Looking for Rhode Island-Style Innovation


A long article by Brown University grad Alex Lash for Xconomy is worth a read.  Most of the information won’t be new to Rhode Islanders who follow this stuff closely, but one can often gain insight by seeing somebody summarize a familiar topic for a different audience.  One can also learn from what that person misses.

Lash writes about the state’s various government-handout programs, but he doesn’t mention taxes or regulations.  The emphasis that this omission betrays brings him up short of what the answer probably is for Rhode Island.  He gets closest in this quotation:

As data, technology, and health pursuits continue to converge, traditional tech players also become part of the life science cluster. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and others have a significant presence in Kendall Square, for example, and are making healthcare part of their business.

In other words, Rhode Island needs the same type of ferment: innovative people in close proximity, sharing ideas and comparing plans. That’s why it’s so important to get it right in Providence.

The unspoken assumption is that government — or even central planners who do their work without access to taxpayer funds or police power — can figure out who the innovative people are and competently corral them.  The very idea of corralling innovative people should bring one’s eye to the inconsistency.

Thus, Lash writes about some promising developments (generally subsidized by government) toward the end of his article, but he never ties that back to this startling statement near the beginning:

But while biotech has boomed in the Boston area just north and in other major clusters, Rhode Island’s biosciences community has shed 10 percent of its jobs since 2014, according to the BIO national trade organization. The state’s bioscience firms have drawn $43 million in venture investments in that period, but only $1 million in 2017.

To understand what is missing, I’d propose readers spend a moment pondering Lash’s included photo of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) professor Leslie Fontana.  Given her flannel-style shirt and the backdrop of carpenter’s tools, my mind went to the Warwick-based company W.L. Fuller, which made the first set of countersinks that I bought as a carpenter (in a case made by Pawtucket-based Van and Company).  Take note of W.L Fullyer’s origin:

In the 1930’s, Warren L. Fuller Sr. began building twelve-foot boats in his  Warwick, RI Hudson car dealership quarters. The boats were built out of a new  innovation, plywood, a material whose durability had to be proven. The boats,  with a deep V hull, were dry and fast and could be sailed as well as powered.  During production, Warren found a need for an efficient and inexpensive method  to drive the screws and set plugs. Warren began to design his own tools and to  turn his business expertise away from the car dealership and to the manufacture  of woodworking tools, specifically countersinks.

From selling cars to making boats to manufacturing a specific sort of tool.  Where would a 21st Century Warren Fuller fit into a life sciences cluster?  We shouldn’t trust bureaucrats to know, and for the same reason that we shouldn’t trust them to know that a “life sciences cluster” is the golden ticket for the Ocean State.

Thus, we’re back to the beautifully simple solution of reconsidering our political philosophy and getting government out of our way.  Allow our state to capitalize on its famous quirkiness by simply making it easier for people to live and do business here without interference and without central planning.  That is the only way we’ll find a niche that larger, wealthier states like Massachusetts can’t simply buy out from under us, as Worcester bought the PawSox.