Brown launches new initiative to boost economic growth in Rhode Island

After a yearlong series of discussions and focus groups with community leaders and experts, the University has begun work on an effort to maximize its impact on innovation, entrepreneurship and job growth.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In consultation with business, community and government leaders from across Rhode Island, Brown University has launched a new initiative aimed at expanding the University’s impact on economic growth across the Ocean State.

A strategic action plan titled Brown and the Innovation Economy identifies key economic areas in which Brown is positioned to make an immediate impact and establishes action items aimed at maximizing that impact. The action items include incentivizing entrepreneurs to build ventures in Rhode Island, translating medical discoveries into products and companies, increasing the University’s engagement with private industry, building new innovation infrastructure and helping Brown faculty to turn research ideas into commercial ventures.

Each of those steps builds on existing academic strengths and priorities in Brown’s research and scholarship, said Brown Provost Richard M. Locke — but expanding them in the context of economic development positions the University to maximize its impact on innovation, entrepreneurship and job growth in Rhode Island.

“As we make additional investments that strengthen academic excellence at Brown and address pressing real-world issues through teaching, research and public engagement, we seek to do so in ways that have wide-ranging benefits to our city and state," Locke said. "This initiative bolsters Brown's connections with public, private and non-profit partners and helps to focus our resources toward economic growth and job creation.”

Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said that the University’s work in convening leaders to create this plan comes with potential to impact the state’s economy in significant and enduring ways.

“We’re pleased and grateful that Brown has produced this important strategic plan,” Pryor said. “Brown and the universities of Rhode Island play a critical role as we work together to grow the innovation economy. The elements of this plan align well with the innovation-related initiatives that are underway in Rhode Island, and they have the potential to help us advance even more rapidly. We thank Provost Locke and the team at Brown for their report and for the positive contribution it makes to the dialogue regarding innovation and entrepreneurship in our state.”

An action plan

The initiative took shape over the past year as University leaders hosted approximately 70 meetings, focus groups and interview sessions with an array of community leaders and experts. Meetings were organized by topic and focused on entrepreneurship, life sciences, data science, engineering and design. Each featured presentations from industry and academic experts, including Rajiv Kumar, chief medical officer for Virgin Pulse; Walter Callender, founder of Práctico Innovations; Patrice Milos, founder of Medley Genomics; and others.

Brown and the Innovation Economy will begin with five action items with high potential for making an immediate and lasting impact on the Rhode Island economy. Each aims to address one or more of the key economic areas identified in research performed in consultation with community leaders. Those key areas include talent development and retention, industry-academic partnerships, building innovation capacity and infrastructure, support for entrepreneurship, and deepening Rhode Island’s ties to regional economic hubs.

Brown Venture Founders, one action item outlined in the plan, aims to keep talented people in the state and encourage an expanding array of Rhode Island-based entrepreneurial ventures. The project, a partnership between Brown’s Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and the Slater Technology Fund, offers startup founders working in the Nelson Center grants of up to $50,000 as well as space, mentorship and other resources for growing their companies in the state.

Michelle Petersen, a Brown Class of 2018 graduate and founder of a company called TextUp, was named as the first Brown Venture Founder earlier this summer. TextUp is a software company that increases ease and efficiency for social workers, nonprofits and other organizations providing long-term client care. Petersen said the Venture Founders grant helped her and her cofounders to take TextUp from a school project to a real company.

“It has helped give me the financial security and confidence I needed to work on TextUp full-time post-graduation,” Petersen said. “I am incredibly honored to be the first of hopefully many Brown students who will have access to this bridge from researching problems to launching real-world solutions.”

Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, said that Petersen will be the first of many  Venture Founders to build a home in Rhode Island for emerging ventures.

“The great problems of our time — environmental, medical, societal — will be solved by the students in our universities,” Sparkman said. “Brown University has been at the forefront of preparing its students for these challenges with its entrepreneurship programs and venture support resources, and we’ve been proud to work alongside them in support of their efforts. Through the Brown Venture Founders program and beyond, Slater looks forward to empowering the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders emerging from Brown.”

Separately, Brown and the Innovation Economy details a plan to expand on the recently launched Brown Biomedical Innovation, Inc. (BBII). BBII helps biomedical research projects to bridge “valley of death” — the gap between when the National Institutes of Health stops funding research and when private investors are willing to step up. The ultimate aim is to launch new products and companies based on Brown research findings. To date, BBII has been supported by gifts totaling more than $8 million; this summer, a search for a dedicated managing director is expected to culminate.

Other items in the action plan include efforts on the part of Brown’s Office Industry Engagement and Commercial Venturing to create new commercial partnerships among Brown researchers and industry partners, new intellectual property and commercialization policies at the University, and training sessions to help Brown faculty turn research ideas into commercial ventures.

The plan also outlines a proposed Rhode Island Innovation Hub. This spring, Brown proposed a partnership with IBM, MassChallenge and the University of Rhode Island to develop an innovation hub and accelerator focused on fostering partnerships between industry and university research teams. The proposed hub is the subject of a Brown-led proposal to the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to create an Innovation Campus. The 5,000 square-foot center, which would be located in Providence’s Jewelry District, would incubate local companies and university-industry collaborations based on the models of the MassChallenge and IBM AlphaZone accelerators.

Innovation and economic development

Locke said the plan is intended to complement other innovation-focused initiatives underway in Rhode Island, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s Anchor Institutions Working Group (co-chaired by Brown President Christina Paxson), the Brookings Institution’s “Rhode Island Innovates” report, and programs such as Make It Happen R.I. and the Knowledge Economy benchmarking project.

He added that the steps outlined in the initial Brown and the Innovation Economy plan will serve as the initiative’s starting point but are likely to expand over time as opportunities arise.

“The Brown and the Innovation Economy strategic action plan reinforces and directs our commitment to statewide economic development, which has already manifested itself in projects including South Street Landing, the in-progress Wexford Innovation Center and others,” Locke said. “We’re excited to continue work with our community partners on these promising new ventures and ensure that we maximize the impact of faculty and student expertise across the academic disciplines at Brown.”