Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Life sciences lessons not yet learned

RI’s latest bid to jumpstart its life sciences sector still suffers from disease of arrogance

Image courtesy of CommerceRI

The invite sent out from Gov. Dan McKee for the event on Monday, Oct. 24, to celebrate the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new public health state laboratory.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/24/22
The latest attempt to jumpstart the biotech/life sciences industry sector in Rhode Island appears to be hindered by many of the same fundamental flaws in the state’s thinking for the last decade, driven by hubris and arrogance.
What is the state’s definition of public health and how is that manifested in the development of the new state public health laboratory? When will the General Assembly invest in developing a comprehensive approach to the current health care workforce crisis? What is the status of the current re-procurement process for the state contract for Managed Care Organizations for Medicaid members? How large will the increases be in the rates for Medicaid providers in the proposed FY 2024 state budget? What is the status of state investments in shelter for those who are “unhoused” in Rhode Island, in advance of Thanksgiving?
How does Rhode Island acknowledge its life science industry’s successes?
The persistent efforts by Carol Malysz, executive director RI BIO, the trade group networking organization that was formed as an outgrowth of MedMates, speak to the possibilities inherent in the industry sector – as well as the tremendous shortfalls in investments by the state.
The history and continuing success of EpiVax, one of Rhode Island’s pioneering biotech firms, speaks to how the opportunities here in Rhode Island can be amplified into an innovation ecosystem that works, under the leadership of Dr. Annie De Groot.
The excellent research enterprise developed by the MindImmune team and its pioneering work on developing an alternative approach to Alzheimer’s showcases the potential model of embedding companies into the academic research framework.
The research and clinical trials being coordinated by Dr. Jill Maron at Women & Infants demonstrates how Rhode Island can attract the talent needed to jumpstart the life sciences industry cluster – if anyone at CommerceRI or the General Assembly is actually paying attention.
In the aftermath of the failed merger between Lifespan and Care New England, Brown University is paying attention – and placing its future bets on Care New England, it seems. First, there was the real estate transaction where Brown purchased two research buildings in the former Jewelry District and then leased them back to Care New England. Last week came the news that Brown was investing in the new labor and delivery facility at Care New England.
The investments speak loudly to the willingness of Brown to invest in where it seems to believe the future of health care is going in Rhode Island.

Editor’s Note: The launch of the latest effort to build out a biotech/life sciences sector in Rhode Island, attempting to emulate the Massachusetts experience of its $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, is a recipe that is missing a few key ingredients.

How do I know this, you may ask? I was intimately involved in the creation of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center initiative. I worked as a consultant for the John Adams Innovation Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, participating in the development of the strategy promoting the initiative; I wrote many of the early materials that were used to help launch the initiative.

In addition, for the last 10 years, as editor and publisher of ConvergenceRI, I have reported extensively on the previous attempts to build out a life sciences industry sector in Rhode Island.

The problems in Rhode Island have been many:

• The failure to invest in an annual data-driven analysis of the state’s innovation economy, which has been the cornerstone of the Massachusetts’ initiative, comparing the Commonwealth to other states’ innovation economies, developing consistent metrics and identifying trends. [Massachusetts possesses a quarter-century of excellent data; Rhode Island has a crowded bookshelf of top-shelf reports written by business consultants, gathering dust.]

• The mistaken belief that the biotech life sciences industry hub could be best defined as an investment in building out the commercial real estate market, exemplified by the creation of the Wexford Innovation Center and the build out of the Providence Innovation District. [That is exactly the way that the new state public health lab is being marketed – as a commercial real estate development. The lab would be situated in roughly one-third of the 212,000 square foot building, with the remaining two-thirds owned by Ancora L&G, a United Kingdom-based investment.]

