Confluence, convergence on the RI innovation highway

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Confluence, convergence on the RI innovation highway

MedMates to host the first annual Life Sciences Expo, showcasing the talent and technology here in Rhode Island – as well as some of the gaps

Photo by Richard Asinof

David Goldsmith, the president of MedMates, talked with ConvergenceRI about the upcoming 2017 Life Sciences Expo on April 26, and its goal to showcase the life sciences community in Rhode Island.

Why is this story important?

The launch of the first annual Life Sciences Expo in Rhode Island, coordinated by MedMates, is the latest effort by the industry cluster group to promote the life sciences as a growth engine for the state’s economy. Attracting investment capital remains one of the key missing ingredients.

The questions that need to be asked

How will the Trump administration’s budget plans to de-fund federal scientific research and to dismantle health care policy hurt proposed efforts to build an innovation hub in Providence by Wexford? Is there a need for CommerceRI to differentiate between marketing, sales and hype activities in promoting life sciences and research? Have leaders at URI or Brown toured the new Innovation Center at the University of Massachusetts to learn more about the cutting-edge model of collaboration between companies and academic research? Is there a better way to talk about the jobs potential in growing the life sciences industry sector, one that is less confusing to the general public.

Under the radar screen

Underneath the disdain for scientific fact is a kind of irrational, emotional rejection of what might be called disliked facts: America may be exceptional, but it is interrelated and interconnected with the rest of the world. No wall will be able to protect the nation’s borders from the spread of diseases borne by mosquitoes and exacerbated by climate change. Denying climate change will not stop the oceans from rising or the polar ice caps from melting. Gutting environmental regulations under the false promise of growing businesses will not improve the quality of life in Rhode Island.

As one of the popular signs from the many March for Sciences eloquently asked: “Got Polio? Me neither. Thanks, Science!”

PROVIDENCE – When MedMates hosts its first annual Life Sciences Expo on April 26 at the Omni Providence Hotel, it is the culmination of a journey that began more than four years ago, when the idea to bring together those involved in the emerging medtech and life sciences industry sectors in Rhode Island was launched as outgrowth of the Make It Happen conversation.

As with many a good idea that has launched a startup firm, the evolution of MedMates has hit any number of bumps along the way in traveling a convoluted path, sometimes floundering. The arrival at the 2017 Life Sciences Expo marks the launch of the latest version of the nascent cluster organization – call it MedMates 5.0.

Initially, MedMates was funded in 2013 by a $50,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, with the new organization being championed by one of the co-founders of Ximedica, Stephen Lane, and by David Goldsmith, the current president of MedMates and co-founder of Aspiera Medical. [See links to stories from four years of coverage in ConververgenceRI below.]

“We think of ourselves as a startup at MedMates,” Goldsmith told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview, reflecting on what a long, strange journey it has been so far.

The 2017 Life Sciences Expo marks a “confluence” in the honing of MedMate’s value proposition, according to Goldsmith, .

One of the engaged supporters of the 2017 Life Sciences Expo has been CommerceRI, driven in large part by Hope Hopkins, the new Vice President of Business Development at the state agency, a position she began in November of 2016, following a long stint at Ximedica, where she had been intimately involved in working with MedMates.

In addition, Rich Horan, senior managing director at the Slater Technology Fund, one of the leading investors in emerging life sciences companies in Rhode Island, provided input and suggestions for panelists to participate in the 2017 Life Sciences Expo.

To grow the life sciences cluster in Rhode Island, Horan explained, what is required is “technology, talent and capital.” While the state has strengths in technology and talent, Horan continued, the missing ingredient to date has been access to capital and with it, the ability to recruit experienced entrepreneurial management.

The 2017 Life Sciences Expo, Horan believes, is a good way to showcase Rhode Island’s technology and talent. “We’ve been learning from successful places like Boston and Cambridge how to succeed,” Horan said. The challenge, he continued, is to help attract the companies and venture capital to find their way down Route 95, overcoming the difficulties in navigating the challenges that he likened to the S-curves in Pawtucket.

