Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

A strategy to advance RI’s life science economy

The leader of RI Bio speaks out for the new RI Life Sciences Hub

Image courtesy of RI Bio.

Carol Malysz, director of RI Bio.

By Carol Malysz
Posted 6/5/23
The executive director of RI Bio, Carol Malysz, makes the case for supporting the proposed $45 million RI Life Sciences Hub.
Why does the story of the John Adams Innovation Institute, which under the leadership of Pat Larkin led directly to the creation of the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative in 2007, always seem to get confused with the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center? How can the problematic structure of the proposed 11-member board of the directors of the RI Life Sciences Hub be amended and corrected? What has gone wrong with previous attempts to build out the commercial “wet lab space in Rhode Island? How can the innovative model of embedded drug research firms, such as MindImmune at URI, be replicated at other colleges and universities in Rhode Island? How can public health of Rhode Islanders be protected from greedy private equity takeover artists who go after hospitals and nursing homes?
As the state grapples with efforts on how best to spark the creation of a $45 million RI Life Sciences Hub, it is easy to lose sight of an enormous drama being played out in efforts to rein in plastic pollution through a global treaty. Rhode Island’s own intrepid science writer, Rebecca Altman, has been a catalyst in connecting fossil fuels production to the history of plastics pollution – and the environmental toxic threats from PFAS as well as the dangers of vinyl chloride for vinyl plastics. Her equation: plastics = a system held up by toxics.
The intersection of our stories and narratives – the family legacies of plastics manufacturing in New Jersey, reporting on mercury poisoning of indigenous tribes in Canada, and the protests against plutonium triggers being manufactured for weapons at Rocky Flats in Colorado– continue to amaze me.

PROVIDENCE – On May 23, R.I. House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi introduced H 64262, “The Rhode Island Life Science Hub Act,” to the R.I. House Finance Committee.

The Rhode Island Life Science Hub is based on similar legislation responsible for the creation of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency in that supports innovation, research and development, commercialization, and manufacturing activities in the fields of biopharma, medical device, diagnostics, and digital health.

Correspondingly, the Rhode Island Life Science Hub is intended to provide the infrastructure, governance and funds to support access to capital, training and other business incentives to grow Rhode Island’s life science sector.

More than 600 biotech companies and organizations call Rhode Island home. Within striking distance of comparable science-based hubs in Boston/Cambridge, Worcester, New Haven and New York, along with our notable academic institutions such as Brown, URI, Rhode Island College, and Roger Williams University, the biotech industry is on the move in the state.

However, the piece of the puzzle that Rhode Island has been missing is government investment and a single-purpose entity to put all of the academic and corporate participants toward a common goal.

The Rhode Island Life Science Hub, in partnership with RI Bio and our life science ecosystem partners, can be key in turning the cluster of activity currently in Rhode Island into a vibrant ecosystem.

Key reasons for creating such a hub in Rhode Island include:

• Infrastructure. The new Rhode Island Life Science Hub will help to develop a much-needed, state-of-the-art wet lab incubator space to draw biotech companies from around the world and further Rhode Island’s standing as an important Life Science Hub.

Bolden Therapeutics is just an example of one of these companies. At a recent panel discussion with House Speaker Shekarchi, Neil Steinberg from the Rhode Island Foundation, RI Bio, Bolden Therapeutics and Amgen, Dr. Justin Fallon from Bolden Therapeutics recalled that when he co-founded Bolden Therapeutics in 2019, the company’s headquarters had to be based in Cambridge, Mass., because the infrastructure in Rhode Island “just wasn’t here yet.”

Bolden had the people, the institutions, and an ecosystem ready to launch in Rhode Island, but the state lacked the financial resources and web lab space for the company to be started here.

In fact, lab inventory in Boston is on pace to grow by over 75 percent by 2024, but it still may not be enough to satisfy demand. Rhode Island’s proximate location creates a unique advantage to capture overflow demand, for both lab space and biomanufacturing needs, but companies move quickly, so state support is needed immediately to fully realize these opportunities.

• STEM Education. As more careers today and in the future require a post-secondary degree or credential, we need to ensure that our high school graduates are well prepared for the next step they choose in their education. The new Rhode Island Life Science Hub will work with colleges and K-12 schools to help teach the skills students need to work in biotech jobs. This could include STEM grants, high school apprenticeships and internship programs.

Our certificate programs in biotechnology at CCRI and most recently, RIC, are important pathways to family-sustaining careers in the life sciences. The average annual wage for life sciences is more than $95,000 as compared to $61,000 for the private sector in Rhode Island.

Top Rhode Island companies where biotechnology students can find employment include: Amgen, Cadoret Global, Denison Pharmaceuticals, High Purity New England, Neurotech, Tedor Pharma and Thielsch Engineering.

• Entrepreneurship and Commercialization. Having a state-of-the-art incubator facility in Rhode Island would be a tremendous boon to the local economy. With increasing support and focus on fostering biomedical innovation from the state, universities, and hospital systems in Rhode Island, there could be no better time than now.

The measure of success for new Ph.D.s is turning away from publishing and toward entrepreneurship, which could compensate for Rhode Island’s less-developed academic/teaching hospital network. This is a unique opportunity to level up existing establishments and draw in new ones by reinforcing funding mechanisms and production capacity with state funding. State funding should draw increased venture capital, which could then lead to a true bench-to-bedside tech transfer.

A Rhode Island Life Sciences Seed Fund, offering grants to post-docs and entrepreneurs who start companies in the state within 2-5 years of graduating from local institutions could help fuel talent and innovation to reinforce the state developments.

• Workforce Development. Access to talent is a primary concern for growing companies – educational attainment, concentration of talent, and scale matters. We can look to the North Carolina Biomanufacturing Workforce Training System [BioWork] as an excellent template for Rhode Island’s workforce training. Given the rapid growth of that state’s biopharma cluster, businesses and community colleges across North Carolina are rapidly forming public/private partnerships to create a talent pipeline for biomanufacturers. High school and college students as well as career changers can gain training and certifications to join the biomanufacturing workforce.

Through the support of the Rhode Island Life Science Hub, the same can be accomplished in Rhode Island.

A reliable talent base, particularly with respect to manufacturing, could give both life sciences companies and developers more confidence in increasing Rhode Island activity, expanding life sciences tax revenues and encouraging the state to increase funding, which should create a virtuous cycle.

The Rhode Island Science Hub is vital to advancing further growth in the industry because it will both build and bring life science companies and good-paying jobs to the state, help entrepreneurs launch and succeed, and support training for Rhode Islanders who want to pursue life science careers.

Most importantly, it will help to unlock the next generation of treatments, diagnostics and medical devices, discover new cures, and help patients take greater control of their own health.

Carol Malysz is the executive director of RI Bio.

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