn how best to partner with industry to create a robust collaborative research partnership? Why hasn’t the clinical research being conducted by Dr. Jill Maron at Women & Infants Hospital, focused on developing rapid DNA saliva analyses of newborns as a diagnostic tool, with its opportunity to jump start an entire new research hub in Rhode Island – and with the promise to dramatically improve health outcomes for newborns across the globe, received more investment? [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “On the cusp of a revolution in the care of newborns?”] Why weren’t Care New England, EpiVax, and Ortho RI invited to join the board of directors of the new Life Sciences Hub? Has anyone conducted a comprehensive analysis to quantify the need to build out more “wet lab” facilities in Rhode Island, rather than relying on anecdotal information? Similarly, how dependent are new life sciences startups on using contract research organizations, or CROs, to conduct research? Has Neil Steinberg, Speaker Shekarchi or Senate President Ruggerio ever had a conversation with Patrick Larkin?
The “tilt” light is flashing, like an engine warning light on a car dashboard. The language contained in the authorizing legislation to create the R.I. Life Sciences Hub contains some very problematic phrasing – in the way that it apparently seems to create a ready-made position for former Rhode Island Foundation Neil Steinberg to step into the role as the new CEO of the Life Sciences Hub.
Further, the 11-person board of directors, according to the specific language in the legislation, seems to put its thumb on the scale when it comes to decision-making: the board will include the president and CEO of Lifespan, the dean of the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, the president of Brown University, a senior executive at Amgen, and the president of URI. The Secretary of CommerceRI will serve as vice-chair of the board of directors.
State Sen. Sam Bell called the proposed board “for handing out biotech corporate welfare” an “ethics nightmare.” Further, the board of the hub seems to prevent any advise and consent oversight by the R.I. Senate, according to Bell.
The decision to choose Lifespan and not to include Care New England – or for that matter, the failure to include Ortho RI or EpiVax, means that there will be extremely limited accountability practiced by the new R.I. Life Sciences Hub in how it distributes its investments.
Also bothersome is the lack of any connectivity or convergence with neuroscience research. There is also the abject failure to acknowledge the role being played in chronic diseases by toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors in developing new platforms to improve public health outcomes. Highlighting the development of new cancer treatments without addressing potential environmental causes is, in the vernacular, an inability to cross the big river of denial.
Finally, what is to be made of the absence of any language addressing racial equity and the strength of Rhode Island’s diversity in attracting young scientists?

PROVIDENCE – In true Rhode Island fashion, the script has already been written, the narrative has been given the stamp of approval in the state’s proposed budget for FY 2024, and the skids have been greased to launch the next big corporate takeover – the creation of a $45 million, RI Life Sciences Hub, championed by elected [and unelected] state leaders, including Gov. Dan McKee, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, and House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi.

All the ducks are lined up in a row – including the apparent elevation of Neil Steinberg, the former president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, to serve as the new CEO of the R.I. Life Sciences Hub.

The story’s plot line – Rhode Island is seeking to follow in the footsteps of Massachusetts in launching its own Life Sciences Hub [some 20 years after Massachusetts actually began its journey] – has already been minted as gospel by the news media.

Witness the dispatch put out by The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island news bureau, hyping the reporting by Alexa Gagosz: “[House Speaker] Shekarchi recently introduced legislation [on May 19] that would create a life sciences quasi-public agency. His proposal calls for the agency to be led by a board of directors, all of whom would be appointed by the governor, where at least one person has a background in banking, grant making, and fundraising fields.

Gagosz’s dispatch continued: Neil Steinberg, who just retired as CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation at the stroke of midnight [on May 31], ‘would be my first call,’ said Shekarchi. Steinberg told me he would consider chairing the agency.”

Or, the news release issued by the state’s legislative news bureau late on Friday night, June 2: “The budget includes a $45 million investment into the life sciences sector. Funds would be used for the development of much-needed wet lab incubator spaces, start-up and support grants, loans, business development and incubation services to grow this sector. The budget also creates a new quasi-public entity to coordinate life science initiatives.”