Pryor to give the keynote

The keynote address to open the event will be given by Stefan Pryor, secretary at CommerceRI. The plenary address will be given by Tom Osha, the senior vice president for Innovation and Economic Development at Wexford Science + Development.

The Life Sciences Expo will feature three moderated panels with “life science” experts in research and innovation. They include:

• Advances and Future Outlook in Neuroscience, featuring Stevin Zorn, president and CEO of MindImmunew Therapeutics, as moderator; with panelists Dr. Steven A. Rasmussen, chair of the Department and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown; Carl Saab, associate professor of Neuroscience at Brown; and John Simeral, Providence VA Medical Center and the VA Center for Neurorestoration and Neurotechnology.

• Precision Medicine Innovation, moderated by Patrice Milos, president and CEO, Medley Genomics as moderator, with panelists Dr. Barrett Bready, founder and CEO of Nabsys 2.0; Katrina Loomis, director of CVMET Human Genetics, Genome Sciences and Technologies at Pfizer; and William Martin, COO and CIO at EpiVax.

• Design Innovation in Medical Devices, moderated by Tracy MacNeal, executive vice president, Corporate Development, at Ximedica, with panelists David Brin, vice president of R&D at C.R. Bard; Carl Dumas, director of Electrical & Software Engineering at Ximedica; John Jarrell, president of Materials Science Associates; and Scott Stropkay, founder, Essential.

Confluence and convergence

ConvergenceRI sat down with David Goldsmith, the president of MedMates, and one of its earliest champions, to talk about the how the 2017 Life Sciences Expo represents an important coming-of-age moment for the emerging innovation industry sector in Rhode Island. Here is the interview.

ConvergenceRI: This must be an exciting time, with the launch of the Life Sciences Expo. It’s been a long haul.

GOLDSMITH: Thank you for recognizing that. We think of ourselves as a startup at MedMates. We had an idea back in 2013, following the Make It Happen [conversation]. You have followed that story, so you know what our roots are.

When 50 people showed up [at our first meeting], it was like “Go!”

We were all volunteers; we had a little bit of money…

ConvergenceRI: An initial grant from the Rhode Island Foundation?

GOLDSMITH: Yes, $50,000 from The Rhode Island Foundation, that was spread out among a number of different things: we needed to have someone build a website and to manage communications.

We had a lot of events, and we needed to pay people to do all the things that needed to pull off those events, including the food and the beverage.

That was our start. It became clear that we needed a full-time executive director if we were going to get anywhere and realize our vision of fostering the connectivity and collaboration that everyone agreed in our early meetings that was needed to bring life sciences and the medical technology community together.

You know what the ups and downs of that have been.

At the end of last year, when we laid out our events that we were planning, we decided to have a signature event in the springtime.

In January, after we had an exciting event at the Rhode Island Quality Institute, immediately following that, we hunkered down and began to put all the pieces together in order to have the Expo be a success.

[We realized that] the key was expanding the number of volunteers, because it wasn’t all going to happen with a single executive director doing everything.

And, quite frankly, part of the reason for having the Expo was to rebuild momentum, which had been lost over a period of a year when we did not have core staff, and when we went through one executive director.

During that time we had expanded our board, adding people to it from the life sciences community.

The key objective for us was to reinvigorate the membership and to know that the community was still engaged to come together to make the life sciences community all that it can be.

ConvergenceRI: How involved has CommerceRI become in your work?

GOLDSMITH: I ran into Hope Hopkins at a forum sponsored by the Technology Ventures Office at Brown University, showcasing some of the translational research programs at Brown. She is now working for CommerceRI; when she was at Ximedica, Hope was very involved with the original formation of MedMates. We are in regular communication with Hope. Our coordination with CommerceRI is essential. We are on the same page, and Hope has been very helpful in working with us.

ConvergenceRI: What is her official capacity at CommerceRI?

GOLDSMITH: I don’t know what her title is. Here official capacity, as far as I know, is to be a conduit between CommerceRI and the Boston community.

