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Ocean State starting to see growth in biotech industry

RI BIO, a Providence-based biotechnology trade association, is on a mission to put Rhode Island on the biotech industry’s map. Despite the state having some success increasing the industry’s presence here, statistics suggest the group has its work cut out.

Rhode Island and Greater Providence don’t rank among the nation’s leaders in most state and metro area performance measures of the biotech industry, according to a 2018 report titled “Investment, Innovation, and Job Creation in a Growing U.S. Bioscience Industry,” from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the industry’s largest trade association, and research firm Teconomy Partners LLC.

RI BIO was previously known as MedMates, which formed in 2013. The group’s original mission was to promote a range of health care-related industries in Rhode Island. This year, however, the group changed its name and redefined its focus to only the biotech industry, which it divides into five subsectors. Prior to that, the group was mainly focusing on only one subsector of biotech – medical devices and equipment.

“We broadened our mission from medical devices to the whole biotech world,” said Carol Malysz, RI BIO’s executive director. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Nationwide, employment in the biotech sector grew by 18.6% from 2001 to 2016 to a total of more than 1.7 million jobs. As of 2016, the average wage in biotech nationwide was $98,961 a year, well above the average wage for all private-sector jobs of $53,354, according to the report.

Recognizing the potential for Rhode Island’s economy, RI BIO collaborated with Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s Rhode Island BioHub Group in January on a report that recommended ways to grow the lucrative biotech industry here. The ideas included having the state organize a forum of high-net-worth individuals in Rhode Island to discuss creating an initial $25 million private capital fund to infuse promising local ventures with the money they need. The ideas also included developing facilities such as wet-lab space in Rhode Island to discourage local startups from moving to locations that already have such facilities, including Massachusetts.

In addition to medical devices and equipment, biotech’s other subsectors are drugs and pharmaceuticals; research, testing and medical labs; bioscience-related distribution; and agricultural feedstock and industrial biosciences.

‘We’re building momentum … every time a company expands or relocates here.’
CAROL MALYSZ, RI BIO executive director

Among the five subsectors, Rhode Island is strongest in medical devices and equipment. As of 2016, employment in the medical devices and equipment subsector totaled 4,045 in the Providence-Warwick metropolitan area, ranking it No. 18 among metro areas nationwide.

Providence-Warwick ranked No. 10 among metro areas nationwide with the highest concentration of jobs in the medical devices and equipment subsector.

However, neither the Providence-Warwick metro nor Rhode Island were ranked among the nation’s employment leaders in biotech’s four other subsectors.

The 2018 report found that most of the venture capital going to biotech is mainly happening in two states: California, $28.3 billion from 2014 to 2017; and Massachusetts, $15.3 billion during the same period. New York was a distant third with about $2.1 billion. However, when measuring the amount of biotech venture capital per capita during that period, Massachusetts was far ahead of all other states. Massachusetts also led the nation in biotech-related patents issued per capita during that time.

Rhode Island did well in federal funding for biotech research. The state ranked No. 4 in the nation in terms of receiving the most funding per capita from the National Institutes of Health, the report showed.

An example of biotech’s growth here is Rubius Therapeutics Inc. The Cambridge, Mass.-based biopharmaceutical company is on track to have its new manufacturing facility in Smithfield fully operating by the end of next year, said Rubius spokeswoman Lori Melancon.

The company is renovating the 135,000-square-foot former Alexion Pharmaceuticals factory to make that its main manufacturing facility. Currently, Rubius does most of its manufacturing through an independent contractor.

Rubius has about 50 employees working out of Smithfield as the renovation continues. The total cost of the project is about $95 million, Melancon said. The number of Rubius employees in Smithfield is expected to increase to 80 by the end of this year, then increase to 150 by the end of 2020, she said.

Meanwhile, California-based Amgen Inc., another biopharma company, expects modular additions to expand the company’s Amgen Rhode Island manufacturing facilities in West Greenwich to arrive this month, said Amgen spokeswoman Tara Urban. The company expects to complete the exterior work in September, then start the interior work. When the expansion is completed, Amgen’s campus in West Greenwich will have an additional 150 employees working there. Currently, Amgen has about 650 employees at the site, Urban said.

Malysz says Rhode Island is making progress in biotech. “We’re building momentum with the expansion of infrastructure [through related programs and facilities at local colleges and universities] and every time a company expands or relocates here,” she said.

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at [email protected].

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