What really happened?
The question to ask is: What really happened in Massachusetts? What led Massachusetts to become the “global epicenter” for life sciences, where 18 of the world’s 20 largest biopharma companies have labs or other operations, as Gov. Maura Healey described the Conmmonwealth’s innovation ecosystem during a visit to a Moderna plant last week, as reported by Robert Weisman in The Boston Globe on Saturday, June 3.

Another important question to ask: What were the takeaways from the Massachusetts life sciences 20-year journey that could help illuminate what Rhode Island needs to do to launch its own successful Life Sciences Hub?

The story begins with the John Adams Innovation Institute. Two decades ago, in 2004, Massachusetts launched the John Adams Innovation Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative [Mass Tech], a quasi-public headquartered in Westborough, Mass., with the overarching goal of promoting the innovation economy through a series of investments in the collaborative academic research enterprise and in supporting the growth of regional industry clusters, with a keen focus on the life sciences.

The current mission statement of MassTech reads as follows: “MassTech is a state economic development agency that strives to strengthen the competitiveness of the tech and innovation economy by driving strategic investments, partnerships, and insights that harness the talent of Massachusetts.”

Now, some 20 years later, the “proof positive” of Gov. Healey’s description of Massachusetts as the global epicenter is the opening of the BIO 2023 conference in Boston on Monday, June 5, expected to draw a crowd of more than 15,000 executives, investors, and promoters from around world.

Translated, Massachusetts is a global leader in the life sciences and biotech industry – driven in large part by the seminal work of the John Adams Innovation Institute.

Rhode Island is now seeking to jumpstart its own life sciences industry cluster, with the R.I. General Assembly poised to enact legislation to create a $45 million Rhode Island Life Sciences Hub, attempting to replicate the Massachusetts innovation economic cluster model.

To get a better understanding of the knowledge gap between what Rhode Island is seeking to create as its life sciences hub and what Massachusetts accomplished through the John Adams Innovation Institute, ConvergenceRI recently interviewed Patrick Larkin, the founding director of the John Adams Innovation Institute.

[Editor’s Note: To be fully transparent, ConvergenceRi worked as a communications consultant for the John Adams Innovation Institute from 2005 through 2011, tasked with writing and composing many of the documents in support of the Life Sciences initiative.]

ConvergenceRI: What are the most important lessons, the takeaways, from your successes? What did you do right? What did you do wrong?
LARKIN: The most important lesson is to have faith in the ecosystem, to believe in the prosperity and growth in their market environment, or in their cluster, in their world, in their enterprise.

The dedication to providing a value proposition to supporting the key stakeholders, employees, the customers, other organizations, is truly remarkable. For me, it has led to a culture at the Innovation Institute that calls on a public instrumentality like ours, to listen to its customers, because they own the success as much as we do.

What that means – we have a number of stakeholders that approached us for partnership, and support, and for resources.

And, my first lens is always: How do they evaluate and articulate the unmet need they are hoping to address?

That dynamic manifests itself in many ways. Have they done the research? Have they analyzed their problem? Have they stated it well? Do they have the right partners? Are they making a commitment and an investment in their own right? Are they building upon the strengths in an ecosystem, in a cluster? Do they have the right anchor institutions? The properly motivated anchor institutions?

Those are the critical lenses, even before we can begin discussing a partnership, an investment, or an activity.

ConvergenceRI: Much of the initial focus of the Innovation Institute’s work was on investing in research, focused on supporting the research engine. Is that correct? And, how important was that focus on research?
LARKIN: Innovation capacity is the cornerstone of cluster growth. The creativity and insights of the research enterprise in Massachusetts has brought the Commonwealth to a position of dominance in many industry clusters. From day one, we had two public purpose investment funds that we organized the John Adams Innovation Institute around.

One was a “Regional Growth Fund,” focused on strengthening ecosystems in regions across the Commonwealth.

And, the second one was a “University Match Fund.” Let me remind you, that there are literally billions of dollars that are spent in research in Massachusetts and across New England. So, we weren’t trying to compete with the federal government and other industry funders.

What we were trying to do with our “University Match Fund” was to find investments in research institutions that offered the highest probability of economic growth in the Commonwealth. We were literally leveraging existing capabilities with our objective of growing industry clusters.

So, we built partnerships with research centers that were fundamentally understood and aligned with our ambitions to work with industry on those translational projects, those translational research projects that were going to drive economic growth.