Carol Malysz, [the new executive director of MedMates], is in frequent contact with her. Our collaboration with CommerceRI is key. We’ve had meetings with Stefan, who has been very supportive. He’s going to be the keynote speaker at our Expo event. We’re also working with CommerceRI on some ideas for incentives for investment money coming in, either from inside the state or outside the state, to help grow companies here.

ConvergenceRI: My experience in attempting to interact with CommerceRI has sometimes been difficult, to say the least. They do not seem to welcome critical reporting, in my opinion.

GOLDSMITH: We’re seeing what’s going on in Washington and in other parts of the world, where the powers that be are suppressing the news media. A free press is essential to democracy. We don’t always have to like what you say, but you have a right to say what you see, and we have a right to respond to it – that’s what makes a healthy conversation. And, in the end, we all come out the wiser.

ConvergenceRI: I welcome the feedback and the conversation.

GOLDSMITH: You’re a bumblebee. A bumblebee goes from this flower to that flower and to the next flower, because you circulate in the community, you build perspective. And, because you’re focused on the technology/life sciences/innovation sector, you’re in a position to connect the dots, and there’s a value in that for the entire community.

ConvergenceRI: I call it a convergence. The Life Sciences Expo will come four days after the Marches for Science in Providence, Boston, in Washington, across the country and around the world. How does the entrepreneurial community in life sciences keep itself connected – or separate – from the perceived attack on the legitimacy of science?

GOLDSMITH: My degree is in environmental science. I look at this from a perspective of ecosystems. Rhode Island operates in an ecosystem – an ecosystem inside our borders and outside our borders. So, we can go micro or macro.

Obviously, we are within the general Boston, Mass., sphere. Which is why companies are reconsidering locating here. We have Rhode Island residents who are executives in Boston-area life science companies, and we are part of a national system.

All of these things become part of the ecosystem that we operate in.

To the extent that funding for research is cut – whether it be the NIH or the National Science Foundation – that is to the detriment of the growth of companies that develop technologies that become part of everyday life.

Whether it be for military research funding or for medical research funding, you’re talking to somebody who is strongly in favor of funding for research. Because, research is what gives us our competitive edge; it creates the jobs for the future. So we need to be looking long-term, which is what they did in the Boston area.


ConvergenceRI: Do you plan to join the March for Science in Providence?

GOLDSMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. We need to stand up for science; we need to stand up for life sciences; we need to stand up together.

Grumping at home in our den, or in our lab, is not going to move the needle forward. We need to come together and identify where we need to put pressure, and do it collaboratively.

ConvergenceRI: Do you think that Rhode Island will ever launch an initiative similar to what the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative has become, to fund major investments in the life sciences here in Rhode Island?
GOLDSMITH: Rhode Island is the smallest state in the country. We do not have the diversity of economies as other states do. So, we will do things here that are applicable to our size and our resources. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot have a significant impact and grow a very vibrant sector.

Let’s look backward; let’s look at the jewelry industry. In the late 1890s and early 1990s, the jewelry industry was a growing sector, probably centered in New York.

Rhode Island became the jewelry capital of the world. I don’t exactly know how that all came together, but that happened here.

The industrial revolution started here, in the smallest state in the colonies.

We can do great things here. We need to have the will, we need to come together, we need to decide what we can do with the resources we have that will have a significant impact.

The more that we can think long-term and put things in place that are building blocks for the future, the more likely we are to realize that vision.

Everything comes down to a value proposition.

ConvergenceRI: What is the value proposition for MedMates and its Life Sciences Expo?

GOLDSMITH: I’m going to answer the question in a couple of ways.

First and foremost, the Expo is a showcase of the innovation that is happening here in Rhode Island’s life sciences community.

I say Rhode Island, but it also includes what is happening in Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut. But it is Rhode Island centric, because there are a lot of great things going on here.

It’s an opportunity for companies to showcase that – and for people to see that.

