Innovation Ecosystem

New life forms take center stage

An interview with Carol Malysz, executive director of RI Bio, fills in the background of the landscape for the new RI Life Science Hub

Photo by Richard Asinof

Carol Malysz, executive director of RI Bio, is poised to help lead the Rhode Island life sciences industry into the next economic frontier.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/8/24
An interview with Carol Malysz, executive director of RI Bio, reveals how much of the narrative surrounding the plans for the $45 million RI Life Science Hub still needs to be written and envisioned. The biggest challenges facing the new Hub include how to create the missing data infrastructure – and whether the new Hub will champion the work being conducted by Rhode Island women researchers in the life sciences.
How will the new board of directors of the RI Life Science Hub reflect the diverse population of Rhode Island and its life sciences expertise? When will Neil Steinberg, nominated to be the board chair of the new RI Life Science Hub, organize a tour of the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst in order to learn about ways to embed companies within the academic research enterprise? How can an academic partnership be created to support the publishing of an annual Index of the Rhode Island Innovation Economy? How can the expertise and knowledge of Dr. Annie De Groot, one of Rhode Island’s biotech pioneers, be tapped into helping to develop strategies for the new Life Sciences Hub? What are the opportunities to explore the relationship between endocrine disruptors found in plastics and the growing incidence of breast cancer in Rhode Island to create a research-based program of prevention?
The recent collapse of the stock price of Medical Properties Trust, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the world’s largest owners of hospital real estate, may have big financial implications for both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Medical Properties Trust stock price fell by 30 percent on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, reflecting financial problems with uncollected rents and outstanding loan obligations from the Steward Health Care System, a major tenant and borrower with significant facilities in Massachusetts.
Medical Properties Trust, in turn, is also an apparent player in the efforts underway by the Centurion Foundation, based in Atlanta, Georgia, to purchase Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital from Prospect Medical Holdings, the private equity owner of the two Rhode Island hospitals. The Centurion Foundation’s application under the Hospital Conversions Act under Rhode Island law was finally deemed “complete” after numerous previous applications had been found to be incomplete by the R.I. Attorney General’s office and the R.I. Department of Health.
The financial instability of major hospital systems in Rhode Island and the apparent contraction of the biotech industry in Massachusetts – as well as the ongoing crisis in health care staffing needs – point to the need to rethink the pipeline envisioned by the new Life Sciences Hub when it comes to venture capital and private equity financing tied to hospitals. Caveat emptor.

PROVIDENCE – Just outside Carol Malysz’s window in her office space at 225 Dyer St., the state’s new public health laboratory is finally under construction, taking shape after a long hiatus – more than a year since the ceremonial groundbreaking that was filled with promises, held on Monday afternoon, Oct. 24, 2022. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “An arranged marriage between public health, real estate.”]

For Malysz, executive director of RI Bio, a biotech industry advocacy group, the construction phase of the public health laboratory is a strong positive sign that there are new life forms taking shape in Rhode Island’s life science and innovation ecosystem.

Malysz occupies a critical vantage point in the state’s efforts to build out its life sciences industry sector – nearly 20 years after Massachusetts first made its seminal $1 billion investment in 2007, the highest sector-based public investment in the history of the Commonwealth.

The narrative being shaped around the state’s $45 million investment in creating a new, RI Life Science Hub as a quasi-public agency, with a board of directors to be chaired by Neil Steinberg, the former president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, is one that Steinberg characterized as a “can-do” approach during his advice and consent hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. The committee endorsed his candidacy unanimously

In his testimony, Steinberg described the new Hub as a “start-up” venture, a pilot, one he said that was following in the footsteps of Massachusetts – placing a strong emphasis on the importance of venture investment, workforce development, and the creation of wet labs for the biotech industry as his top priorities.

In her interview with ConvergenceRI, which took place in late December of 2023, Malysz’s offered a view of the life sciences landscape that was far more nuanced. She acknowledged that there were still some missing ingredients in the state’s recipe for success in building out the state’s life sciences industry sector:

“We need Rhode Island-driven data,” Malysz said, endorsing the idea of the need to create an Index of the Rhode Island Innovation Economy, one that was modeled on the Massachusetts’ Index.