Mind you, it was not a cookie-cutter approach. Again, we wanted a broad understanding of the unmet needs. There are instances where the basic infrastructure support for our research enterprise were as important as a translational research project. Our early investment in the Mass Open Cloud is an example of that. It offered open source computational resources for researchers to advance their basic understandings that would then lead into follow-on projects.

The research enterprise is everything. It generates many of the new ideas, new applications, new opportunities, the over-the-horizon opportunities for economic growth in key industry clusters.

ConvergenceRI: Were these takeaways easy to grasp?
LARKIN: No. These were hard-learned lessons. And, it is central to the work.

ConvergenceRI: Let me ask you about another of these hard-learned lessons: the emphasis on objective data. And, the role that the Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy played in helping you to identify the unmet need and the gaps and the possible directions that the research engine needed to go.
LARKIN: The Index, for us, represents a baseline understanding of how we are doing in the Commonwealth in our key industry clusters.

It is a starting point for anything that you want to do. I call it “the scorecard.” Where are we strong? Where are the trend lines going in other directions? And, what do we need to do to have an impact on our local economy?

ConvergenceRI: Currently, Rhode Island doesn’t have such an Index. Which, I think, creates a knowledge gap for them, moving forward. When I have asked people about the need for this kind of data analysis, their eyes often seem to glaze over, so I am not sure if I am ever asking the right question.

If Rhode Island doesn’t have a basic understanding or data “scorecard” I think it makes it very hard for them to chart an accurate course on future directions, in my opinion. Is that an accurate way of phrasing that?
LARKIN: I think that is absolutely correct. How shall I say this? As policy makers, you are always worried about being lobbied or influenced to go in directions that, at the end of the day, might not be the most prudent direction to go.

It’s human nature. Stakeholders communicate a strong perspective on the strategies they believe are important to their individual sector. It is important that any public instrumentality have some objective benchmark upon which to evaluate and understand unmet needs, so as to make the most prudent investment decisions.

ConvergenceRI: Which leads to my next question: when we would sit around and discuss potential projects, about what was the best thing to invest in, you were often, as I recall, very clear that it was never about the money. Although people often saw it that way – there’s money, I want it, and I’ll come up with a good reason for gaining access to the money.

But it was always about what those investments might leverage in the future. There was a sense of collaboration and partnership, but also leverage. The leverage part of the equation, as I recall, you always stressed. Am I describing that accurately?
LARKIN: Yes. I think that’s right. Financing is a tool. If your engagement is strictly defined around a transaction, a financial transaction, then you’ve lost the full impact that can be achieved through a legitimate partnership.

There are many ways that public instrumentalities can support growth in an industry cluster. And, when people approach us for an investment, I always start with conversations around the need, conversations around the market opportunity, conversations around the early champions, [both] the individuals and institutions who are driving and owning the project.

Far more valuable than the funding we might put into a project are the insights, the synergies, and the partnerships that we can help effectuate in the ecosystem.

ConvergenceRI: I was looking back through some documents from 2007, where you once wrote that central to the mission of the Innovation Institute is the nurturing and support of existing clusters that are integral to the Commonwealth’s innovation engine and economic vitality. And that investment awards needed to be forward-looking rather than those accomplished with a historically reactive approach.

At that point, you were looking at four programs for investments through the Life Sciences Center: one was new faculty start up grants, new investigative researcher grants, research bridge grants, and collaborative research grants.

Let me ask about collaborative research: Why was that such an important part of the initial investments strategy?
LARKIN: Collaborative research has been a centerpiece of our work since our founding. There are sources of funding elsewhere to do individual grant awards. Where it all comes together and where it has an impact on the economy is through collaborative research awards. Multiple university institutions and industry partnerships are a threshold requirement in all of our programs.

It is the interaction and the ideation that takes place among that community of innovators that really accelerates growth in any industry cluster.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk a little bit more about getting people to collaborate, the secret sauce that is involved in what is needed to get people to the table, and to have them listen to each other?
LARKIN: As a public instrumentality, one of the key ingredients is to engage and empower those individuals who have the collaborative gene.

There are those who take advantage of that collaborative approach to overly advantage themselves. That’s what the state does. It facilitates a fair and focused public dialogue.

