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INNOVATORS Q&A

New organization bridges gaps to bolster R.I. manufacturing base

401 Tech Bridge brings together innovators to spin off research and technology into commercial uses

Mary Johnson, manager of 401 Tech Bridge
Mary Johnson, manager of 401 Tech BridgeKM Johnson

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Mary Johnson, manager of 401 Tech Bridge, a newly formed economic development organization.

Question: What is 401 Tech Bridge, when was it formed, and where is it based?

Answer: 401 Tech Bridge brings together innovators — from business, government and academia — in the composite materials, textile, and technology fields to share ideas and find ways to spin off research and technology into commercial uses.

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Founded in 2019, it is an organization that facilitates connections so that prototypes can be modeled, built and tested. It is a “collision space” where people can advance technology and create business opportunities when they connect at training sessions, events, or for sponsored research opportunities. It is a place where Rhode Island’s strong manufacturing base will grow stronger.

We had an office at the CIC Providence that we gave up when the pandemic hit, but we will be back there soon. With our seed funding, we are transforming a former 17,000-square-foot manufacturing space in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, into the 401 Tech Bridge Advanced Materials and Technology Center.

401 Tech Bridge grew out of partnerships among Polaris MEP, the University of Rhode Island Business Engagement Center, Rhode Island Commerce, the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, the Composites Alliance, the Rhode Island Textile Innovation Network, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership National Network, and the Office of Naval Research and National Undersea Warfare Center Newport Division, which worked with federal and state officials to gather $6 million to launch it.

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Q: What are some examples of advanced materials and how important are they to Rhode Island’s economy?

A: It is the material that will help astronauts do laundry on Mars. It is the containers that carry sensors and wires deep into the ocean. It is ride vehicles and carved architectural elements that make Universal and Disney theme parks an immersive experience. It is fiberglass-reinforced plastic that is strong enough to hold up a bridge on a taxpayer’s budget. It is wearable, comfortable clothing that is embedded with electronics to monitor vital statistics for first responders and those with chronic health issues.

Rhode Island is the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Advanced materials are the next wave for virtually every industry — aerospace, automotive, energy, oceanographic technology and more. And by leveraging and strengthening the expertise in Rhode Island and the region, we can be leading innovators, creating new businesses and jobs.

Q: What gave rise to 401 Tech Bridge — what is the void that it is filling?

A: There is all this amazing research in advanced materials and composites going on in local companies, at the University of Rhode Island, and at other institutions in the state that could help the Navy and defense industry innovate, help businesses discover a new product line, or spark a startup. However, they were not connecting in an efficient way. Our founders saw those gaps and created 401 Tech Bridge to bring the players together. We literally act as the bridge between the innovators and the appropriate entity — identifying projects and funding opportunities and linking organizations with the technical skills they need to find solutions.

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We started with defense innovation. 401 Tech Bridge was the first entity to partner with the NavalX Tech Bridge initiative, and our collaboration is now a national model. We are the hub for NavalX North East Tech Bridge activities, building partnerships to innovate in the Navy’s focus areas: maritime composites and textiles, undersea vehicles, sensors, and technologies. It serves as a model for our relationships with other defense agencies, the federal labs and large companies innovating national defense, infrastructure, and healthcare.

Companies tell us they value 401 Tech Bridge as a super-connector — always on the lookout to help companies find new projects and business opportunities.

Q: What are the sources of funding for 401 Tech Bridge?

A: 401 Tech Bridge recently secured a $2.3 million implementation grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which completed a $6 million funding round. Additional funding was provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership; the Office of Naval Research; the Rhode Island Innovation Campus; the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation; the Rhode Island Foundation; and the van Beuren Charitable Foundation.

Ongoing funding will include sponsored challenges to solve technical problems. For instance, we helped NavalX launch a national prize challenge to find undersea technology solutions, and two of the three companies that won awards were from Rhode Island. Some of the funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership is to pilot a competitive program that will provide funding for companies to do R&D with academic partners. Finding funding to help companies, government agencies, and academics advance research and solve technical problems is central to our mission.

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Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic complicated attempts at collaboration and how will you address those challenges?

A: COVID-19 has changed the landscape, for sure. The idea of a “collision space” is that people from different industries, universities, and government agencies come together to think, model, and build. Since we are founded on creativity and problem-solving, we will find a way. The good news is that we convened a small group of companies in the space recently, and even with the chairs all six feet apart and everyone wearing masks, people were eager to share ideas and connect. Two of those companies are now working on a Navy Small Business Innovation Research project together.

People are still convening in the new COVID world, and we all expect those activities to ramp up again as the virus is mitigated. We are building space and connections to grow as those activities proceed again, and everyone still agrees that it is needed. We are revisiting the plans for the 401 Tech Bridge Advanced Materials and Technology Center in Portsmouth so that we can adapt the space to changing conditions. We are also developing virtual programming that will bring the deep institutional knowledge of our partners to the world, which adds value.

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For example, over the summer, we hosted “Defense Innovation with Venture Café,” and offered Rhode Island small business flash talks, interviews with prime contractors and discussion of NUWC’s Tech Transfer resources. This month, we are hosting a two-part Small Business Innovation Research webinar series on Sept. 3 and Sept. 16, which will demystify the SBIR process for businesses ahead of the next round of funding. And, because we could not hold in-person tours of the composites labs at URI prior to the launch of the Materials Innovation Challenge, we are creating videos that introduce companies to the faculty and labs at URI.

Q: What is 401 Tech Bridge’s connection to the University of Rhode Island?

A: We have close ties on campus, both structurally and personally. 401 Tech Bridge and our sibling, Polaris MEP, are business units of the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation, a nonprofit that finds commercial uses for URI research. Christian Cowan, chief operating officer of the foundation, oversees both. We work with the URI Business Engagement Center to bring companies, faculty and students together to do research, testing, validation and sponsored projects.

We are about to launch the Materials Innovation Challenge, a competitive program for advanced materials companies in Rhode Island to have a chance to partner with Arun Shukla, Sumanta Das, or Helio Matos — three of the most preeminent advanced materials researchers in the country — on funded applied research projects.

Our primary relationship is with URI, but 401 Tech Bridge connects companies to other universities and institutions across the region that offer facilities for research, prototyping, testing, and validation of concepts alongside faculty researchers and students.

Q: How will we know if 401 Tech Bridge succeeds?

A: Success is connecting businesses to projects, funding, and a knowledge base to help them problem solve, innovate and grow. It is helping them accelerate the process from concept to prototype to commercialization. It is about helping the Navy innovate to keep the fleet ahead of its adversaries. It is about Rhode Island continuing to be a leader in advanced materials and technologies.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.