[Updated 9/19/18, 3:40 p.m. See below.] Tiny Rhode Island and its capital city Providence have always punched above their weight, for better or for worse.
Better: Little Rhody’s founder Roger Williams, fleeing religious persecution in 17th-century puritanical Massachusetts, was one of America’s first abolitionists and created the concept of the separation of church and state.
Worse: After World War II, one Providence neighborhood became the nerve center of New England organized crime and one of its mayors the ne plus ultra of civic corruption—twice elected, and twice a felon. But the same mayor, Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci (pronounced see-ANN-see), also sparked a renaissance in Providence that, ever so fitfully, has given civic leaders hope of an economic wave propelled by life-science activity in a new downtown core.
The state, and especially its capital city, have many pieces in place to help a tech-savvy cluster take off: a revitalized downtown with exquisite architecture, thriving food and arts scenes, and a welter of academic centers, including the top-notch Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, and the University of Rhode Island. The centerpiece is a swath of reclaimed downtown land where a freeway once ran, now dedicated to health organizations and innovation.
But while biotech has boomed in the Boston area just north and in other major clusters, Rhode Island’s biosciences community has shed 10 percent of its jobs since 2014, according to the BIO national trade organization. The state’s bioscience firms have drawn $43 million in venture investments in that period, but only $1 million in 2017.
The state prefers to focus on better numbers, compiled since 2016 and driven, it says, by some incentives on offer: matching small-business grants here, construction tax credits there. The state’s commerce department, known as CommerceRI, says it has put $29 million into the life sciences in the past 36 months, generating more than 700 new jobs. Still, the government has had to maneuver around lingering resentment over one of the biggest state-subsidy fiascoes in recent history from a previous administration (more on that below).
Governor Gina Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, fended off criticism from the left of her business-friendly agenda to win last week’s Democratic primary. She faces a previous rival, the Republican mayor of Cranston, RI, in the November election.
A local group, Rhode Island Bioscience Leaders, convinced state lawmakers in 2013 to earmark $1 million a year for small-business grants and paid internships. They’ve tried to have it doubled, to no avail. (Compare that to the $1 billion fund Massachusetts created in 2008 for its life science sector, recently renewed for another five years and $623 million.)
Under Raimondo, New England’s worst unemployment rate after the Great Recession has been tamed to match the national average. Life-science boosters want more. “The living is great, now we just need the jobs,” says Edward Bozzi, who heads the undergraduate biotech program at the University of Rhode Island and co-founded RI Bioscience Leaders. “The jobs are the key thing.”
The question, then, is what kind of jobs? Some civic leaders argue the state needs to capitalize on its academic strengths: design, engineering, and healthcare that feed a converging variety of disciplines, but not necessarily the traditional pharma-heavy R&D that has turned Boston into the world’s biotech epicenter. In a state where the recovery from the recession has been more fragile than among its neighbors, what types of jobs—and how to attract them—is a crucial question for Rhode Island’s innovation future.
So Close Yet So Far
Downtown Providence is an hour by train from Boston’s South Station. Many city residents commute to Massachusetts—more than 10 percent, according to a 2013 state report. (Statewide, the number is slightly higher at 12 percent.)
A group of Boston biotech workers who live in Rhode Island are tired of commuting. They want to pursue their work at home, and their advocacy group, RI BioHub, will soon produce a report with recommendations to boost the state’s life-science ecosystem.
The leader is Patrice Milos, a veteran of drug giant Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and Cambridge, MA, genomics firms, who has already made the break with Boston. She founded Medley Genomics, a Brown University spinout, in Providence two years ago and has benefited from state funds—a $50,000 innovation grant for work the company is doing with a local hospital.
(Disclosure: This reporter graduated from Brown in 1991 and has no connections to any companies mentioned in this article.)
On the list of the group’s recommendations: more state incentives, a more entrepreneurial mindset among local academics, more private capital, and more laboratory space for startups. Some of those elements are coming (as we’ll see). But there’s also a civic glue that needs to develop, says Milos: “There’s a lot here, but we’re not operating as a unified ecosystem where everyone is working together.”
Add visibility to the list of needs, says Susan Windham-Bannister, the former CEO of the Massachusetts entity that oversees the state’s billion-dollar life sciences fund. Windham-Bannister is now a consultant to other local groups, including RI BioHub, looking to build a stronger life sciences presence. She has urged top state officials to go to trade meetings “so the word is out and it’s clear from the physical presence of the administration that they’re behind this.”
You’d think Rhode Island’s proximity to Boston would make for a natural extension of the bio boom of its northern neighbor. But for many, Rhode Island might as well be on a different planet.
Economic development officials tell of the state being blacked out on maps showing available biomedical lab space in the Boston region. And while the Boston area attracts more bioventure capital than any other place in the world, scarcely any trickles down to Rhode Island.
The good news: They aren’t starting from scratch, which folks pushing for more wet lab space and other bio-friendly infrastructure are eager to point out.
The state commerce department says biotech provides the same percentage of private jobs statewide, just under 1 percent, as nationwide. For the broader healthcare industry, the state percentage of total private jobs (16.1) is higher than the national average of 12.7 percent, and even higher than health-dense Massachusetts, at 15.7.
Amgen has one of the world’s largest biologics manufacturing plants in the Providence suburb of West Greenwich, with more than 600 full-time employees, and is expanding with state tax breaks. Cambridge, MA-based startup Rubius Therapeutics (NASDAQ: RUBY), fueled by recent IPO cash, is renovating a plant in Smithfield, RI, recently abandoned by Alexion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALXN), to make a kind of drug never done before, fashioned from red blood cells. Rubius will spend $155 million on the rebuild and receive between $9 million and $12 million in state tax breaks over the next 12 years, according to a Rubius spokeswoman. The goal is to hire 150 new employees over a three-year period.
The state projects Amgen and Rubius paying back $10 million in net revenue over the next decade or so, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor tells Xconomy: “We’ve mobilized to attract more bioscience ventures.”
If those results come true, it would be “an excellent return” for the state, says Bryant University professor Edinaldo Tebaldi, a close follower of the state economy. He praises the state incentives in place, but says “there is still room to improve.” For example, Rhode Island could use … Next Page »