In Boston’s Shadow, Rhode Island Fights for Life Science Jobs, Respect

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tax credits for angel investors, says Tebaldi, as well as broader R&D tax credits to attract both tech and biotech companies.

Incentives have brought 2,300 new jobs to the state since 2016, and 742 of them (23 percent) have been in the life sciences, according to CommerceRI. (That figure factors in Alexion’s shutdown—announced only a year after a promise of expansion—which took away 250 jobs.)

Annie De Groot, CEO of Providence vaccine developer EpiVax, thinks traditional biotech can build a sizeable footprint in the state. “There are enough people doing biomedical research [at local schools],” she says, noting that it’s not just about entrepreneurs. Workforce jobs are important, too. “There needs to be enough jobs for people with tech expertise to have options, instead of looking to Boston. If one big or medium-sized company came in, they’d feel they have more opportunity.”

One local school, the University of Rhode Island, thinks it can build a biotech footprint by partnering with drug companies. Spurred by a $15 million gift from the former chair and CEO of pharmacy giant CVS Health, which is headquartered near Providence, URI now has a big neuroscience department on its Kingston, RI, campus.

The school wants to join the ranks of institutions whose labs do R&D work for the drug industry. “We want to be seen as a good partner by biotech companies,” says Peter Snyder, a neuroscientist and the school’s new vice president for research and economic development.

He already is out talking to drug companies. Part of his pitch is a planned expansion: 30,000 square feet of biomedical labs in downtown Providence that Snyder says should be open for business in five years. (A state commerce spokeswoman says the department isn’t aware of announcements related to the expansion.)

[Updated with new EpiVax headcount.] Other than Amgen’s bio-factory, there is no big-pharma footprint in the state. With 30 employees, EpiVax is one of the largest local biotechs. Even then, De Groot notes, there is already competition for space with high-tech ventures; EpiVax kept trying to expand within its old Jewelry District building, but tech companies kept taking the space. Still, it’s not like EpiVax has been exiled to the suburbs. The company is now about a mile away from downtown Providence in a gorgeously renovated historic wool mill. De Groot’s commute from home, she says, is a 15-minute bike ride.

Jostling for space isn’t a bad thing, says Bryant University economist Tebaldi: “This tension is inherent to a healthy economy that fosters innovation. In addition, this is a private business problem, thus there is no place for the local or state government to make a decision or provide inflexible guidance on how these tensions should be resolved.”

Beyond Biopharma

Down the East Coast, Rich Bendis is president and CEO of BioHealth Capital, a trade group trying to boost the life-science business in the Washington, DC, area.

“Before you grow a cluster, you have to know what you have to work with,” Bendis said. While biopharma’s aura of cutting-edge science and headline cures is seductive, copying Cambridge’s blueprint isn’t a smart move, says Bendis. “Ten years ago everyone wanted a biotech cluster. But focus on an area where you are differentiated.” Bendis says Rhode Island, like his own DC-area efforts, should take advantage of non-pharma expertise, like data science, engineering, and design, to ride the wave of healthcare convergence that’s underway.

Former state economic development official Saul Kaplan says Rhode Island’s “quirky nature and tiny size are its secret sauce, but also its worst enemy. If it plays … Next Page »

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