This week, we at Rhode Island Inno spoke with Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor. We talked about a number of innovation-spurring initiatives at the state level, but in this piece, we wanted to dwell on CommerceRI’s Innovation Voucher program (with follow-ups on the rest of our conversation forthcoming).

It’s an especially pertinent topic, considering the department and Governor Gina Raimondo on Monday announced the recipients of the newest round of innovation voucher winners: Alcinous Pharmaceuticals, LLC, which received a $50,000 grant; CBC, LLC, which received a $48,106 grant; and Modus Techwear, LLC, which received a grant of $50,000. They are three out of 43 companies to have received vouchers in 2017, involving nearly every higher-ed institution in the state. (We highlighted the rest of this year’s winners in our two-part series, here and here.)

For the uninitiated, Innovation Vouchers are a part of a program that allows businesses with less than 500 employees to pair with research institutions (think secondary education entities, medical research organizations, etc.) for research and development purposes. The state will then reimburse the pair up to $50,000.

We’ll let Secretary Pryor explain the rest.

Rhode Island Inno: What was the impetus for creating the Innovation Voucher program?
Secretary Pryor: We brought into Rhode Island the Brookings Institution. [They] conducted a study on the Rhode Island economy regarding our strategy; that was a couple years ago now. On Rhode Island’s economy, they recommended [that] we strengthen the interconnections between the educational institutions and medical [facilities] of Rhode Island and the corporate community.

How does the program work?
The innovation voucher program — in a direct and powerful way — enables a company to approach a university or medical center with its need for R&D. If they can, on a preliminary basis, arrange a partnership together, the research institutions and the company can approach the state and the state will pay the bill, up to $50,000 in each instance.

What is the goal of these vouchers?
The objective is to connect the educational institutions and medical institutions of Rhode Island with commercial enterprises. We aim to enable and accelerate tech transfer; such tech transfer is important because it can result in the development of new products that create new markets, that expand the consumer base for a given product type and ultimately generate economic activity — producing jobs and revenue.

How do enterprises that want an Innovation Voucher receive one? Are they chosen by CommerceRI, or … ?
It’s an application.

How does Innovation Voucher approval work? Is applying a guarantee that a business will get an award?
We fund approximately half of the applications we receive. When an application is not ready for prime time, we often consult with the applicant and the applicants involved and help them to gear up. That might involve further defining the project, better articulating the relationship between the organizations. We aim to foster applications that have potential, but are not yet ready for approval.

How did the Innovation Voucher development team land on the $50,000 funding cap?
We researched and we dialogued with companies within Rhode island, and we researched R&D-related government initiatives in the country.

How do initiatives like the Innovation Voucher program spur innovation forward in Rhode Island? 
It’s essential that we support startups, and small enterprises throughout the Rhode Island economy. Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. It’s crucial that we provide the resrouces — intellectual and financial — [that] such enterprises need to succeed. … These are elements that enable these ventures to survive and thrive.