Of the many theories explaining Rhode Island’s persistent economic slump, the failure to transition to technology-based industries may have the most current traction.
This winter Jennifer Bradley, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, highlighted the issue while addressing the Providence Preservation Society’s annual meeting, describing a breakdown in translating the Providence area’s strong academic research into commercial applications.
Providence’s innovation pipeline appears to have a “kink,” said Bradley, co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution, which argues that cities and the innovation they foster will lead a knowledge-based global economy in the 21st century.
As evidence of where the area was falling behind, Bradley pointed to Brookings’ data on patent creation released last year ranking the Providence area 81st out of 358 metros nationwide in the number of patents produced per 1,000 workers between 2007 and 2011.
The metro area has the 37th largest population in the country and Bradley said the ranking was a sign the area is lagging behind its size and not taking advantage of its considerable academic assets.
Following up this month, Bradley said the more revealing indicator of an innovation problem was a divergence in the rate of annual patent growth in Providence from the national growth rate.
“The most telling thing on the profile is the trend line between patent growth in the U.S. overall and in Providence,” Bradley said in an email. “You can see that in the mid-1990s, Providence started to lag the U.S. growth rate, and has been volatile but without significant lasting gains approximately since then, while the U.S. growth rate is up substantially.”
So is a breakdown in the process for turning breakthroughs in the lab into winning products or companies at the heart of the area’s economic woes?
If so, commercialization activity at the area’s research universities and hospitals could be a crucial factor.
At Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, the post-recession years have seen a push in research commercialization after activity plunged during the recession.
In fiscal 2013, which finished last June, Brown made $2.3 million in technology licensing revenue, a 44 percent increase from the $1.6 million it made in fiscal 2012, according to the school’s Technology Ventures Office.
The gains were even more impressive compared to licensing revenue several years ago.
In 2010, Brown licensing revenue was $502,000 after falling from just under $2 million in 2005, according to historical statistics from the Association of University Technology Managers.