PROVIDENCE — With a waving gesture toward the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city’s East Side and Jewelry District, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi asked a room of business leaders in late February to recognize the same potential he sees that Rhode Island could have with a multimillion-dollar state commitment to the life sciences.
“We have everything we need here: a great hospital system, universities, and a commitment from the state,” said Shekarchi ahead of a bioscience investment impact panel. “If Worcester can create [a] bioscience hub, why can’t Rhode Island?”
Nearly three months later, Shekarchi introduced legislation to create a quasi-public corporate body and agency of the state for the life sciences. The proposed agency, which would be known as the Rhode Island Life Sciences Hub (or RILSH), would be tasked with acting as the central entity and coordinating organization of life science initiatives on behalf of the state, potentially investing in Rhode Island-based companies, and promoting economic growth and workforce development.
The agency could “encourage collaboration and innovation among public, private, and academic institutions,” according to the speaker’s office, and would be governed by a board of directors composed of leaders representing the life sciences, health care, academia, and state government.
In an exclusive interview with the Globe earlier this year, Shekarchi said while Governor Dan McKee proposed investing $45 million in the life sciences in his fiscal year 2024 budget, Shekarchi said it was unclear whether that funding could come in the form of a quasi-public agency, or be a partnership with private companies and the state’s economic development agency, Rhode Island Commerce. “I recognize there’s finite resources and infinite need,” Shekarchi said at the time. But he said forming a new agency would be “an investment for the state’s future.”
The state’s neighbors to the north — Boston, Cambridge, Worcester, and even Manchester, N.H. — have built out the infrastructure to create life science hubs through workforce development programs, collaborations between competing academic institutions, and buy-in from local hospital groups. Business leaders, such as the Rhode Island Foundation’s outgoing president and CEO Neil Steinberg, said they’ve heard hype of a “spillover” effect from Boston to Providence. The Jewelry District, which Brown University has spent millions to invest in over the last decade, was supposed to become its own biotech and startup hub. But the industry never fully made its way to the city — or anywhere else in the state.
Thanks to Worcester’s newly created quasi-public agency, Shekarchi said, that area’s life sciences industry has created more than 1,000 new, high-paying jobs, and has an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion.
“There is no reason Rhode Island cannot do the same,” said Shekarchi.
‘We need to take it to the next level now’
The Rhode Island Foundation released a market assessment in October 2022 that examined what it would take to jumpstart an industry that is projected to have a valuation exceeding $1 trillion worldwide by 2030. The report read like a multimillion-dollar business proposal, suggesting that the leader of the agency would assume a CEO or president role, and could earn about $220,000 to $300,000 annually — which is much higher than what most of the state’s cabinet-level secretaries are paid. It also recommended that the agency could have a partner, like trade group RIBio, that would need an initial $50 million commitment over two years.
Creating a quasi-public agency focused on life sciences “is investment for the long-term,” Steinberg told the Globe in a recent interview. “Years from now, we’ll see the fruits of those dollars. But we need to take it to the next level now.”
Rhode Island has the “right bones” for starting an industry, Shekarchi said, but there are missing components that would need to be addressed. For example, he said: “We have to build a state health lab. Immediately.”
Some of McKee’s proposed $45 million investments in the life sciences sector are being earmarked for development and to support grants, loans, and business development and incubation services. But industry experts say the lack of laboratory space is the “biggest issue” to attracting talent and building out the industry.
Dr. David Wazer, the director at the Lifespan Cancer Institute, told the Globe recently that without new lab space, Lifespan and the Legorreta Cancer Center at Brown will have a hard time applying for a National Cancer Institute designation. It’s the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve, and having it would boost collaborative research, increase the portfolio of clinical trials, and bring cancer-related funding to the university and local hospitals.
“We’ve got a plethora of outstanding research candidates that we would love to bring to Brown and Lifespan, but we just don’t have a place to put them,” said Wazer in an interview. “It’s a little embarrassing when we bring senior and really accomplished cancer investigators who have large grant portfolios, and we’re sort of putting together patchworks of laboratory space for them that really don’t match what they need.”
Hospital and university officials plan on applying for a National Cancer Institute designation within the next two to three years. If it were granted, “it would, without question, have an enormous impact on the local economy,” said Wazer. “The opportunities are just beyond count, quite honestly.”
While sitting on a recent panel in Providence, Dr. Justin Fallon said when he cofounded Bolden Therapeutics in 2019, he had to open the biotech company’s headquarters in Cambridge. The infrastructure “just wasn’t here [in Rhode Island] yet. We have the people, the intellectual institutions, and an ecosystem hungry for it,” said Fallon, but he explained that financial resources and web lab space, both of which Rhode Island lacks, remains “crucial to build.”
RIBio executive director Carol Malysz said such a quasi-public agency that Shekarchi wants to build should also focus on boosting STEM education in Rhode Island’s public schools. While building the beginning of an industry, the greater Providence area could become “a destination,” but, she said, “we need to make careers in the life sciences more accessible to all Rhode Islanders, including those who are already here.”
Shekarchi said that for the life sciences industry to make its mark on Rhode Island, “all the parties have to be ‘all in.’”
“This can’t just be a Brown [University] thing. Or an industry built only by private companies,” said Shekarchi. “We need the [University of Rhode Island], the [Community College of Rhode Island], companies, the hospitals, nonprofits, investors, and state government to have stake in the game.”
“We need everyone at the table,” he added. “That’s the only way it works.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.