Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

What we don’t talk about when we talk about innovation

A brief history of RI’s broken-down innovation highway

Photo by Richard Asinof

Dignitaries throw ceremonial shovels of dirt as part of the official groundbreaking at the Wexford Innovation Center in September of 2017.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/24/22
The decision to focus on the biotech/life sciences industry cluster in Rhode Island as a lever for economic prosperity has followed a difficult, bumpy path since 2013. To emulate what happened in Massachusetts and its $1 billion life sciences initiative, however, requires a better understanding of what actually occurred.
Would CommerceRI President Fagan be willing to travel with ConvergenceRI to visit the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst to learn about the approach they are taking with embedded research? How do Rhode Island’s health equity zones fit into the concept of future investments in the biotech/life sciences industry cluster? Is CommerceRI willing to have an open-minded discussion about investing in non-hospital centric health systems? Who is willing to partner with ConvergenceRI to stage an opportunity for Dr. Jill Maron to present the data from her clinical trials here in Rhode Island? Can the work being done by TestRI to identify contaminants within the illicit drug supply be amplified by investing in state-of-the-art technology being installed in CODAC’s mobile outreach van?
The current political landscape, with open support being voiced by candidates and media personalities for anti-Jewish sentiment, is frightening. As a Jew, that simmering hatred has always been something I have encountered – the woman in college who told me that she could smell Jews, because they had a rank smell, not realizing that I was Jewish, and the young boys on my block in suburban New Jersey who insisted they search behind my ears because the nuns had told them that all Jews had horns.
But what is happening now is different, it is far more serious and scary; it requires all of us to step forward and speak out. It is something that the news media should demand of all candidates running for elected office: will they publicly denounce such behavior?


PROVIDENCE – Not surprisingly, a distinct pattern of hubris and arrogance emerges from reviewing the historical record of efforts to push forward with the state’s economic investments toward economic prosperity, in the manner that it addressed --- or failed to address – the biotech and life sciences industry cluster in Rhode Island.

To provide the historical perspective, ConvergenceRI has put together a brief but detailed history of the flawed process of creating studies and roadmaps, which explains in large part why Rhode Island has gotten lost so many times along this journey.

The history begins in the fall of 2013, when the first consultant’s study commissioned and paid for by the Rhode Island Foundation failed to even identify the life sciences industry sector as a prime economic opportunity.

The history then follows the next time Rhode Island got lost, attempting to follow the roadmap laid out in 2015-2016 by the Brookings Institution, in a study once again funded primarily by the Rhode Island Foundation, with the state’s economic development agency as the client – and the problematic manner that innovation was defined.

There were many tangents and pit stops along the way, all covered by ConvergenceRI. They included: the establishment of MedMates, a life sciences trade group, which went through six or seven iterations before evolving into RI BIO; the construction of the Wexford Innovation Center, with the Cambridge Innovation Center as a core tenant; and the effort to establish a series of campus innovation hubs, in partnership with URI, funded by a $20 million bond approved by voters in 2016.

There was yet another study, RI Innovates 2.0, written by Bruce Katz, of the principal authors of the Brookings Institution report, published in 2020 on the cusp of the COVID pandemic. It led ConvergenceRI to publish: “What does public health have to do with future prosperity in Rhode Island?” The story becomes perhaps even more relevant this week, as the state celebrates commencing construction on the state’s public health laboratory. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

Recounting the state’s innovation journey is, in many ways, like viewing a family photo album of a road trip taken along the former Route 66 before there was an interstate highway system.

• In late November of 2013, the Rhode Island Foundation, as part of its efforts to push the state toward economic prosperity, working in partnership with the state’s economic development agency, then known as R.I. Economic Development Corporation, shared a 13-slide PowerPoint deck prepared by The Fourth Economy, a Pittsburgh, Penn.-based consulting firm, with “a select group of Rhode Island business leaders from the private sector,” along with a hand-picked of news media. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “This is a story for open, transparent, conversation purposes.”]

The sectors targeted as market opportunities for Rhode Island by the three-month, $75,000 study were: a “manufacturing revolution,” the “food value web,” “marine and water as an economic driver,” and “business ecosystem.” What’s missing?

As ConvergenceRI reported at that time: “The absence of the academic medical research engine from the targeted market opportunities is striking, according to a number of [stakeholders], because it attracts tens of millions of dollars in research grants to Rhode Island hospitals and universities each year.”

Another glaring omission identified by ConvergenceRI was: “The emergence of Rhode Island as a hub for neurosciences research and talent, particularly given the statewide collaborative efforts now underway in brain research.”

A third big omission ConvergenceRI reported on: The lack of discussion around the $16 billion health care delivery system in Rhode Island.

[Editor’s Note: The formula followed by the Rhode Island Foundation in 2013 – convening business stakeholders, hiring business consultants to produce reports, then advocating for the report’s conclusions as the basis for future targeted investments by the state, persists to this day.]