• The wrong-headed doctrine of seeing “innovation” as a top-down corporate enterprise, defined by economic studies focused on industry sector growth, not people’s needs. Affordable housing and health equity were never included or discussed as part of the work done by Brookings Institution study, released in 2016 and paid in large part by the Rhode Island Foundation. [When the study was released in 2016, the headline in The Providence Journal read: “The moment was urgent.” Six years later, no doubt, the moment is still urgent. As one of the principal authors of the Brookings’ study told ConvergenceRI in 2016, following the release of the study: “Health was just not our charge in this project and how we think about the world.”]

• The failure to invest in public health, even as the COVID pandemic enters its fourth year, has created a “syndemic,” in combination with the opioid overdose epidemic swirling through Rhode Island.  Much of the federal money invested during the early years of COVID went into the pockets of business consultants such as Boston Consulting Group and Alavarez and Marsal, who took over decision-making at the R.I.Department of Health. [The observation made in 2011 by Dr. Michael Fine, the former director of the R.I. Department of Health, still rings true: Rhode Island does not have a health care delivery system as much as it has a health care market very good at extracting wealth.]

At its root, however, the biggest problems facing Rhode Island are: the hubris and arrogance exhibited by Rhode Island legislative, philanthropic, and economic development leaders. They like to talk, but they have never really learned the art of listening.

And, of course, the near-sightedness of the news media in Rhode Island: Most reporters have never bothered to do the shoe-leather reporting required to learn what actually occurred in Massachusetts.


PROVIDENCE – Once again, the Rhode Island Foundation has ridden to the rescue, playing its now familiar role of financial hero, investing in what is either the fifth or sixth study, looking at how to “jumpstart” Rhode Island’s life sciences industry sector as an economic lever for prosperity, dating back to 2013.

This time around, the study is called the “Rhode Island Biotech and Life Sciences Plan,” a study done at the request of R.I. House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi. [See link below to the study.]

“The study uses the successful Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the MassBio organizations as models,” the news release claimed, which was issued on Thursday morning, Oct. 20.

The author of the latest study was Damon Cox, who had served on the Board of Advisors of Mass Challenge, a Boston-based start-up accelerator, working as a consultant in preparing the study.

The release of the study is apparently part of a coordinated, sequenced communications strategy. On Monday, Oct. 24, at 1:15 p.m. at 150 Richmond St. in Providence, there will be a gathering of the poobahs for a “State Health Lab & Major Life Sciences Development” announcement – the ceremonial breaking ground for the new state public health laboratory. [Cue the drum roll, please.]

The invitation to attend the gathering came from none other than Gov. Dan McKee, who invited those well connected enough [emphasis added] to join with Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky [her attendance is now in doubt, having been diagnosed with COVID on Friday, Oct. 21], and Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, linking the construction of a new state public health laboratory on a parcel in the former 195 land with the release of the study. [The big question is: Who will be wearing a mask? ConvergenceRI will be, for sure.]

At a news media briefing held at the Rhode Island Foundation headquarters on Wednesday, Oct. 19, featuring executives from the commercial real estate firm, JLL Boston, Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg, who is retiring next year, opined that “for all of his 45 years working in Rhode Island, the goal of a more robust biotech-life sciences sector has remained elusive,” according to story filed by The Public Radio’s Ian Donnis.

[Editor’s Note: For whatever reason, ConvergenceRI was not invited to attend the Wednesday news briefing. The question is: Who was in charge of handling the news media for the briefing? Was it the Rhode Island Foundation? Was it a Rhode Island-based public relations firm? Was it House Speaker Shekarchi’s communications staff? Whomever the culprit, the act of exclusion appeared to be yet another manifestation of the hubris and arrogance problem.]

House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi voiced his hopes and dreams for the new initiative at the briefing, saying: “If we can bring everybody together, we can nurture this industry, and most importantly -- we can talk about the jobs, the economy, and everything else – but we’re talking about therapies that can help people. We have the ability to do that here in Rhode Island,” once again, as reported by The Public’s Radio Ian Donnis.

