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

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a patient’s gait—now recognized by some scientists as a “sixth vital sign” that can predict falls, signal cognitive decline, and more.

“Some of these products have been around but have gotten stuck,” said Petrie. “Our job is to un-stick them.” The state’s $50,000 innovation grants would help fill holes in the business plans.

The NEMIC mentoring process does not end with a demo day, and there is no fixed support period. Some companies have been under NEMIC’s wing for more than a year, says Petrie. The goal is to put companies in front of angel investors and raise a few million dollars, said Petrie. Some of the world’s biggest tech, biotech, and corporate venture groups are just an hour away in Boston, but Petrie acknowledged there needs to be more reason for them to pay attention. “There’s money flowing everywhere. Part of [the goal] is just for Rhode Island to swim into the mainstream more,” he says.

One investment lure could come from the Republican tax reform bill. It’s highly unpopular in deep-blue Rhode Island, but it included under-the-radar federal tax breaks for economic “opportunity zones.” The state just had the maximum number of zones, 25, approved by the IRS, including parcels of Providence under redevelopment.

Don’t Forget the Wet

While local economist Tebaldi warns against government favor for one subsector or another, there’s no denying that without space for wet labs and animal facilities, biotech startups will go elsewhere, even though life science jobs are now as much about crunching data as they are about swirling beakers and dissecting tissues.

Having some biotech downtown, in fact, is good for all disciplines, argues Bill Kane, a senior vice president at BioMed Realty, based in Cambridge. (He doesn’t have any contracts to build in Rhode Island.) Even in “dry” labs dedicated to genomics and other data-centric pursuits, scientists still prefer to be near wet labs, or near a hospital where clinical studies are taking place. “I once thought I could separate the two” when building office space, Kane says, meaning separate places for the offices and the labs, “but I can’t because of the persona of the scientists.”

As data, technology, and health pursuits continue to converge, traditional tech players also become part of the life science cluster. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and others have a significant presence in Kendall Square, for example, and are making healthcare part of their business.

In other words, Rhode Island needs the same type of ferment: innovative people in close proximity, sharing ideas and comparing plans. That’s why it’s so important to get it right in Providence.

Down by the River

For all of former mayor Buddy Cianci’s faults (and boy, were there many), he did his beloved hometown the biggest solid in the 1990s. In his second go-round at City Hall, the city daylighted the Providence River, once buried under downtown asphalt, and built elegant walkways along its banks. Cianci pushed through a tax break for artists to spur economic development. The city’s artists took it from there, turning the Riverwalk area into a summer festival, WaterFire, centered around bonfires in the middle of the river.

The revival was known as the Providence Renaissance. But the recession came, Rhode Island economic development officials wanted to do something dramatic, and one of the biggest economic development fiascos in U.S. history soon followed.

Rhode Island is very much Boston Red Sox territory; World Series hero Curt Schilling, who helped pitch the team past the hated New York Yankees in the 2004 playoffs, started a video-game company, 38 Studios, after he retired. He was a demigod in Rhode Island, and in 2010, he managed to coax $75 million in loan guarantees from the state to move tiny 38 Studios to Providence.

(How much is $75 million for one startup? A national New York Times investigation of do-nothing state subsidies between the years 2007 and 2012 set the bar for egregiousness at $100 million per company—most of them behemoths like Amazon, IBM, General Motors, and Shell, spread across many states.)

Two years later, 38 Studios declared bankruptcy, triggering investigations and lawsuits. There have been no criminal charges. The state said last year it had recouped $61 million, leaving it on the hook for $27 million more. The saga continues: Just last week, an Austrian company bought the rights to 38 Studios’ intellectual property, including its only released game, Kingdoms of Amalur.

If something like the Schilling deal had been reviewed by the Massachusetts Life Science Center, where grants and incentives are overseen by an independent board of experts, not state officials, “it wouldn’t have gotten through,” says Windham-Bannister. She has recommended … Next Page »

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