The value proposition for startups is to create exposure; for growth companies it is to make connections with other companies that could help grow their business and get connected, because everyone is operating in their own silo.

[People attending will] get a broader perspective about what is happening in neuroscience, what is happening in precision medicine, and what is happening in medical devices, through the panels.

There is another benefit. If everybody who is operating in the life sciences community can be supportive of the life sciences community, then we are helping to draw attention to what’s going on here in Rhode Island so it becomes more viable, attracting that company on the outskirts of Boston that might want to relocate, because this is a viable community.

Companies want to come and to know that they are not moving into a desert, that they are moving into a viable community, so this Expo serves that well.

There’s a value proposition not only for individual companies, but there’s also a value proposition for the life sciences community as a whole, and therefore, the state as a whole.

ConvergenceRI: How will some of the pioneering life sciences companies and entrepreneurs, such as Dr. Annie De Groot and her team at EpiVax, be represented? She and her team are doing extraordinary work in precision medicine and in vaccines, using their immuno-informatic tools.

GOLDSMITH: Annie is traveling and won’t be able to attend, but EpiVax is a sponsor, they are an exhibitor, and Bill Martin is on one of the panels.

ConvergenceRI: With all the talk about building a series of life sciences innovation hubs in Rhode Island, do you think that the new relationship between MindImmune and URI, a partnership between a for-profit firm and a university to collaborate on research, can be replicated?

GOLDSMITH: When Tom Ryan made a substantial donation to his alma mater at URI for neurosciences, it enabled many things, and this is definitely one of them.

ConvergenceRI: Let me rephrase the question: what comes first? Is it intellectual property, or is it a research hub?
GOLDSMITH: It’s a confluence. I don’t think it’s any one thing. It’s a confluence.

[You need] the intellectual property and the viable market potential and articulate executives that can help promote and advocate for [the product], and visionaries that can lay out a plan for growth, all these need to come together; that’s what attracts the money.

Sometimes the money says: I’d like to do something, but I’ll only do it if you meet the following [conditions].

We have a number of very high-networked individuals in Rhode Island who could write checks for $10 million, $20 million, singularly or collectively. Quite frankly, I would like to see more of that to help grow this sector, to put more energy behind it.

Money is energy. Obviously, it has to be put in the right place, but we already know that there are great things happening here.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a misunderstanding about how growing the life sciences sector will translate into jobs?

GOLDSMITH: Let’s get back to confluence here. While we are, on one hand, nurturing the growth of startups, these [endeavors] can certainly create jobs, and some of these are long-term.

We have two major initiatives, if you will, that we are looking at, in collaboration with CommerceRI and the life sciences community.

One is to grow companies here; one is to attract companies [to relocate here].

You attract companies when you have a vibrant community. We’re fertilizing the ground, we’re establishing the good soil, for the companies to grow roots in.

It’s companies like Nabsys and EpiVax and Ximedica and Aspiera Medical that are part of the fabric of the life sciences community.

It’s part of what will help a company in Boston or wherever to set up an office here or move their entire operation here.

Obviously, [lower real estate costs] are a huge value proposition for firms [to decide to] locating here. But it also the vibrancy of the community, all of the startups and all of the research, that is essential to making this a vibrant life sciences community.

I believe that it can help accelerate out ability to attract larger companies to move here, or to set up a satellite operation here, as in the case of GE and J&J.

ConvergenceRI: I remain optimistic, but I’m also realistic; there are a lot of promises being made. What happens when the high expectations being promoted don’t work out? I’m not sure that commercial real estate development is the pathway to a more vibrant life sciences sector.

GOLDSMITH: A reach should always exceed its grasp.

ConvergenceRI: Nothing will kill a bad idea quicker than good publicity

GOLDSMITH: It can also rally the troops.

ConvergenceRI: Returning to the Life Sciences Expo, what are you hopes that it will accomplish?

GOLDSMITH: The Expo is going to reignite the passion that people have, and promote MedMates ability to bring the community together and to support connectivity and collaboration that will be beneficial.

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