Where we engage with individuals who are legitimately interested in elevating the fortunes of all stakeholders in a cluster. Firms know how to compete. They know how to go out and differentiate themselves in a marketplace. And, we support that.

But when you are working on common needs and common opportunities for all stakeholders – industry, academia, the state, finance, and nonprofits – they have got to organize their thinking and their strategies around a truly objective and inclusive dialogue.

[Pause] Do you want to ask me about life sciences? Why don’t you ask: “What is the magic of life sciences in Massachusetts?”

ConvergenceRI: OK. That’s a great question. What is the magic of life sciences in Massachusetts?
LARKIN: Let me see if I can answer that. [laughing]. We are blessed in Massachusetts, with some of the best research hospitals, university research, and with industry involved in life sciences around the globe. What is unique and inspirational in life sciences is what I call their natural gene to collaborate.

I have reflected often on that, because we don’t always see the same collaboration in other clusters. And somehow, I think, it has something to do with the nature of the discipline. The collaboration among individual investigators, amongst the principal investigators, is very natural. The collaboration to chase federal dollars over many years was very natural.

So, when the Innovation Institute began work [in 2004] with some of the principal leaders in the life sciences sector in Massachusetts, the response amongst that cluster was something like I never experienced before.

It started with leaders such as the late great Henri Termeer of the then Genzyme Corporation, a truly civic-minded and collaborative individual.

And, the leaders of absolutely every research institution, starting with the presidents of MIT, Harvard University, and the University of Massachusetts. Key investors like Chris Gabrieli, and industry leaders, like Patrick Sullivan – they all came around the table with us and spent months analyzing and understanding what were the component parts of this life sciences super cluster in Massachusetts.

That was in 2005, I believe.

ConvergenceRI: I believe it followed the May 2, 2005, meeting that you convened at the Boston Athenaeum.
LARKIN: That was the one. You probably wrote that one up.

ConvergenceRI: Yes, I did.
LARKIN: And, I actually have that on a poster board on my wall.

[Editor's Note: See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A tale of collaboration in which Henri Termeer helped steer policy changes.” The illustration for the ConvergenceRI story featured a document entitled, “Invest in the creation of a collaborative culture of predictability and persistence,” which is what Larkin was referring to when he mentioned a poster board in his office.]

ConvergenceRI:  I am flattered.
LARKIN: Mike Astrue, Henri Termeer, and Pat Sullivan facilitated a seminal discussion at the Governing Board of the Innovation Institute about what we should do, and we began work on a Life Sciences Collaborative in Massachusetts.

We had close to 60 leaders engaged in the analysis, working together to create an actual agenda designed to support growth, with subcommittees comprised around economic development and finance, workforce, and education policy,

This group met for months, having developed a strategy for life sciences that was on the shelf for newly elected Gov. Deval Patrick to announce a $1 billion Life Sciences Initiative at BIO 2007, at the new convention center in South Boston.

[Editor’s Note: The announcement occurred on Tuesday, May 8, 2007. In his speech that day, Gov. Patrick said: “There is no place in the world with as much talent in life sciences and biotech as here in Massachusetts. Now is the time for us to invest in that talent and bring together the resources of our unparalleled research universities, teaching hospitals, and industry to work towards a common goal – to grow ideas into products to create cures and jobs.”]

ConvergenceRI: I remember that Jack Wilson, the president of UMass, was surprised when the price tag came out to be a billion dollars…
LARKIN: The highest sector-based public investment in the history of the Commonwealth.

ConvergenceRI: And, it was an investment that has paid off handsomely, hasn’t it?
LARKIN: Life Sciences in Massachusetts continues to be the envy of the world. And, as I told you earlier, the actual investments themselves were far less important than the statement it made on the ecosystem. And, for the kind of innovation and engagement that ensued in the private sector, and amongst universities in the state.

In other words, it wasn’t about the actual investments. It was about the excitement, the energy, and the believability of each member inside the ecosystem that Massachusetts is the place to be.

If you were in Life Sciences, and you are not touching the Massachusetts ecosystem, then you are at a disadvantage.