Certainly, House Speaker Shekarchi gave voice to some auspicious goals. The 11-page report/study authored by consultant Damon Cox recommended the creation of a new, quasi-public state agency, the Rhode Island Biotech and Life Sciences Hub, to spearhead the effort, as The Public Radio’s Ian Donnis reported.

[Editor’s Note: Under girding the “Rhode Island Biotech and Life Sciences Plan” was another report, authored by JLL [Jones Lang LaSalle IP, Inc.], “The Life Sciences Opportunity for Rhode Island: Roadmap and Recommendations,” published in January of 2022, a 35-page study. What was most intriguing about the report, written in early 2022, was how it positioned the proposed investment of $125 million by Brown University in the merger of Lifespan and Care New England, as if it were already a fait accompli. Translated, the consultants had already put their thumbs on the scale to weigh in on the benefits of the life sciences pipeline envisioned as part of the now-defunct merger.]

A big pile of hubris and arrogance
The recommendations call for Rhode Island’s economic development agency, Rhode Island Commerce, to select a board of directors for the biotech-life sciences hub “comprised of various professions within the sector.” It estimates the salary between $250,000 for a newly created position of president/CEO of the hub, once again, based on the excellent reporting by The Public Radio’s Ian Donnis.

Translated, CommerceRI and the newly created, quasi-public life sciences hub are going to be attached at the hip.

Upon receipt of the emailed news release from the Rhode Island Foundation about the new study, ConvergenceRI immediately reached out in an email to Hilary Fagan, president and COO at CommerceRI, who was listed as a key “stakeholder” to the study, sending her an email on Thursday afternoon:

I read with great interest the Rhode Island Biotech and Life Sciences Plan. As someone intimately involved in the establishment of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative, I had the following questions:

1. What is the interest in developing a data-driven economic analysis of the Rhode Island innovation economy, similar to what Massachusetts did, beginning in 1997, with “The Index of Massachusetts Innovation Economy? Why hasn’t such an index been created for Rhode Island?

2. Have you personally visited the Massachusetts Life Sciences Laboratory at UMass Amherst? If not, why not? If you have, what do you think of their model of embedded corporate research?

3. Are you familiar with the ongoing clinical trials research on saliva analyses being conducted by Dr. Jill Maron at Women & Infants Hospital? Do you see her work as an opportunity to create a research hub in Rhode Island?

[Editor’s Note: ConvergenceRI has specifically asked Fagan about the cutting-edge research being conducted by Dr. Maron, which had been featured in two stories by ConvergenceRI, as a way to assess Fagan’s awareness of the research, with its potential to transform the delivery of health care for newborns on a global basis and to serve as a potential new technology hub for Rhode Island to develop. See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, "On the cusp of a revolution in the care of newborns," and "The promise of saliva assays knows few boundaries."]

4. Are you a regular reader of ConvergenceRI? If not, why not?

Fagan’s email response the next day, on Friday afternoon, Oct. 21, was condescending and insulting, to say the least, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

Fagan wrote back, offering a series of non-responsive answers to my questions, suggesting that instead of asking her questions, I should talk to the Rhode Island Foundation. [To quote WPRO’s Steve Klamkin, “Really?”]

Hi Richard,

Thank you for reaching out. The report you’re referencing was not developed by Rhode Island Commerce. I’d recommend reaching out to the Rhode Island Foundation, as they led the development of the report.

With more lead time, we would be happy to reconnect to discuss any questions you may have on life science economic development initiatives at RI Commerce.

Thanks and have a nice weekend.

But wait, there’s more – and it gets even worse
In response to Fagan’s email, ConvergenceRI had responded, in a professional demeanor:

Thank you. I have reached out to the Rhode Island Foundation, too. You, however, were specifically listed in the appendix of the report as a key stakeholder.

It was somewhat surprising, then, for you to say that you did not develop the report, as a reason for not responding to my questions. I will print your non-responses to my questions in Monday’s edition.

ConvergenceRI continued: I would be happy to discuss with you at length the Life Sciences economic development initiatives, any time that you are willing to do a sit-down, in-person interview with me.

