Innovation Ecosystem

Will Rhode Island make and the world take?

Efforts to jump start the advanced manufacturing industry sector in RI may face some significant barriers

Photo by Richard Asinof

The Providence/Wexford Innovation Center is the new home of the New England offices of Crowley Maritime, which celebrated its new office location with a ribbon cutting ceremony featuring Gov. Dan McKee.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/11/21
The efforts to jump start the advanced manufacturing industry sector in Rhode Island seems to be caught up in a lack a curiosity to learn from what other states are doing.
Where do the urgent threats of climate change intersect with efforts around manufacturing in Rhode Island? How does the ubiquitous nature of plastic detritus in our oceans, in our rivers, and in our own bodies threaten our public health? What reporters covering the innovation economy in Rhode Island have read “The age of surveillance capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff? Will Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, be willing to lead a fact-finding mission to visit the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst or the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn.?
One of the seminal works of author Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye,” is the target of a campaign by members of the Virginia Beach school board to have it pulled from the school system’s libraries and blocked electronically because of its alleged pornographic content.
Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, is under attack, much like those who have opposed the 1619 Project and the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. Rhode Island, with its long, intimate history connected the slave trade, finds itself confronting a new kind of “bonfire of the vanities,” which was practiced by the Savonarola in Florence, beginning in 1495.
The ongoing excesses of the anti-vaccination movement in Rhode Island, with its rabid anti-science platform, should be perceived as a threat to the future economic security and prosperity of the state.

PROVIDENCE – Last week, there were continuing signs of renewed activity along the front lines of the innovation economy enterprise in Rhode Island.

The Crowley Maritime Corporation held a ribbon cutting on Wednesday, Oct. 7, to announce the opening of the firm’s new office in Rhode Island to advance the development and operation of offshore wind energy installations.

The Rhode Island office is located at 225 Dyer St., the Providence/Wexford Innovation Center, home to the Rhode Island division of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a hopeful harbinger that what is known as “The Blue Economy” may be picking up some steam in the Ocean State.

“I am proud to welcome Crowley to Rhode Island as the latest key contributor to our state’s thriving innovation economy,” said Gov. Dan McKee, in a news release. “Crowley’s diverse expertise in the offshore wind sector and marine enterprise at large will be an invaluable asset as Rhode Island continues to lead the nation toward a clean, renewable energy future.” The Governor participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the firm’s arrival in Rhode Island.

Recently, Crowley, through its New Energy subsidiary Crowley Wind Services, announced the pending purchase of 42 acres near Salem Harbor in Massachusetts as the firm seeks to become the long-term offshore wind port operator for the site serving the first utility-scale U.S. offshore wind project by Vineyard Wind Partners, according the news release issued to accompany the ribbon-cutting.

“We look forward to working with the company as we further strengthen Rhode Island’s position at the center of America’s Blue Economy,” said CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor.

On the biotech beat
Last week, real estate mogul Joseph Paolino, Jr., announced that the Rhode Island Foundation was funding a new study of the potential for the life sciences industry sector to find a home in the former I-195 land. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Another study planned to jump start life sciences sector.”]

On the biotech/life sciences news front, RI Bio announced it is co-hosting a number of upcoming seminars, including one that is part of the series, Reinvention 2021: The Evolving Workplace, entitled “Creating a positive and inclusive company culture,” to be held on Wednesday, Oct. 20, from 9 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. It is being co-sponsored by the MarshMcLennan Agency, Sophaya and the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.

The next day, on Thursday, Oct. 21, from 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m., RI Bio is co-hosting a Women in Science Speaker Series, entitled “Selfcare in the Time of COVID-19,” featuring Dr. Bianca Carpentier, a radiologist with Rhode Island Medical Imaging, and Siobhain Sullivan. COO, Clinical Operations at Rhode Island Medical Imaging. The discussion will be moderated by Courtenay Needham, the development manager for the American Cancer Society.

As the program’s description reads, “October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but no matter the month, women need to take care of their health, not just for themselves but for their loved ones as well.”

How to manufacture your product
On the advanced manufacturing front, as part of “Rhode Island’s Startup Week” beginning on Monday, Oct. 18, Polaris MEP is running an event entitled, “How To Manufacture Your Product, on Tuesday, Oct. 19, at 3 p.m.

To get a better sense of the ongoing activities surrounding Polaris MEP, ConvergenceRI sent a series of questions to Kathie Mahoney, the director of the Polaris MEP center.

Here are her responses:

ConvergenceRI: Is this the first tangible collaboration between two innovation campus hubs funded by the 2016 $20 million bond?
MAHONEY: No. RIHub has been collaborating on a number of fronts with organizations that are part of the innovation ecosystem since we started in November of 2019.

As an example we helped to connect Rhode Island business, GC USA [Graphene Composite] with 401 Tech Bridge in 2020.

MassChallenge, a member of RIHub, has created a deep connection with 401 Tech Bridge, and together they have launched a “Blue Tech” accelerator track for MassChallenge.

