News & analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation
Innovation Ecosystem

Who gets to decide what innovation is, and how it is defined?

New headquarters for the New England Medical Innovation Center and MedMates opens; IlluminOss receives additional FDA clearance for its revolutionary bone stabilization fracture repair system; and Slater Technology Fund moves out of its former headquarters in Davol Square into temporary quarters

Photo by Richard Asinof

The view from the Wexford Innovation Center, now under construction, envisioned as a cornerstone of the Providence Innovation Hub.

Image courtesy of IlluminOss

IlluminOss received FDA approval to use its innovative bone stabilization system for additional indications of bone repair.

Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Housing

Sen. Jack Reed, fourth from right, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, seventh from right, Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, eighth from right, join with Maurice "Mo" Vaughn, co-managing director of Omni New York LLC, in celebrating the $50 million renovation project in South Providence of 193 Section 8 housing units spread across 82 buildings in the area of Burnside Street in South Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/17/18
While Amgen has expanded its footprint in West Greenwich and Rubius Therapeutics is building a biotech manufacturing facility in Smithfield, the vision of what makes a thriving innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island is still a work in progress, struggling at times to define inclusive strategies.
How does the Sankofa Initiative, with its combined urban growing space and affordable housing in the West End, fit within the boundaries of the Providence Innovation and Design District or the new Urban Innovation Partnership? How do the innovative concepts of Health Equity Zones in nine Rhode Island communities and the Neighborhood Health Stations in Central Falls and Scituate fit in with the need to develop a new business model for health care delivery? Are increasing rents in the former Jewelry District making it unaffordable for small businesses to stay there, forcing them to relocate? How do investments in affordable housing in local Providence neighborhoods become part of the innovation conversation?
As much as the leadership of the R.I. General Assembly has prided itself in recent years as being supportive of small businesses and removing unnecessary regulations as a way to drive economic growth, the big bugaboo has been how much money the state spends on Medicaid. The basic economic question that remains unasked and unanswered is this: Is the number of Rhode Island residents receiving Medicaid an economic weakness or an economic strength?
The current strategies of reinventing Medicaid through the development of what are known as accountable entities, or value-based care, do not address the fundamental drivers of the escalation in medical costs: the demographics of Rhode Island’s aging population; the flowering and peaking of chronic diseases in that population; and the ever-increasing demand for mental health and behavioral health services.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, Rhode Island will host the third annual Health Equity Summit at the Providence Convention Center. It would behoove investors and practitioners of innovation to make the time to attend and listen to what is being said.

PROVIDENCE – Each day, it seems, the fences, boundaries and corridors of the landscape that has been labeled, at different times, the Providence Innovation District, the Providence Innovation and Design District and the Providence Innovation Hub comes into sharper focus about what will be included and, by definition, what will be excluded, sometimes as a result of rising rents that have accompanied the new development.

And, soon joining the mix of “innovation” entities will be the new $20 million Innovation Campus in Rhode Island, scheduled to be announced sometime this fall, likely in October.

Pete Rumsey, the director of the Rhode Island Innovation Campus initiative at CommerceRI, told ConvegenceRI last week that there was no news to report about when the pending decision would be revealed about which proposal had been selected to be the new innovation campus. “It is up to the Governor,” Rumsey said.

In addition, the grand poobahs from many of Rhode Island’s “anchor” institutions – universities, colleges and hospital systems – recently joined with the city of Providence to create what is to be known as the Urban Innovation Partnership, prioritizing investments in two “innovation” districts.

The vision of the new partnership, as articulated by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, was: “We must work shoulder-to-shoulder to support innovation and job growth in our capital city.”

But, exactly what is the innovation process, how is it related to growing the innovation economy, and who gets invited to participate in the conversation and in the decision-making around investments often seems to be a political as much as an economic calculation, driven by the demands of private equity investment, the potential value of IPOs, and the desires of the anchor institutions.