ConvergenceRI had considered including several links to the numerous interviews that had been conducted with Stefan Pryor, the former Secretary to the Commerce Corporation, which ConvergenceRI had conducted during the last six years, but decided that it might be too much information for Fagan.

[See links below to ConvergenceRI stories: “One-on-one with Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor,” “Stefan Pryor and the blue-tech horizon,” “Stefan Pryor shares his positive view of the economic future of RI,” “Talking the pulse of the RI Innovation Economy.”]

Unbelievably, Fagan then sent ConvergenceRI a belated invitation to attend the Monday, Oct. 24, event: “If you are available on Monday, please join us at the below event,” Fagan wrote. “This is a great example of a key life science infrastructure investment in RI. Hope you can make it!”

I’m not dead yet
ConvergenceRI had also reached out to the Rhode Island Foundation, asking similar questions to those that were asked of Fagan, directing them to Chris Barnett, the Foundation's spokesperson, indicating that there was a Friday at 5 p.m. deadline.

On Friday afternoon, at 4:22 p.m., frustrated at not yet having received any response from Barnett, ConvergenceRI reached out again, with the subject heading for the email, “I’m not dead yet,” cc’ed to Neil Steinberg.

At 5:12 p.m., the responses were received:

ConvergenceRI: A key ingredient of the Massachusetts Life Sciences initiative was the ongoing data collected as part of the “Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy,” begun in 1997. That “ingredient” appears to be totally missing from the latest study; are there any plans to create a similar kind of data analysis? If not, why not?
BARNETT: Too early in the process to tackle that level of detail at this point.

[Editor’s Note: The cornerstone of the Massachusetts life sciences initiative was the creation in 1997 of the Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy. To say that it is “too early in the process to tackle that level of detail” is an admission of not understanding what happened in Massachusetts.]

ConvergenceRI: The study did not appear to interview anyone from the John Adams Innovation Institute, which was the driving force behind the creation of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Institute. Does this represent a fundamental flaw in the study?
BARNETT: The consultants have significant experience and contacts with the structure and organizations in Massachusetts.

[Editor’s Note: The author of the latest study, Damon Cox, had served on the board of advisors of Mass Challenge, a startup funded by the John Adams Innovation Institute in 2009. The authors of the study conducted JLL, following roundtable discussions organized by the Rhode Island Foundation, were both former executives with the Massachusetts Life Science Center, Travis McCready and Robert Coughlin.

The failure to research and engage with Patrick Larkin, the original director of the John Adams Innovation Institute, leaves out a substantial historical context of what Massachusetts did – and why it succeeded.]

ConvergenceRI: Has anyone from the Rhode Island Foundation actually visited the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the UMass Amherst campus? If not, why not?
BARNETT: Not our role, but the consultants have significant experience and contacts with the structure and organizations in Massachusetts.

[Editor’s Note: The UMass campus in Amherst, Mass., is less than a two-hour drive from Providence. The total lack of curiosity about the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, one of the principal investments made by the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, with its three core centers – translational research, the center for bioactive delivery, and the center for personalized health monitoring – demonstrates what is missing from the latest attempt to jumpstart the life sciences sector in Rhode Island. Here is Rhode Island about to hype the construction of a state public health lab, and there is no desire to learn about the choices that Massachusetts made.]

Irritability factor

Last week, I wrote about nearly getting hit and killed by a speeding car, which had been driving recklessly through a crosswalk on Hope Street – and the problems inherent when one is disabled of not being seen. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, "We all live off Hope Street."]

Talking, writing and sharing, in a transparent manner, about my current health conditions apparently has created its own set of risks and downsides. This week, I find myself with the uncomfortable task of writing about the problem of being discounted by others, being seen, apparently, as “old and in the way."

In PART Two, ConvergrenceRI revisits the history of broken-down roadmaps that infected previous efforts to jumpstart the life sciences industry sector.

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