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

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the same game as everyone else it doesn’t have the scale to compete.” Instead, he says, the state should become an innovation “sandbox” where disciplines come together in unanticipated ways.

To that end, the healthcare-related (but not biopharma) players in Providence and nearby are an intriguing mix. They include the headquarters of CVS; the global medical device design firm Ximedica; a health-technology group from Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ); and the Virgin Group’s Pulse division, which moved to Providence after buying ShapeUp RI, an employee wellness program started by a Brown Medical School alum. (See table below.)

A Sample of Health and Wellness Players in RI
CVS Health (headquarters)Woonsocket
Johnson & Johnson (health technology group)Providence
Lifespan (health provider and research)Statewide
Magellan Health (pharmacy benefit manager)Newport
SE Greenhouse (accelerator)Providence
Slater Technology Fund (venture)Providence
Virgin Pulse (employee wellness programs)Providence
Ximedica (medical device design)Providence

Locals like Kaplan want the design community, centered around the Rhode Island School of Design, to dive more into health. RISD, as it’s known, is another example of the state punching above its weight. With fewer than 2,500 students, it’s always at or near the top of design-school rankings. Much of the school is about fine art and media. But there’s also graphic and industrial design, disciplines that feed into advances in digital technology, medical devices, and other health products that are often attuned to what some call “the silver economy,” to help an aging population grow old more gracefully, in spaces of their own choosing.

Aidan Petrie, a RISD grad who co-founded Ximedica in 1985, is pushing hard for his home state to make its mark in healthcare innovation for aging populations. “If we don’t use technology”—drug delivery, robotics, user interfaces, and more—“to change the way we interact with our mature populations, they will bankrupt us,” Petrie said.

There is some academic momentum on this front. URI’s nursing program has a gerontology focus and a lab to simulate living space for people who want to age in place.

The Lifespan hospital system and URI have a significant dementia and brain science focus. And at RISD, a handful of students every spring take Leslie Fontana’s industrial design class on aging (which URI’s Peter Snyder has co-taught in recent years, as well). The students wrap their hands with tape to mimic arthritis; they go out onto Providence’s streets with their vision obscured. Then they come back to design products.

Rhode Island School of Design professor Leslie Fontana in one of the school’s Industrial Design studios.

“Our Job Is to Un-Stick Them”

Inevitably, some of those student projects do gain commercial promise. Part of the grand plan, advocates say, is to provide physical and intellectual space in Providence to convince student and faculty entrepreneurs to stay. Along with a few incubators and accelerators, the New England Medical Innovation Center (NEMIC) provides a sort of one-stop shop for mentoring potential healthcare businesses. It’s a joint effort between RISD, Lifespan, Ximedica, and others, with two years of initial funding of $350,000.

[This section has been updated with more details.] NEMIC had its opening party last week. As people filed in, Petrie, who is a NEMIC founder and managing partner, explained to Xconomy how it works. There are inventors around the state who don’t know much about markets or regulation; NEMIC has a network of experts and consultants it can tap, free of charge to the inventor, to help with guidance. One candidate for commercialization: “smart socks” developed by a URI engineer that measure … Next Page »

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