PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Joe Shekarchi is considering an idea to spend $50 million over two years to bolster biotech and life sciences locally, arguing the timing could be ripe to capitalize on the underdeveloped industry in Rhode Island.
The idea involves creating a new quasi-public agency — with an initial annual operating budget of $1.5 million — that would partner with higher education institutions and private companies to grow the industry. About $300,000 of that money would fund the annual salary of the agency’s president and CEO.
About $30 million of the overall $50 million would go into an investment fund for life science and biotech startups, which proponents argued could result in more homegrown companies and good-paying jobs for Rhode Islanders.
“This is a great opportunity,” Shekarchi said during a briefing with reporters Wednesday, adding that the newly released reports complement an upcoming announcement the state will make about the biotech and life sciences industry next week.
Earlier this month, the state announced it will build a new health laboratory that’s expected to open in 2025. The building would house both a new public health lab, along with space that would be available to lease to life-science organizations, according to state officials.
“We need to look down the road and we have to make decisions,” Shekarchi said.
The idea for a new agency was outlined in two Rhode Island Foundation-funded reports conducted by the consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which foundation leaders shared with Shekarchi earlier this year. (You can read the full reports here and here.)
Shekarchi said his team would evaluate the reports and he’d be willing to champion the idea. But he underscored the need for other groups — such as the schools and other legislative leaders — to buy in on the idea, or “it doesn’t happen.”
“This is worth exploring and that’s my commitment today,” he said.
The JLL findings echoed other consultant reports that state leaders have commissioned throughout the years, including a 2016 Brookings Institute report that called for industry-university partnerships to create “major new facilities, such as a shared, transitional neuroscience research lab.”
The report — championed by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo — was a precursor to the governor’s decision to steer tens of millions of taxpayer dollars toward building the Wexford Science & Technology Center, now known as CIC Providence, in the former I-195 land in Providence.
Raimondo — now U.S. commerce secretary — described the project as a “gamechanger,” saying the building would “begin the snowball” to bring more innovative companies into the area.
Despite those efforts and others over the decades, however, Rhode Island Foundation president and CEO Neil Steinberg acknowledged leaders’ long-held expectation that the state would benefit from being so close to the booming biotech and life sciences industries in Boston and New York has largely gone unfulfilled over the years.
“I’ve never really seen it come down the road,” he said.
He was nonetheless bullish the JLL reports outlines a realistic road map toward building out the industry, which he said could ultimately result in good jobs for Rhode Islanders.
“We want jobs and industries,” he said.
The quasi-public agency idea detailed in the JLL report mirrors an existing agency in Massachusetts called the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which was created under former Gov. Deval Patrick and reauthorized by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“The Rhode Island Biotech And Life Sciences Hub (RIBLSH), like its Massachusetts cousin, would focus on creating innovation capacity and would be charged with investing in both sound science and good business,” consultants wrote in the report.
The consultants’ report was largely optimistic that with the right leadership, Rhode Island could leverage its existing assets to strengthen the industry. But they also acknowledged some of Rhode Island’s weaknesses, including its low commercial rents, salaries and low-performing public schools compared to other states regionally.
“The low-performing K-12 public school system, which stands in stark contrast to Boston-area public schools, is a deterrent to mid-career professionals looking to establish roots and families,” wrote the consultants.