Malysz also said she liked the idea of a co-sponsoring a conversation featuring a number of top Rhode Island woman scientists – Dr. Audrey Tyrka, co-director of the COBRE Center on Stress, Trauma and Resilience and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School; Dr. Jill Maron, Chief of Pediatrics, Women & Infants Hospital; and Dr. Anne De Groot, CEO/CSO of EpiVax, to present data from their ongoing research, perhaps with Dr. Anya Rader Wallack, administrative director of the Advance-CTR translational research initiative, serving as a moderator.

“We’ve done a lot of work in trying to help women advance in the life sciences,” Malysz said, agreeing with ConvergenceRI that there was a need for such conversations.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Carol Malysz, executive director of RI Bio, with Rhode Island on the cusp of launching the new $45 million RI Life Science Hub, with two years to spend down the $45 million.

ConvergenceRI: Let me ask you: What is going on with RI Bio? You are poised to make great leaps, it seems.  
MALYSZ: It’s a great time. It is a great time for RI Bio. It is a great time for Rhode Island, with a $45 million investment that really holds a lot of promise for what we can do.

And, I think that the community is looking for the entrepreneurial resources and support. How can we help small startups grow? How can we connect them? How can we help them scale up? How can we support the infrastructure to go with that?

The commercial space at the new state health lab, with 112,000 square feet available for private entities, is important. And then we have 31,000 square feet here on the top floor [of 225 Dyer St.] that is available that could become additional lab space – or it could be [the home] for a company, it depends on who finds the space attractive.

The infrastructure is important. I love watching out my window as the health lab [construction] progresses every day.

ConvergenceRI: How will people access the $45 million?  
MALYSZ: That is all to be determined. The first step is for the board to be appointed for the new R.I. Life Science Hub, and they are in the process of doing that.  I think you will hear about the board in January.

And then, once the board is appointed, they will meet. And then, they will start working on strategy for investing that $45 million. So, there isn’t an answer right now. Because that all has to be determined.

ConvergenceRI: Are they going to appoint any women to the board?  
MALYSZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. I know that they are meaning to have a diverse board, because they have asked for some suggestions.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that I am interested in purusing, as I mentioned in my email, is an opportunity for Dr. Jill Maron to present the latest data from the clinical research she is conducting with saliva swabs of newborns and rapid genomic sequencing. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The promise of saliva assays knows few boundaries.”] That seems to me to be an opportunity to build a hub around that research with a worldwide market. Is that something that you at RI Bio would be interested in co-sponsoring?  
MALYSZ: Absolutely. One thing that you should know is that once the RI Life Science Hub board is appointed, there is a plan to convene a community gathering.

ConvergenceRI: One idea I had driving here this morning was to think about what life science researchers might be part of a conversation. One was Dr. Maron. Another was Dr. Audrey Tyrka, who was recently appointed chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School, with the goal of highlighting women researchers in the life sciences.

MALYSZ: Women in science is a very important topic, particularly for us at RI Bio. We have a whole “women in science” series on our website, where we focus on women that are making advances in the life sciences.

ConvergenceRI: Even before the board of the new Hub gets off the ground, is that conversation something you would be willing to help me put together?  
MALYSZ: Absolutely. Absolutely.

ConvergenceRI: By being able to highlight the research that Dr. Tyrka and Dr. Maron are conducting, it would help to put more focus on early childhood development.

Another potential area of conversation would be around prevention strategies around chronic diseases by reducing exposure to toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors.

For instance, Rhode Island has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the nation. The Silent Spring Institute has been doing a bang-up job on research related to the relationship of endocrine disruption and breast cancer. 

It seemed like that might be an opportunity to bring their researchers here to talk about that, so you are not just talking about therapy and cures, but you are talking about prevention.  
MALYSZ: Absolutely.

