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Innovation Ecosystem

Two more innovation campus awards announced

To date, five awards totaling $14.4 million have been invested to create new innovation campuses in partnership with URI

Photo by Richard Asinof

Gov. Gina Raimondo, left, and Stefan Pryor, CommerceRI secretary, confer in advance of news event to announce the latest two awards for the creation of innovation campuses with URI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/7/19
CommerceRI announced the next two awards to create new innovation campuses in Rhode Island, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island.
When working with immunotherapy for cancer, what if any are the environmental considerations that need to be explored around the causes of cell mutations and disruptions of the microbiome from toxic substances as an investment in prevention? Given the demographic trends of an increasing aging population for Rhode Island, does there need to be a new kind of investment that looks at the problems of how single family homes no longer represent the needs of Rhode Island residents? Will the new advanced materials innovation campus be able to tackle the way that plastic materials contained in microfibre materials have become a major source of ocean and water pollution? Will the immunology nursing program being developed at URI be something that could be shared as part of the curriculum at Rhode Island College?
One of the more disliked facts about the explosion of social media platforms, perhaps, is the reality that many folks do not actually read the posts on Twitter or Facebook but instead respond to the comments, as kibitzers.
During the last month, when ConvergenceRI had major spine fusion surgery, resulting in a week in the hospital and another week and a half in rehab, including having to postpone an issue.
And, despite having been public about what had happened as part of the weekly content of ConvergenceRI, in an effort to be honest and transparent, many who attended the CommerceRI event [and who were subscribers] were surprised to see me wearing a neck brace and walking with a cane. They all wanted to know what had happened.
While the expressions of concern were heartfelt, meaningful and much appreciated, they were still somewhat surprising, given how much of the story had been revealed and shared in ConvergenceRI.
The answer is, perhaps, that collaboration is hard work, sharing is harder, and reading for content is even more difficult.

PROVIDENCE – The innovation process takes time; it is both long term and iterative. Perhaps that is one of the key takeaways that could be drawn from the announcement made by Gov. Gina Raimondo on Thursday, Oct. 3, at South Street Landing about the latest two awards for innovation campuses to be created in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, using funds from a $20 million bond proposal approved by Rhode Island voters three years ago in November of 2016.

Or, as Raimondo said, when she announced the initial three awards on Dec. 18, 2018, “Innovation is not just a relic of our past, it’s a door to our future,” with the caveat: it may take a long time for that door to the future to be pushed open. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Making RI a hubbub of innovation.”]

The two new innovation campus awards include:

The initiative known as “401 Tech Bridge” will receive $1 million in state funds, and in turn will leverage $5 million in matching investments from other sources, including the U.S. Department of Commerce. The partners include: Polaris MEP, Toray, Composites One, Hope Global, the International Yacht Restoration School of Technology and Trades, the Composites Alliance of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Textiles Innovation Network, the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, and DESIGNxRI. The goal is to create a “catalytic center” focused on innovation in advanced textiles and composites.

The “401 Tech Bridge” project will also receive support from the U.S. Department of the Navy, according to Susan Daly, the vice president of Strategy at the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association. The project will be developing a new headquarters for its ongoing operations in Portsmouth; a potential location has been identified but not yet been made public.

[For whatever reason, Daly was invited to stand but not speak during the news conference, a missed opportunity to give voice to the role of women leadership in science and manufacturing in Rhode Island, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.]

The “Rhode Island Cell Therapy Training Institute” will receive $1.4 million in state funds, as part of the ongoing Rhode Island CAR-T Design and Development Center at Roger Williams Medical Center, leveraging $7 million in matching contributions over the life of the project from the corporate parent of the medical center, CharterCARE Health Partners. The goal of the new innovation campus project is “to foster accelerated immunotherapy manufacturing” and to serve as a magnet to draw biotech and pharmaceutical companies to Rhode Island.

As part of the new “campus” project, a new immunotherapy nursing program will be established at the URI College of Nursing as well as a cell manufacturing technician training program created at the URI Kingston campus.

[Following the news conference, ConvergenceRI asked Jeffrey Liebman, CEO of CharterCARE Health Partners, about the potential for the R.I. Cell Therapy Training Institute to collaborate with EpiVax, one of the Rhode Island’s pioneer biotech companies, with its state-of-the-art immuno-informatics technology. Liebman said that he had not heard of EpiVax or of the firm’s CEO/CSO, Dr. Annie De Groot, but he patted ConvergenceRI on the shoulder and thanked him for the tip.]