None of us work in a vacuum, and it is essential that we continuously collaborate. RIHub and 401 Tech Bridge are the only two innovation campuses associated directly with the $20 million bond [to my understanding]. Polaris MEP and 401 Tech Bridge are both organizations under the URI Research Foundation umbrella. Polaris MEP is part of the Hollings MEP program through the U.S. Department of Commerce.

[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Two more innovation campus awards announced.”]

ConvergenceRI: How does this collaboration tie into manufacturing startup week beginning on Oct. 18?
MAHONEY: If you are asking about “Rhode Island’s” Startup Week from Oct 18 - 22, Polaris is running an important event for entrepreneurs: How to Manufacture Your Product on Tuesday, Oct. 19, at 3 p.m.

ConvergenceRI: In the last two years, approximately how many manufacturing startups have there been in Rhode Island?
MAHONEY: We are not sure of the exact number.

ConvergenceRI: What are the biggest hurdles a manufacturing startup faces in Rhode Island?
MAHONEY: Like all industries, a skilled workforce is the biggest challenge facing manufacturing companies. Related specifically to startups, this partnership will explore those concerns and then work together to address possible solutions.

ConvergenceRI: How many of the startups are involved with the development of new textile products or new uses of textile products?
MAHONEY: I do not know the answer to this question; we have a lot of work to do to make these discoveries at RIHub.

RIHub has a deep database of all startups in Rhode Island, this continues to change as new companies are formed and others go away. We have been tracking digital companies until now. With this new and very important relationship with Polaris MEP, RIHub will be tracking manufacturing startups more specifically.

ConvergenceRI: How many of the startups are potential spin-offs of new intellectual property developments?
MAHONEY: I don’t know, and I’m not sure what you are asking. Plenty of startups develop their own Intellectual Property. Some startups can spin out of large corporations leveraging IP from the large company.

Still others can start by leveraging Technology Transfer from universities. We do not have this information about IP, [and about] how many IP spinouts there have been in the past few years here in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: RI Bio has been conducting classes for companies in the biotech/life sciences sector about how to “run” a company. Are there similar kinds of assistance planned for new manufacturing firms in your sector?
MAHONEY: Through this relationship with RIHub, Polaris MEP will be able to offer programs to help manufacturing entrepreneurs to get the skills they need to start, finance and run their businesses.

RIHub offers a number of 'startup courses, such as “Customer Discovery,” “Operating Your Company,” and “Making Your Pitch.” Polaris MEP is working to implement programs specifically for startups to begin discussions with manufacturing companies.

ConvergenceRI: How big a problem is access to equity financing for new manufacturing firms?
MAHONEY: Not sure.

ConvergenceRI: How will this new relationship change the opportunities available to manufacturing entrepreneurs in Rhode Island?
MAHONEY: We are at the beginning of this relationship; however we deeply understand that connecting the skills, programs and networks from Polaris MEP and RIHub will significantly change what will be available to Rhode Island’s entrepreneurs.

Historically, we think about “high potential growth'” companies as those that offer digital-only solutions. However, just about every physical product being created now has an essential digital component.

You can’t buy a vacuum cleaner or automobile without complex digital systems involved. Our textiles and clothing are getting “smart.” If you consider the robotics industry alone, it was a $27.73 billion industry in 2020 and is expected to reach $74.1 billion by 2026, registering a compound annual growth rate [CAGR] of 17.45 percent.

If you are building robots [for use on land or sea], you must have an understanding of both the digital aspects and the “hard” product design and manufacturing of this product.

We see a need to reach out to the students, entrepreneurs and citizens of Rhode Island to connect the dots for them when it comes to designing, manufacturing and scaling up “start-up” businesses that offer physical products with digital components.

This is the future, and we now have a strong relationship to help entrepreneurs in our region to take advantage of this important future.

Observations
Editor’s Note: Having worked as a consultant for the John Adams Innovation Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, on issues pertaining the innovation economy in Massachusetts, including the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative, the expansion of broadband, positioning of the advanced manufacturing industry sector, the development of the academic high-speed computer research enterprise, and investments in the green energy industry sector, what was most striking about the responses by Mahoney was an apparent lack of curiosity, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

For Mahoney to say hat she did not know the extent of the difficulty in securing equity financing for new manufacturing startups in Rhode Island, or that she did not know what were the actual number of manufacturing startups in Rhode Island during the last few years, or to say she did not know about the potential interconnection between manufacturing startups in Rhode Island and the advanced textile industry in the state, was surprising.

Further, to put all of the eggs of jumpstarting the manufacturing startup sector in the digital basket seems a bit myopic at best, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

The Providence/Wexford Innovation Center has been held up as the jewel in the crown of Rhode Island’s innovation economy, but it pales in comparison to the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, or the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine facility in Farmington, Conn. Those facilities offer a completely different model of investment based on building an academic scientific research  innovation hub.

[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Is Rhode Island willing to change its “not made here” culture?]

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