The Boston Globe has launched a weekly Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s conversation is with Pat Sabatino, founder and CEO of Datarista and executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition of Entrepreneurs.
Question: What is the Rhode Island Coalition of Entrepreneurs, when did it begin, and how many members are in the group now?
Answer: The coalition started in 2017 as a group of entrepreneurs connecting and networking. At the time, the startup ecosystem in Rhode Island was nascent and the few resources that were available were open to the public. We wanted to have a tighter group made up of the founders and CEOs of active startups in the state. What started as nine people has now grown to represent more than 65 Rhode Island-based startups, and we know of more than 200 in the state. In May, we held Rhode Island’s first-ever Startup Day with more than 140 registered attendees. For 2020, we are looking at holding a larger Startup Day, and we are laying the groundwork for an economic impact study on the value of startups to our state.
Q: What is the biggest benefit of launching a startup in Rhode Island, and what is the biggest obstacle?
A: Rhode Island has almost everything a startup would want. Providence, as our anchor, is a liveable city with great office space and co-working facilities, plus fantastic dining. Newport and the south coast offer a fantastic ocean-based set of suburbs. Employees can live where others can only vacation. All of it is affordable compared to New York and Boston. And there is a young, talented, vibrant workforce fueled by our 12 colleges. The one Achilles’ heel is that while we are sandwiched between the venture capital and “angel” hubs of New York and Boston, there is not enough early stage, pre-revenue funding. We need to do a better job of attracting the early-stage groups that are just a short car ride or train ride away.
Q: What more could the state do to bolster the tech innovation economy?
A: The state used to back an economic development fund. It invested in early-stage startups that were willing to commit to making the state their headquarters for an extended period of time. I think one bad and rather large bet by a prior administration on 38 Studios poisoned the political well when it came to state officials putting public money into these types of programs. The $75 million loan guarantee for 38 Studios could have funded 150 to 250 startups with early-stage financing. A better strategy would involve playing the ecosystem field to get better odds on a number of winners taking hold. I know the Legislature and the governor’s office have gone back and forth on the right path forward, with a pair of competing ideas, but they have not sat down with my members to talk about what would move the needle. We would welcome the chance.
Q: What do you make of the state economic development plan that you recently heard Bruce J. Katz of New Localism Advisors talking about?
A: It is an important project. We seem to be very focused on a handful of key industries, and I believe that they are strongholds to be grasped. I sometimes wonder if we are looking over the dark-horse vertical or two that could be a late-emerging winner. I think there are a number of sizeable yet underrepresented constituents (startups, minorities, immigrants, women) that can make an even better impact on our economy, but they are not always at the table to have their unique needs and perspectives heard. It is true that attracting big companies brings jobs quickly, and everyone is looking for the quick wins and big logos. They are important — no doubt about it. But I think there are some small companies that, with the right nurturing, can be grown from within the state.
Q: What is Datarista and what is next for the company?
A: Datarista is a cloud-based data-delivery platform. We provide a service for sales and marketing data providers that dynamically integrates their data into customer relation management and marketing automation software. After a few years of development, our product recently launched, and we are aggressively working to grow our sales. We are looking to achieve some major milestones in 2020 that should allow us to expand our products and grow our team, which is 100 percent based in Rhode Island.