Raising a ruckus about the flawed road map
ConvergenceRI’s reporting about the apparent “omissions” raised enough of a ruckus that a separate roadmap session was convened on Jan.6, 2014. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “In pursuit of market intersections, did business leaders discover a cul-de-sac of self-interest?”]

After the formal conclusion of the added special session, participants Richard Horan, then the senior managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, John Donoghue, then director of the Brown Institute of the Brain Science, and John Robson, then the administrative director of the Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University, engaged in a “fascinating” discussion of what a new state life sciences investment fund might look like. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Rhode Island’s new economic map will not be the territory it represents.”]

As ConvergenceRI had reported:

After the meeting [concluded], Horan, Donoghue and Robson first discussed possibilities on what would be needed to create a home for the brain sciences in Providence, a modern facility that would include space to conduct clinical trials, located in the area formerly known as The Jewelry District. Horan asked details about investments made by the Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in life sciences.

The ConvergenceRI story continued: Donoghue warned that despite the federal brain mapping initiative, it was wrong to expect that such studies would prove to be a cash cow for Rhode Island. It was also wrong, he continued, to put too much expectation on the neuroscience sector as an economic engine. The business model had yet to be proven, he said.

Further, the ConvergenceRI story reported how the conversation between Horan, Donoghue, and Robson had moved toward convergence on the issues avoided by the Rhode Island Foundation and the R.I. Economic Development Corporation: The discussion then veered toward the overall situation with the delivery of health care and health care reform in Rhode Island, the $16 billion elephant in the room that the planning effort by the Rhode Island Foundation and CommerceRI had studiously avoided including in their discussions of future economic market opportunities.

Biomedical innovation: There was a there there
In 2015, The Brookings Institution was hired by the Rhode Island Foundation to conduct an economic analysis of the state’s future economic opportunities. The preliminary findings were presented in October of 2015. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Informing the future economic agenda of RI.”]

• In October of 2015, the Brookings Institution presented its initial findings of a $1.5 million study of the future economic agenda for Rhode Island. The analysis targeted seven high potential growth areas, with five promising sectors identified for advanced industry, including: biomedical innovation; cyber and data analysis; maritime advanced business services; design materials and custom manufacturing.

As ConvergenceRI had reported: The only surprise was that biomedical innovation, a sector that had been left out by previous economic studies, now had achieved a more prominent position. The team had found that “There was a there there,” as one local president and CEO surmised.

In January of 2016, The Brookings Institution presented its final report, issuing a call for new investments between $70 million and $100 million in seven targeted industries and clusters. The final report was presented at the Rhode Island Foundation headquarters in January of 2016. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A history lesson about innovation.”] As ConvergenceRI had reported:

• What made ConvergenceRI sit up and pay close attention was the presentation given by Stefan Pryor, the secretary of CommerceRI, who spoke at length about the innovation economy and the network of entrepreneurs spawned by the Slater Mill and its engineering firms.

As ConvergenceeRI recounted: In Pryor’s view, the history lesson to be gleaned from the creation of the Slater Mill in 1793 was apparent. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “there was an innovation ecosystem that our state operated within, and we were pioneers in this field because people worked together, traded ideas and generated ideas together.”

The takeaway, Pryor had continued, was this: “Rhode Island had done it before, and we can do it again. We can change our trajectory, generate jobs, and create a brighter future.”

What got left out of the story?
ConvergenceRI then reported on what was missing from the tale about innovation at Slater Mill: What got left out of Pryor’s circumscribed history lesson was the fact that the system of child labor in Rhode Island began with the Slater Mill textile factory. Samuel Slater’s first employees were all children between the ages of 7 and 12. By 1830, about 55 percent of the mill workers in Rhode Island were children, according to historians. The children worked long hours in unhealthy conditions for wages of less than $1 per week.

Children were then replaced in part by women workers in the early 1820s with the introduction of the power loom, which allowed manufacturers to weave finished cloth by machine, which required adult laborers.

The Slater Mill was also the site of the first organized strike in America, when in May of 1824, 102 women workers left their looms after the mill owner’s announced a wage cut. It led to the other similar walkouts by women at Pawtucket’s other eight mills.

The immediate cause of the “turn-out,” as the strike was then called, was a decision by Pawtucket’s mill owners to cut female mill workers’ wages by 25 percent and extend the working day by one hour for all workers, according to an article by Joey L. DeFrancesco and David Segal published in 2014 by In These Times.

The Slater Mill had instituted what were deemed “innovative” systems by some [and draconian by others] for controlling its workers, including highly regimented factory time, with work hours counted down to the minute, factory bells and a company store.

Another part of the story not told by Pryor was the fact that Slater Mill was spinning cotton. Where did that cotton come from? And, how did it bolster the value of the ongoing slave trade through which many prosperous merchants in Rhode Island in Providence, in Bristol and in Newport, made their fortunes?

