If you ask Stefan Pryor, Rhode Island’s commerce secretary, what’s holding the state back from becoming a larger innovation hub, he will likely refer to findings from a 198-page report from the Brookings Institution.

Stefan Pryor. Photo provided.
Stefan Pryor. Photo provided.

One of the main issues, he told BostInno, is that there’s a gap between the research happening at Rhode Island’s academic institutions and medical centers and the commercialization of said research. In other words, the state isn’t cranking out enough companies.

“Other jurisdictions are doing it better, and there’s no good reason for it,” Pryor said.

The administration of Governor Gina Raimondo, a former businesswoman and venture capitalist who was elected in 2015, has used the Brookings Institution report, titled “Rhode Island Innovates: A Competitive Strategy for the Ocean State,” as a rallying call for how the state should use policy and investment to build a better economy.

One plan that has come to the forefront is a $20 million “Innovation Campus” that is being led by the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and the University of Rhode Island. With money that was approved by voters last fall in the form of a bond issuance, the state agency and university have begun inviting potential partners from private industry and academia to submit their ideas for a campus that would accelerate the commercialization of research. An official request for proposals will be issued later this year.

The Innovation Campus, Pryor said, “will enable companies to team up with research institutes, such as universities and medical centers, to create more intertwined ecosystems.”

“Under this governor, what we’re in the process of doing is unlocking the true potential of Rhode Island.”

If the state can create closer ties between academia and industry, the rewards could be big. According to the Brookings Institution report, institutions in Rhode Island conduct more than $320 million in research each year, thanks to a cluster of universities and medical centers similar to that of Boston, albeit on a smaller scale.

“We are strong on innovation. We need to become as strong at production. It’s that connection that needs to occur,” Pryor said.

Raimondo’s administration is also working on a number of other initiatives to boost Rhode Island’s innovation clout.

That includes an “Innovation Voucher” program that gives grant money to startups for research and development purposes and partners them with local research institutions. Since the program was introduced in 2015, there have been 34 voucher recipients. One of the most recent recipients is Sproutel, which received $50,000 last month and partnered with Brown University to study the effectiveness of its mobile-enabled toy bear that helps children with Type 1 diabetes learn about treatment and medical procedures.

The administration has also used money in the form of tax incentives as a way to incentivize companies to create new jobs. So far, the Raimondo has cut deals with 17 companies, including Johnson & Johnson, which opened a new health technology center near downtown Providence, and Vistaprint, which recently announced plans to open a 125-personal national sales office. However, some local politicians have expressed concerns about continuing to hand out so much money while Rhode Island deals with various state budget issues.

“All of these companies have arrived and established operations that draw upon our innovation economy,” Pryor said.

Another project of the Raimondo administration is the Wexford Science & Technology’s 191,000-square-foot innovation complex that is expected to begin construction this year with the help of taxpayer money. It has already attracted two tenants, Cambridge Innovation Center and Brown University, which have both agreed to 15-year leases.

The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation also awarded a $100,000 grant to MassChallenge, the Boston-based startup accelerator that now runs programs across the world, for a startup boot camp.

“We’re hoping they’ll stay longer term,” Pryor said.

While the Raimondo administration has seen early success with some of these initiatives, it will take some time until the outcomes of some bigger projects, like the Innovation Campus, become apparent. One project from a previous administration that has cast a shadow on economic development matters is the failed 38 Studios deal.

Back in 2010, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation had given 38 Studios, a video game studio founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a $75 million loan guarantee to relocate the company from Maynard, Mass., to Providence. Two years later, the thing fell apart when 38 Studios declared bankruptcy. The deal is still under investigation.

But the Raimondo administration is clearly aware of past mistakes and seems intent on spreading the risk through smaller investments across multiple companies. Pryor said the state will measure the success of its various initiatives by the number of jobs it creates and how many private companies respond to solicitations for projects. He added that the state will conduct third-party economic impact analyses for every project to show whether they have a positive return for the state.

“There’s so much to build upon,” Pryor said. “Under this governor, what we’re in the process of doing is unlocking the true potential of Rhode Island.”

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