A Biotech Hub Grows in Rhode Island | Rhode Island Commerce

A collaborative ecosystem makes Rhode Island a compelling home to biotech firms

Rhode Island boasts a number of characteristics that make it appealing to companies across industries. The state provides easy access to Boston and New York, has prestigious educational institutions, offers high quality of life and provides employers with a deep talent pool. This combination of factors makes Rhode Island particularly appealing to biotech companies. Firms like Amgen, a biopharmaceutical company, and Rubius, which pioneers blood cell therapies, have decided to open facilities in the state. They join homegrown biotech firms like EpiVax to create a thriving biotech community that generates top-notch products and encourages innovation.

Fostering a biotech ecosystem

Rhode Island has a long history of leading-edge research and innovation, with cooperation among leading institutions to advance science. For example, the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center and health care institutions Lifespan and Care New England recently formed a neuroscience coalition. Each institution has already distinguished itself in the subject. For example, Brown recently received a $100 million gift to establish the Carney Institute for Brain Science. Working together, coalition members are focused on identifying causes and treatments for a wide range of brain diseases, from Alzheimer’s and epilepsy to stroke and autism.

“Rhode Island is emerging as among the most prominent players on the neuroscience scene,” says Stefan Pryor, Rhode Island’s secretary of commerce. “And what’s happening with neuroscience is illustrative of what’s going on in other sectors.” 

State government officials understand that a dense ecosystem of biotech companies and institutions can help encourage collaboration and innovation, as well as develop skilled workers who can be tapped by companies looking to grow.

“A shared environment of innovation and technology provides an opportunity to get together, share what’s working and learn from each other to help advance science,” says Tia Bush, vice president of Amgen’s Rhode Island operations. Amgen, which produces the rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel, among other drugs, recently announced plans to develop a sophisticated biomanufacturing plant in West Greenwich, Rhode Island after a site selection process in which leaders evaluated locations worldwide.

When Cambridge, Mass.-based Rubius Therapeutics decided to open a manufacturing facility in Smithfield, Rhode Island, access to high caliber talent was critical to its decision. “There were already two or three biotech firms nearby, so the existing labor base in that area was incredible,” says Pablo Cagnoni, the company’s CEO. In addition, when the company acquired a 135,000-square-foot manufacturing facility from another biotech firm, it was able to retain some of the senior leadership, giving it a leg up on its new venture. 

To further encourage a strong biotech ecosystem, the state has created programs such as the I-195 Innovation and Design District.  “The area will be an incubation space for new ventures,” says Pryor. “We’re, in effect, building a whole new neighborhood for innovation.” Among the neighborhood’s new inhabitants is Wexford Innovation Center—a collaboration among startup incubator Cambridge Innovation Center, Brown University and Johnson & Johnson.”

Encouraging innovation

“Rhode Island wants to foster the bottom-up growth of companies looking to develop and pioneer biotech solutions and devices”, says Pryor. “We consulted with the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association and manufacturers throughout the state, and it was clear that companies sometimes need to partner with external research associations to meet their research and development needs,” he says.

So the state set out to build programs to address this demand. One such program is the state’s Innovation Voucher Program, which allows Rhode Island businesses with fewer than 500 employees to receive grants of up to $50,000 to fund research and development with assistance from a Rhode Island university, research center or medical center.

The grants can be applied to support commercialization of products; access to scientific engineering and design expertise; technological development; and scale-to-market development. For example, this summer Cranston-based Agcore received a grant to address the challenges of introducing uptake probiotics in cultivated algae. The same month, the state awarded Smithfield-based Videology Imaging Solutions, Inc. a grant to move into beta testing for an iris scanner for the company’s OEM cameras. Rhode Island has issued about 60 vouchers since the program began, and that number should be growing quickly, says Pryor.

Tia Bush says that the state’s willingness to foster partnerships like these has been key to Amgen’s success as well. “With everything that is available to us in Rhode Island, we have built one of the most successful biologics manufacturing plants,” she says. “We would not have been able to do that without the support we have from the state, the skilled workforce and the partnerships and collaborations we have with local universities.”