ConvergenceRI: How do we talk about what causes cancer – if we do not talk about it?
MALYSZ: It makes me think about, last year, we had a men’s health night, where we brought in Rhode Island Medical Imaging, to talk about imaging for men, because no one talks about that. It’s not just women; it’s men, too.

ConvergenceRI: A potential third conversation, which I am curious about is, is about pharmacology. I saw that Kerry La Plante got appointed to be the dean of Pharmacology at URI. She strikes me as a very talented person.  
MALYSZ: She is.

ConvergenceRI: As much as we talk about drug development, a lot of the focus has been on “orphan drugs,” or “orphan diseases,” if I am phrasing that right. And, I was wondering is there a way to talk about perhaps bringing in Dr. Annie De Groot to talk about biosimilars, if that is the right word, talking about where the future of pharmacy is. Because, right now, the number-one reason why medical costs are going up, according to many of the health insurers, is because of the costs of specialty drugs.

Once again, what I’m trying to say: how would you go about setting up these discussions? Should they be conferences? Should they be half-day sessions? Are they simply smaller groups where people get together and talk? What have you found at RI Bio to be the most effective way to have a conversation?  
MALYSZ: First, having conversations with the experts is really helpful, because then you have an idea about what they may have done before. And, what’s worked for them.

I’ll give you an example: Rhode Island College is scouting an immune biotechnology program. And so, we had a session there with industry, with government, with some of our board members, to talk with Rhode Island College about how they can differentiate themselves in the market. What is their competitive advantage? What kind of biotech training should they be doing that is different than other biotech training programs in the state?

We planned that, through a series of meetings, talking about what might be effective. And then, we thought, having industry there was really important, because they were going to be hiring those people, and so you need everybody at the table to talk about what’s important for the education side, what’s important for the industry side, how do they collaborate.

One of the main things that came out of that [conversation] is that while Ph.D. students are really valued in the workplace, we still need the entry-level people – the people with basic lab skills, with customer service skills, with warehousing skills, with environmental skills. They need the pipeline. And, who can provide that here in the state?

It was a very valuable discussion about that.

ConvergenceRI: It seems to me that you have identified a three-part process. One is an intial gathering of people to talk…  

ConvergenceRI: Then, a larger gathering, when you would bring in industry and talk about what the needs are, and how you meet those needs…  
MALYSZ: Absolutely. As an advocacy organization, our role at RI Bio is really to bring industry and academia and government to the table to have those kinds of discussions.

I find that the preliminary discussions are helpful, with the key players, and then, to plan a larger gathering from there.

ConvergenceRI: I know that I have been critical in my reporting, wondering where the data is for the biotech industry. And, what I have seen, so far, is the apparent lack of data, compared to what Massachusetts did, when it to created an “Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy.” They have been publishing that Index since 1997. They are approaching 30 years. Is there a similar database here in Rhode Island that exists?  
MALYSZ: We use the information that from the Tech Economy report. It’s a report that comes from Bio. So we do have some basic information. However, what you are describing is something would be very valuable here. We could use much more data.

ConvergenceRI: How could we set that up? What would you need? Is that one of the first items on the agenda for the new Life Science Hub board?  
MALYSZ: That is definitely going to be on the mind of the R.I. Life Science Hub board: the data.

ConvergenceRI: In setting up the preliminary opportunity discussion, what I would do if I were king of the forest…MALYSZ: [laughter]

ConvergenceRI: …I would invite Pat Larkin, the executive director of the John Adams Innovation Institute – to describe how the Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy got set up and how it functions under the auspices of an academic collaboration. Could that type of partnership exist here in Rhode Island out of Bryant or another university here in Rhode Island to run and manage the data inputs, in order to create the sustainable infrastructure to do that? That will give you a stream of data that I think is needed to support the new Hub.  
MALYSZ: I think that would be a really good area of focus. And very valuable. We really need that data. We need Rhode Island-driven data.

ConvergenceRI: Having the capability of having that data and bringing that to the forefront allows you to make data-driven decisions.  

ConvergenceRI: The second thing that I would recommend – and I don’t know whether you have done that, or not – is actually visit the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst. Have you had the opportunity to go up and visit that facility?  
MALYSZ: I have not.