As a result, talking about innovation in Rhode Island as a driver for economic prosperity can be confusing, to say the least. The conversation often leaves out the fact that investing in the innovation process is a long-term commitment, a process that begins with research – one that needs to be able to embrace failure as an integral part of the pathway to success. [Imagine a conference hosted by Brown University and RISD, entitled, “There is no success like failure.”] And, it requires substantial, sustainable state investments that may not fit snugly into a short-term political calculus around job creation.

For instance, where does investment in affordable housing fit into the innovation calculation? “The road to economic opportunity starts when you can open your front door, when you can stay in that home,” said Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, at the recent ceremony celebrating the $50 million renovation project in South Providence of 193 Section 8 housing units spread across 82 buildings in the area of Burnside Street, according to a story in The Providence Journal.

And, how does it fit in with the vision being articulated by ONE Neighborhood Builders, headquartered in Olneyville, which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary on Friday, Sept. 21, at the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island, and the work being done by the health equity zone to engage with residents and community-based organization to create a collaborative problem-solving approach?

The ONE Neighborhood Builders celebration will feature an opportunity to view a net-zero, affordable home known as “Small builds, big futures,” that is being featured as part of Design Week RI.

All the innovation news that fits
On Monday, Sept. 10, Mayor Jorge Elorza joined representatives from “anchor institutions” to announce the creation of the Urban Innovation Partnership, which seeks to prioritize two innovation districts, one in the Jewelry District and another along the Woonasquatucket River Corridor in Olneyville.

The new high-level partnership includes: the presidents and CEOs from Brown University, Rhode Island College, Care New England, Johnson & Wales University, Lifespan, Providence College, RISD, Roger Williams University and the executive director for the Business Engagement Center at URI, under the guidance of Café Venture from Boston, to spur economic growth and development in order to “establish a vibrant and sustainable innovation ecosystem,” whatever that means.

The goal is to leverage public and private investments “to support inclusive economic growth and locally generated innovation,” prioritizing what was termed Smart City investments citywide.

NEMIC and MedMates’ new home
On Tuesday evening, Sept. 11, the New England Medical Innovation Center, or NEMIC, held an open house to showcase its new headquarters at 116 Chestnut St. in what was once known as the Jewelry District, around the corner from the Wexford Innovation Center, the Warren Alpert Medical School and the Nursing Education Center

The new space, which will also serve as the headquarters of the life sciences cluster group, MedMates, was jumpstarted by investments from CommerceRI and The Rhode Island Foundation.

The goal of NEMIC, a nonprofit enterprise, according to its brochure, is to “bridge the valley” of death, helping clients prepare for successful fundraising and technology commercialization in the field of health care devices – med tech – and digital products.

NEMIC’s partners include Lifespan, the Rhode Island School of Design and Ximedica.

The two managing partners, Aidan Petrie and Lydia Shin, who described themselves as serial entrepreneurs, spoke at the open house, as did Carol Malysz, executive director of MedMates.

Petrie, who began by apologizing for not providing alcohol to help fuel the open house festivities, described the way that the commercialization space had changed significantly for med tech products entering the market, with a need to focus on interface and connectivity – with what appeared to be an unspoken nod to the rapid growth of the wearable device market.

“Medical devices are now connected; you have much more sophisticated technology,” Petrie said. “Any of the players in the space need to have multiple interfaces with their products.”

The expertise that NEMIC brings to the playing field was not just access to the physicians, the engineers and the hospitals, but the designer’s ability to look at health care and med tech from the position of the consumer and the user, Petrie said. “The user is not always the patient; there are doctors and nurses [involved].”

The working space at NEMIC will be a work in progress, Petrie explained. “We want to be impactful and useful but also flexible,” he said. “We have a co-working space, we’re going to be offering office hours; we’re giving talks. We’ve already got companies moving in here full time.”

As much as NEMIC is billing itself as a global accelerator, Petrie indicated that there was a need for a lot of improvisation and adjustment as the enterprise evolves, particularly around the definition of what it means to be an accelerator.

“Another discussion,” Petrie said, “is about whether this is an accelerator or not.” Petrie indicated that it was not just about going fast, the need for speed, but thinking about what you want to accomplish.