The path forward
The planned investment of $2.4 million in state funds announced last week, coupled with the first three investments of $12 million announced in December of 2018, translates into some $14.4 million in investments made from the original $20 million bond.

What are the plans for the roughly remaining $5.6 million in funding? Pete Rumsey, the director of the Rhode Island Innovation Campus initiative at CommerceRI, said that there was ongoing work reviewing other proposals received as part of the initial responses to the RFP, but that he was not at liberty to talk about the ongoing conversations.

Rumsey also told ConvergenceRI that only one contract to date for the first three awards announced in December of 2018 had been finalized.

Translated, in has taken nearly three years since voters first approved the state bond to invest $20 million in the creation of new innovation campuses to reach the stage of an approved contract for the first new innovation campus, reinforcing the notion that the process of innovation takes time, because it is both long term and iterative. Which, in the long run, may prove to be a prudent approach.

A brief history
The idea of an innovation campus in Rhode Island was first suggested by Raimondo during her 2014 gubernatorial campaign, focused on creating such a campus on the former I-195 land, with the initial focus on building a maker campus for advanced manufacturing. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Will Rhode Island make and the world take?”]

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. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Informing the future economic agenda of 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 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 at The Rhode Island Foundation, with a clarion call for new investments between $70 million and $100 million in seven targeted industries and clusters. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A history lesson about innovation.”]

“The moment was urgent,” was the front-page headline in The Providence Journal. Raimondo quipped that she couldn’t have written a better headline herself.

But, as the story detailed, there were a number of topics left out of the conversation: health care delivery, affordable housing, and health equity zones.

“Health was just not our charge in this project and how we think about the world,” one of the principals who conducted the study explained in an interview with ConvergenceRI. “We were brought in to think about the economy.” The principal said he was unaware of the work being done on creating health equity zones in Rhode Island.

The proposal to create one or more innovation campuses through a $20 million bond was approved by voters in November of 2016. An RFP was issued in mid-December of 2017, and there were 16 applicants who responded. [See links to ConvergenceRI stories below, “The next generation of innovation campuses,” and “A giant step forward for the RI innovation economy.”]

Fast forward
As Rhode Island moves ahead with its investments to create at least five new innovation campuses in partnership with the University of Rhode Island, with the completion and opening of the Wexford Innovation Complex, with the continued collaboration being fostered by groups such the Social Enterprise Greenhouse to expand its operations in Newport and in Pawtucket and Central Falls, there is clearly positive economic momentum being built around defining an emerging innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island.

At the same time, there are continuing barriers to full participation in such an innovation economy for many Rhode Island residents, driven by problems with both the state’s education system and the state’s health care delivery system, as well as economic disparities regarding access to safe, affordable healthy housing.

As Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, recently tweeted, talking about the important values in educating students in Rhode Island: “The question is not, ‘Are they graduating?’ but, ‘Are they graduating with the tools and skills they need to be successful?’”

Similarly, as Ana Novais, deputy director at the R.I. Department of Health, told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview, when talking about health equity, there is a need to change the narrative. “The way you define the problem, it leads you to a certain kind of solution. You need to look at solutions that are being successful in addressing the problem, so you can be responding from a ‘strength’ perspective, and not necessarily always from a negative perspective.”

Editor's Note: Following the publication of this story, Matthew Sheaff, director of Communications and Stakeholder Outreach at CommerceRI, offered ConvergenceRI these updates:

RIHub, one of the three initial campus innovation award recipients in December of 2018, is now open for business at the Cambridge Innovation Center offices at the Wexford Innovation Complex. they are "currently getting programs and staffing up and running, while hosting and running the 2019 MassChallengeRI cohort." RIHub is the new innovation campus with the signed contract.

The second innovation campus announced in December of 2018,  led by Verinomics CEO Steve Della Porte, is in the process of leasing a shared laboratory space at URI, according to Sheaff.

And, as part of the third innovation campus anounced in December of 2018, Arizona State University has already begun several joint research projects with URI faculty and is anticipating that it will begin renovation of a shared site on the URI Kingston campus in 2020. In addition, ASU intends to locate and partner with RIHub innovation campus for its Providence site.

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