The biosciences comprise a burgeoning industry and important opportunity for Rhode Island. The state’s bioscience industry employs 4,602 bioscience professionals and has a total employment impact of an additional 11,847 workers. On a national and global scale, Rhode Island bioscience companies and professionals participate in the industry’s five primary sectors: drugs and pharmaceuticals; medical devices and equipment; research, testing, and medical laboratories; agricultural feedstock and chemicals; and bioscience-related distribution.
While it is a small sector comparatively to other Rhode Island industries and the New England region as a whole, the Rhode Island bioscience industry is also one of our state’s highest-growth-potential industries. As an industry itself, bioscience is growing faster than the Rhode Island economy.
These numbers are pivotal for Rhode Island since many of these jobs are often high-skill, high-wage positions dedicated to the research, development and production of new medicines, treatments and products. Examples of work within the Rhode Island bioscience industry include developing biotextile mesh for hernia repair; cellular and chemical-based implants to fight cancer or macular degeneration; research and development to treat sepsis or contagious diseases; and the production of pharmaceutical drugs for both common and rare health needs. With nearly 300 clinical trials currently being conducted in Rhode Island, breakthrough cures and treatments are becoming more and more promising.
Over the past 10 years, Rhode Island has worked collectively to grow and invest in the biosciences through industry-development organizations and initiatives, worker-training funds, and K-16 education advancements, including the establishment of:
A statewide bioscience-industry association (Tech Collective, 2004).
Niche bioscience organizations (e.g. Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council, 2005; New England Biotechnology Association, 2009; and MedMates, 2013).
More than $3 million in federal and state workforce-training grants (2004-2013).
Innovate Rhode Island Small Business Fund to match SBIR/STTR Phase I and Phase II awards; also to offset the cost of hosting paid internships (2013).
Academic and industry-blended biotechnology learning programs at Rhode Island K-12 and higher education institutions (e.g. R.I. Department of Education Biotechnology Academies at seven Rhode Island high schools and career and tech centers, 2007; and University of Rhode Island Biotechnology Manufacturing Program, 2003).
Supplemental bioscience programs at the K-12 level (e.g. Bioscience Job Shadow Day; SkillsUSA Rhode Island Bioscience Competition; Tech Collective GRRL Tech Expo; EPSCoR; and industry tours and speakers).
These are achievements we can be proud of as a state and industry community; however, they cannot be a resting point. On a larger scale, business and competitive issues facing the industry have been largely unaddressed. Access to capital, be it venture funding, SBIR/STTR awards, or other sources, is a consistent challenge, yet critical need for this industry. Facilities and infrastructure, inventorship and intellectual property, research and clinical trial capabilities, and the regulatory environment also impact the industry’s ability to innovate.
As a company begins to grow, access to a skilled workforce becomes a concern. These needs, individually as well as together, directly influence whether bioscience companies will succeed in Rhode Island or simply vacate for more established New England bioscience markets.
To be clear, the return on investment in this industry is not immediate. Researching, discovering and manufacturing new medicines and devices are labor and time intensive. That’s why we need to continue to support the public and private entities who are leading the way in the development of bioscience innovations in Rhode Island. In the “Economic Intersections of Rhode Island” report, the Rhode Island Foundation and Commerce RI recently identified the bioscience industry as one of eight promising sectors within the Rhode Island economy. Building upon industry connections, conducting a competitive analysis, and creating an industry-sector identity were key recommendations of this Make It Happen RI initiative follow-up report.
In March, Tech Collective released its Rhode Island Bioscience Skills Gap Study identifying workforce-skill needs and education and career pathways. Recommendations stemming from the report included extending engagement in youth STEM programs, increasing bioscience program enrollment and experiential-learning opportunities at the college and university level, and increasing training funding for existing workers.
Awareness and advocacy on behalf of the industry were cited with reference to the Economic Intersections of Rhode Island report. The skills-gap report was funded with state investment from a Governor’s Workforce Board Industry Partnership grant (one of eight Industry Partnership grants within Rhode Island’s high-growth, high-wage industries).
As Rhode Island’s elected officials, academic leaders and the business community work to develop strategies to strengthen our economy, the bioscience industry should be embraced as an important economic engine that can help ensure a brighter future for all Rhode Islanders.
The work that has been accomplished thus far has laid a strong foundation for this young innovation ecosystem. We need to work together to continue to provide the workforce, business and industry-specific support that foster bioscience innovation and growth. •
Kathie Shields is executive director of the Tech Collective.