Rhode Island Looks to Beef up Its Life Sciences Jobs

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In the biotech hub known as Pharm Country, the small state of Rhode Island often gets overlooked in favor of its larger neighbors, such as New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But, the Ocean State is making some moves to enhance its image as a biotech hotspot, particularly in the wake of some lost jobs.

First reported by Xconomy, Rhode Island has shed 10 percent of its biotech jobs over the past four years. Despite the loss of those jobs, Rhode Island has a strong concentration in NIH awards to its research institutions with per capita funding at twice the national average. Its receipt of NIH funding has risen in recent years and totaled $170.6 million in FY 2017, according to a Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) survey. What is really telling about the state of Rhode Island’s biotech industry though, is the lack of venture capital investments in biotech and pharma.

According to the BIO report, between 2014 and 2016 the state received about $42 million in venture capital investments. In 2017, though, there was only about $1 million in VC funding for Rhode Island pharma and biotech companies.

One of the key issues that Rhode Island leaders are looking to solve is keeping its residential talent from working in other biotech hotspots. Xconomy noted that approximately 10 percent of biotech employees who live in the Rhode Island capital city of Providence actually commute to Boston, which is about an hour away. That checks out compared to many of the pharma job listings on BioSpace. There are zero jobs listed under Rhode Island, and the jobs listed that are near Rhode Island are all in Massachusetts.

Some of those commuters want to remain closer to home during the day, and have formed an advocacy group known as RI BioHub. That organization is expected to produce a report later this year that can provide insights on how to boost life science employment in Rhode Island.

The Xconomy article points out though that there are some highlights to the state’s life science industry. Pharma giant Amgen has a facility near Providence that employs about 600 people. That facility is getting ready to expand thanks to support from state dollars. In a July statement, Amgen said the Rhode Island plant is a “first-of-its-kind in the U.S.” The plant will use Amgen’s proven next-generation biomanufacturing capabilities to manufacture products for the U.S. and global markets, the company said. Unlike a typical manufacturing plant, Amgen said a “next-generation biomanufacturing plant incorporates multiple innovative technologies into a single facility, and therefore is built in half the construction time with approximately one half of the operating cost of a traditional plant.”

Another company that is bringing in new jobs is Rubius Therapeutics. That company is renovating a former Alexion Pharmaceuticals plant in Smithfield, RI. When all is said and done, the company plans to invest up to $95 million through 2020, and up to $155 million in total over a five-plus year period, and it expects to hire approximately 150 people to be employed at the Rhode Island facility. The new facility will help the company scale its manufacturing process in order to produce large quantities of Red Cell Therapeutic product candidates and lentiviral vectors needed to encode biotherapeutic proteins inside or on the surface of each Red Cell Therapeutic, the company said in July.

Other Rhode Island-based companies are making moves as well. Earlier this year, MindImmune Therapeutics forged a research agreement with pharma giant Pfizer to develop treatments for a number of central nervous system disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The companies will collaborate on research to study a previously unrecognized role for peripheral immune cells in the pathology of central nervous system disorders.

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