The ConvergenceRI reporting continued: The use of Slater Mill as a paradigm for Rhode Island’s future innovation ecosystem contained no small amount of irony, related to the gaps in income inequality created by the child labor and women mill workers 200 hundred years ago – and the current income inequality that exists today.

Another big missing component of the Brookings study was its failure to address affordable housing – what housing advocates in Rhode Island had described in the context of the state’s efforts around chasing job creation: “Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night.”

As ConvergenceRI reported: “Not surprisingly, two of the questions directed at Muro and Katz [the authors of the Brookings study], one from Rep. David Cicilline, the other from Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, were about apparent absence of investments in affordable housing in the recommendations.”

Innovation campuses
The next big “innovation” idea developed by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, working closely with CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor, was to develop a series of innovation campuses across Rhode Island, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, using a $20 million bond approved by voters in the 2016 election.

ConvergenceRI covered this effort extensively. [See links below to ConvergenceRi stories, “Making RI a hubbub of innovation,” “A giant step forward for the RI Innovation Economy,” “The next generation of innovation campuses in Rhode Island,” and “Two more innovation campus awards announced.”]

ConvergenceRI had also previously reported on the genesis of Gov. Raimondo’s thinking about innovation campuses, which she first broached during her gubernatorial campaign in 2015, with the focus on the advanced manufacturing sector, targeting the former Route 195 land. [See link to ConvergenceRI story, “Will Rhode Island make and the world take?”]

Innovation as commercial real estate investment
The next phase in how the state of Rhode Island decided to create its roadmap for innovation and the biotech/life sciences industry sector involved the building of the Wexford Innovation Center.

Once again, ConvergenceRI covered the events surrounding the Wexford Innovation Center, from its groundbreaking in September of 2017 through its official ribbon-cutting in July of 2019.

[See links below to ConvergtenceRI stories, “To life, liberty, innovation, and the pursuit of jobs,” “We view this as ground zero for innovation,” “To infinity and beyond: Day trip to a RI science fest,” and “The art, science of selling entrepreneurship in Rhode Island.”]

What still resonates for ConvergenceRI was the interview with Tim Rowe, the founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center and the Venture Café, at an event held on April 25, 2019, at South Street Landing, hosted by the Slater Technology Fund, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship at Brown University, and Venture Café Providence, to celebrate “innovation, inspiration, interconnectivity and investment.”

Rowe emphasized that the future success of Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem would revolve around the value of commercial real estate.

ConvergenceRI: How do you view the innovation ecosystem here in Rhode Island?
ROWE: You have strong universities. You have a lot of talent here that comes and works in Boston. So, you have the talent. What you need is a reason for people to want to stay here.

I think there is potential here to build some research clusters that are considered primary research clusters in their field. For instance, you are very strong in computational biology here.

If you can get enough companies in that area together, you will start to build a thesis that if you’re somewhere else on the Eastern seaboard or maybe in Israel, this would be a good place to [come to] if you’re in that field.

That’s what I would like to see here: picking three or four areas, deep areas where Rhode Island is specifically strong because of research, and then try to draw people in from afar.

ConvergenceRI: Do you see that as a money problem?
ROWE: Rhode Island has an economic challenge in that the price of the real estate here is lower than the cost of building real estate, if that’s what you mean.

That’s called upside down. And, so, Rhode Island is building its way out of that position. That would be, I think the vision for that. …The vision is to get enough activity so that rents get up to the point so that it’s no longer upside down. Yes, that’s an issue. I’m not sure if that was your question, though.

ConvergenceRI: My question was different. There is money for startups, but there is not enough money being invested in the companies to get them to the commercial stage market.
ROWE: I thought you were talking about the real estate side. Yes, but you’re within driving range of Boston. So, the Boston VCs, for a good technology, they’ll invest here.

I think there is a visibility issue more than is a total lack of access to capital. I think there is a lot of respect for the research that happens down here, so I am cautiously optimistic, particularly if you can build a bandwagon effect around a vertical.

What you’ll sometimes see in particular cities, ones that are not the world-leading city in everything, is that they’ve become the world leading in something. In fact, that is the history of Providence. The Jewelry District itself.

What comes next?
The Monday, Oct. 24, ceremony celebrating the beginning of construction on the state public health laboratory, with the lab embedded within a commercial real estate development, ushered in with the latest study commissioned by the Rhode Island Foundation, has traveled a bumpy road since 2013.

Whether or not this brief history of what has gone wrong with the roadmaps prepared by business consultants, analyzing the economic opportunities to be found in the biotech/life sciences innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island, raises enough of a ruckus to inject a desire for more nimbleness into the current plans is doubtful, to be honest.

Yes, the information is there, if the decision-makers want to find it. The documentation is there, if stakeholders are willing to take the time to read the stories. And, if the Congressional delegation and legislative leaders are curious enough to learn what really happened in Massachusetts, I am more than willing to talk with them.

What say you, Sen. Whitehouse? Sen. Reed? House Speaker Shekarchi? Senate President Ruggerio? CommerceRI President Hilary Fagan?


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