ConvergenceRI: For Rhode Island, as they attempt to create this new quasi-public moving forward, what would be the best way for them to “touch Massachusetts” and yet create their own identity in the marketplace, moving forward?
LARKIN: I don’t know the specifics of your ecosystem, of their ecosystem. But let me say this.

A couple pieces of advice. Never forget we live in a networked world. Rhode Island is a part of the Massachusetts Life Sciences ecosystem. And, if I were in Rhode Island, I would be spending my time trying to understand the unique value proposition that my ecosystem represents in this landscape.

That means starting with a rigorous analysis and understanding of strengths and weaknesses. Organizing the key stakeholders that can help inform and then activate a strategy for growth.

Don’t compete with the world. Don’t compete with some shiny object elsewhere. Look at what you do and can be best at, and build upon those strengths. Because you are already a beneficiary of this regional engine, and we are all advantaged, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, when we collaborate on the strategies to address public health, to address societal needs, and to address the needs of our economies.

ConvergenceRI: One of the topics that have emerged in the discussions – and for the life of me, personally, I don’t understand it, but there is this push by [some stakeholders] claiming that they need more “wet lab space” in order to grow.

I am not sure what that is based upon. It seems to me, I would want to see the hard evidence that the lack of wet lab space is an actual barrier that you are facing, in terms of growth.
LARKIN: That’s a good observation. I don’t know the answer to it myself. I do know that a market analysis is essential, something that we would require before we would consider an investment like that.

And, not only we would look at that for the purposes of understanding what the direct impact or the direct benefit might be for that individual investment, but how will that align with the broader strengths and the strategy for growth in the region.

So, lots of regions across the globe over the past 20 years have looked at wet lab space as an important input to life sciences. So much so that there is some concern, nationally, that there has been an overgrowth, and there could be a backlash, almost like office space, post-COVID. I don’t have any idea. And, that is a question that would be addressed through a real market analysis before one would make any kind of an investment. And, that’s an example of the value of looking at the research.

ConvergenceRI: The way I look at it is that, if you don’t ask the right questions… There is also a tendency here in Rhode Island, they are developing a new state public health laboratory, a facility that is desperately needed. They got the funding for it through federal resources, but they tied it to a commercial real estate development in Providence. As a result, there appear to be problems, given the nature of real estate investments these days, to create office space in downtown Providence, because it is not really needed.

I was wondering, if there is a way, it may be a question that is a little bit off center, but the idea being, when you are choosing partners, you are looking at regional development now, as you said, when you look at Worcester or at Springfield, and when you seek to partner in building out the enterprise, what are the types of partners that you look at, in doing that. It is a convoluted question, I’m sorry.
LARKIN: I don’t know if this gets at what you are saying. There are all kinds of models for partnership strategies.

You could just have a partner that brings the skills of a commercial development to the project. That’s one model. I think what you have to be sure of is [whether] the business development needs are not addressed by other institutions.

If you go with a commercial partner, who will drive the life sciences business-based model in Rhode Island? You just have to make sure that that piece is there.

ConvergenceRI: You’ve been doing this for 20 years. Is there a good history of what you’ve done? Does there need to be a good history? Would it be advantageous to how the story gets told?
LARKIN: Yes. I think, 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.

ConvergenceRI: Have you had the opportunity to visit the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass in Amherst?
LARKIN: I’ve been there. It’s an extraordinary facility. Really built as a collaborative space, driving real engagement with industry. And, the Institute is best in class.

ConvergenceRI:I had a chance to tour the facility and to meet with the director. Yet, I was amazed, I couldn’t get anyone in Rhode Island to visit the Institute.
LARKIN: That is surprising.

ConvergeneRI: Nobody’s been there. Not even the Commerce Secretary. The state was working on a series of collaborative grants in partnership with the University of Rhode Island to build innovation research hubs.

But they were not curious enough to visit the Institute for Applied life Sciences at UMass Amherst, less than 90 miles away -- which might have given them some ideas about how you build out a collaborative research platform, across a variety of technologies and industries.
LARKIN: As extraordinary as the facilities are, what really differentiates the Amherst UMass experience is the people. They really embody a partnership model focused on solutions in the market place, and an ethos for translational research, that brings real gains to public health and commercial growth.

Which gets back to my primary learning at the Innovation Institute: It’s all about the people.

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