Research Engine

Northeastern U., RI, on verge of grant to foster regional bio-pharma industry

The Build Back Better Regional Partnership seeks to support the growth of industry cluster in RI

Photo courtesy of Tim Leshan Twitter feed

Representatives of Northeastern University meet with Rhode Island team to discuss regional partnership collaboration, to be potentially awarded new federal grant on Dec. 10

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/29/21
The state of Rhode Island stands on the cusp of receiving a $500,000 federal grant for Phase One of a regional collaboration with Northeastern University to grow the bio-pharmaceutical industry cluster in the state.
Would it make sense to consult with Dr. Annie De Groot, co-founder, CEO and CSO of EpiVax, on potential design of commercial space that would be part of the new public health lab? What is the potential of involving the bioinformatics industry cluster as a partner in the development of the public health lab? How would intellectual property involved with the partnership with Northeastern University be channeled? Is there an opportunity for the state to develop a different kind of equity investment vehicle to help start-up firms make the transition to commercial stage companies?
As much as the common denominators in discussing industry clusters often involve conversations around real estate values, attracting private equity investments, and capturing the dividends of intellectual property and licensing, the key ingredients to make an enterprise succeed revolve around talent recruitment and the chemistry created around teamwork.
Success is often determined by the human qualities inherent in the enterprise, which is something that those in government and industry should be paying close attention to when it comes to public health in Rhode Island. The staff at the R.I. Department of Health and at hospitals and nursing homes and other health facilities have been stretched too thin by the demands of the pandemic – and many may be reaching a breaking point, where they find employment in other industries, because the work of caring has become so unfulfilling.
It should not just be about building a new public health lab but providing the kind of working environment where the staff can be most productive – and be rewarded for their hard work. The same seems to be true on the education front in the Providence public schools, where teachers with longevity are leaving the district in droves.

PROVIDENCE – On Friday, Dec. 10, Rhode Island will learn whether its proposed collaborative bio-manufacturing Phase 1 grant for $500,000, in partnership with Northeastern University under the $1 billion “Build Back Better Regional Challenge” under the American Rescue Plan Act, has been successful. The Rhode Island-Northeastern University regional partnership is competing against 529 applicants.

The goal of the regional partnership program is grow new regional industry clusters or scale existing clusters through planning, infrastructure, innovation and entrepreneurship, workforce development, and access to capital, according to the grant announcement from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a bureau within the U.S. Commerce Department headed by former Gov. Gina Raimondo.

In a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor was bullish on the prospects to receive the grant.

“We have looked at Massachusetts as an example and as a potential partner around biosciences,” Pryor said during the interview. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “One-on-one with Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor.”]

Pryor continued: “Recently, the federal government had issued solicitations for potential grant making, one of those processes is called, ‘Build Back Better Regional Challenge.’ Rhode Island has joined forces with Northeastern University in Massachusetts around bioscience in applying for one of these grants.”

Pryor sketched in the thinking behind the partnership. “We have specifically allied ourselves with Northeastern because they have expertise and capacity regarding tech transfer particular to R&D translated into bio-pharmaceutical manufacturing.”

Bio-pharma manufacturing, Pryor said, was “an area where Rhode Island has recently done well, with the arrival of Amgen, including multiple construction projects and multiple manufacturing facilities. And, with Rubius Pharmaceuticals, with its R&D out of Cambridge, Mass., and its manufacturing facility in Smithfield. We know this is something we can undertake.”

Whatever happens with this particular grant, Pryor said, he expects that the alliance with Massachusetts and Northeastern University will continue to build out the bio-pharmaceutical manufacturing cluster on a regional basis, working with local key players, such as RI Bio.

Meeting of the minds
On Nov. 15, a team from Northeastern University, led by Tim Leshan, Vice Provost for Research, Government Affairs, and Strategic Partnerships, met with folks from Rhode Island at CommerceRI headquarters. “It is exciting to be in Rhode Island to meet with our partners at CommerceRI for #BuildBackBetter,” Leshan tweeted.

The next day, more good news arrived for the biotech sector in Rhode Island, with the announcement by the Rhode Island Congressional delegation that the state had secured a $81.7 million federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to enable the R.I. Department of Health to build a new state-of-the-art public health laboratory facility.

The need for such a new facility to replace the aging facility on Orms Street is apparen; the current lab has required more than $500,000 in annual capital expenditures to keep the laboratory working efficiently, according to the R.I. Department of Health. The need for a new lab was further exacerbated by the increased demand for testing COVID-19 samples.

At one point, the plans for a new public health laboratory were supposed to be included in a series of bond proposals that went before the voters in March of 2020, but it was dropped from inclusion with the other bonds, without explanation, by the R.I. General Assembly and by former Gov. Raimondo.

Now, with federal funding secured, there is a concerted push to build the new public health lab on the former I-195 land, in conjunction with Brown University, according to reports.

As Secretary Pryor told ConvergenceRI in his recent interview, he envisioned that the “health complex will also serve as a catalyst for the bioscience industry [in Rhode Island]. Our goal, Pryor continued, “is to enable the lab itself, the R.I. Department of Health lab, to serve as an anchor for development; it will include commercial space and it will enable incubation for new ventures that will help to advance the [bioscience] industry.”

A future RI biotech industry cluster?
Exactly what kind of commercial development would be sought after for the facility that housed the new public health lab remains an open question, according to Pryor.

In the interview with Pryor, ConvergenceRI suggested that the Secretary take a field trip to visit the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, to see how that facility has positioned itself to marry together industry and the academic research enterprise.

Another potential field trip for Rhode Island would be to visit the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn., particularly since Northeastern University and its research on what is known as the “Human Proteoform Project, seeking to outline the millions of forms of proteins that make up the human body.

Further, the groundbreaking research being conducted by Dr. Jill Maron, director of Pediatrics at Women & Infants Hospital, who is running two national clinical trials using saliva assays to identify the immune biomarker responses in newborns, offers another potential anchor for the new laboratory facility. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “On the cusp of a revolution in the care of newborns.”]

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