“What you actually need to do is to do what you say you’re going to do, in the time you said you were going to do it,” Petrie said. “You need to have a good plan, and we have access to people who are very good at planning,” adding: “The development of medical products takes a long time.”

The really big news on the innovation front
If someone were to choose a poster company for the medical device industry in Rhode Island to talk about patience, perseverance and true grit in commercializing an innovative, disruptive new product and getting FDA approval, it would be IlluminOss, a privately held, commercial stage medical device company headquartered on Waterman Avenue in East Providence.

Is IlluminOss, with the potential to capture a large market share in the U.S. with its bone fracture technology, to be excluded from the boundaries of the new innovation district because they are in East Providence? Good question.

IlluminOss announced on Thursday, Sept. 13, that it had received additional clinical clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use its revolutionary photodynamic bone stabilization system for treatment in mature patients for fracture repair in arm bones.

IlluminOss’ minimally invasive approach to fracture repair makes it ideal for treating patients with osteoporosis and other pathologic indications affecting bone quality, as fragile bones can be difficult to treat with conventional hardware such as plates, nails and screws because reduction and subsequent hardware fixation may be challenging, according to the company’s news release announcing the latest FDA approval.

The FDA approval for use of the bone stabilization system for additional indications expands on the initial FDA approval for metastatic fractures received in January of 2018. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “IlluminOss granted FDA OK for its innovative bone stabilization system.”]

The approval for the minimally invasive orthopedic fracture repair system followed the successful completion of U.S. clinical trials in 2016, in which 81 patients were treated. Among the findings were that patients experienced less pain, had better mobility in recovery, and had quicker discharges from the hospital.

“There is critical need to make less invasive orthopedic fracture repair options available to an aging and underserved market segment,” said Rob Rabiner, the chief technology officer at IlluminOss, at the time of the initial FDA approval in January.

The additional clearance expands the market for IlluminOss’s bone fracture repair system by five to six times, compared to the initial metastatic market, according to Jeff Bailey, the firm’s CEO.

Bailey framed the discussion about potential market growth around the way in which the IlluminOss bone fracture repair system has improved patient outcomes for bone fragility that are breaking or tend to break, what he called a huge unmet need. “It is difficult to use traditional hardware, including plates, screws and nails, with elderly patients,” Bailey explained.

Bailey said that around 60 implant surgeries had been conducted since the initial FDA approval in January. The new FDA approval will translate into ramping up more sales resources a bit earlier than the anticipated, Bailey said.

Bailey said that IlluminOss was very happy with its current location in East Providence and had no plans to leave. “The game plan is to stay here,” he said, saying that the facility includes a training area as well as serving as the supply chain for distribution of its products for both the U.S. and Europe.

What were the takeaways from IlluminOss’s road to success?

“Patience, perseverance, a great product that brings really innovative, disruptive technology to the marketplace, and top-notch people, knowing how to execute at a higher level,” Bailey said, praising the leadership of Rabiner.

Slater Technology Fund in transition
The other big news, somewhat under the radar screen, is that the Slater Technology Fund decided not to renew its lease at 3 Davol Square, which had served as its headquarters for nearly two decades.

In the interim process of finding a new home, Slater managing director Thorne Sparkman has set up a temporary office at Nabsys, while Richard Horan is maintaining an office at ProThera Biologics, according to sources. [Both companies have received funding through Slater.]

Slater has been a major player in the emerging Rhode Island innovation ecosystem, making investments in nascent firms in the life sciences, biotech, drug discovery, renewable energy and big data industry arenas. Indeed, Slater was one of the early investors in IlluminOss, as part of its strategy to invest seed capital to support early stage and start-up firms in Rhode Island.

While Slater still maintains an extensive portfolio of investments and continues to make investments, the day-to-day operations have become financially constrained in recent years as a result of two factors: the loss of continued state revenue and restrictions placed on the use of federal funds from the U.S. Treasury Department program known as State Small Business Credit Initiative.


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