ConvergenceRI: If you drive, I would be happy to arrange, if I can, a tour for you to go up and see what they are doing, because I think it will provide a road map for what the industry and the life sciences hub, might consider doing here, perhaps through URI, about how you bring in industry to partner with the researh.

 Companies are embedded at the facility doing state of the art research on product development.  
MALYSZ: Sure, I would appreciate that interaction.

ConvergenceRI: I am throwing out a lot of ideas here…  
MALYSZ: And they are all good.

ConvergenceRI: I keep hearing about the need for wet lab space. Has that been quantified at all? Have there been any studies? Actual studies about the demand for wet lab space? Who needs it? Who is driving it? Because I have not seen the studies. I have heard anecdotally from people in the industry saying we need wet labs…

MALYSZ: Right.

ConvergenceRI: Pat Larkin said he was unsure if any marketing studies that had been done, and he said he wasn’t sure where the need was. Nationally, he said that the market for wet lab spaces had been overbuilt, and he suspected that there was not the demand for it.

MALYSZ:I think that CommerceRI has been working on that.  There has been an inventory done on all of the wet lab facilities in the country.

What we might need here has come from conversations with companies like Bolden Therapeutics [a biotechnology developing first-in-class therapeutics to promote neurogenesis for potential treatment of CNS diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ischemic stroke, according to the company’s website]] that received the golden ticket [Biogen-LabCentral award] to go to Cambridge but would have stayed here if they had had the lab space.

Those are some of the anecdotal stories. I don’t think there has been an in-depth market study. But, in talking to our companies, you know how small a state we are, we’re talking to everyone on a daily basis.

We hear those stories, and that is why the promise of that space in the public health lab [112,000 square feet] is so encouraging.

And so, we have started to keep a list of people who have expressed an interest of wanting to go into that wet lab space.

It has been a lot of what I would say is “grassroots” kind of work – talking to people, taking down the information about what size space they may need, when they might need it, why they might need it, what kind of work are they doing where they might need the wet lab space. It has not been put into a big report, but we all have been talking.

ConvergenceRI: As you grow RI Bio, where do you want to take it? What are the next steps? You clearly will play an integral role with the new Life Science Hub. I don’t know how they are going to invest their money. I don’t know if they have a strategy; $45 million is a lot of money. And it’s not a lot of money.  
MALYSZ: Right, right. And it has to be spent within a two-year window. But, to answer you question about RI Bio, the R.I. Life Science Hub model is based on the Mass. Life Sciences model. Mass. Life Sciences is an organization that provides workforce development…

ConvegenceRI: [interrupting] To be clear, we are talking about the actual Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative, the billion-dollar investment that was established though the advocacy of the John Adams Innovation Institute, through Pat Larkin and Gov. Deval Patrick.  
MALYSZ: Yes, Correct. In that model, Mass Bio is the industry-facing partner to Mass Life Sciences. So, that is the role that RI Bio will play. We will be the industry-facing partner.

R.I. Life Science Hub will really be responsible for taking that $45 million and investing it in appropriate projects and organizations, and RI Bio will continue to grow as a member-based organization, as an advocacy-based organization. We provide training to new hires and to incumbent workers; we ran a biotech boot camp for the first time last year, where we took people from diverse backgrounds and provided them with exposure to life sciences and a potential career path.

And, we put them through a two-week intensive training with not only basic lab skills and science skills, but also in collaboration with Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, we worked with them on resume writing, interviewing, all the job seeking skills, and we are now working on placing those people in positions, for example, with East Side Clinical Labs. Some of AMGEN suppliers have entry-level positions.

Trying to increase the pipeline [for workers] is really important in Rhode Island. Bringing the level of visibility to life sciences is very important; we are going to continue to do our work on that. We are going to continue to let all Rhode Islanders know about opportunities in life sciences. That it is not just for Ph.D.s. It is for people of any background who can get in that pipeline. And, we are going to provide opportunities for them to get into that pipeline. So, that’s really important.



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