Innovation race: The role RI plays in supporting progress

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To begin building a new economy, Rhode Island has made significant investments in growth and innovation. As a business owner I understand that investing in the core parts of my business is what it takes to grow.

On a far larger scale, the same applies to Rhode Island's economy.

Business owners will also understand that investments are not a one-and-done deal; they're ongoing, and you often get out of them what you put into them. To jumpstart our economy and help small businesses thrive, Governor Gina Raimondo has developed an economic toolkit that, among other things, offers businesses tax credits in exchange for the creation of future-focused jobs that pay in our state. The idea is simple. If more of the talented graduates of our universities stay in Rhode Island to work, the deepening talent pool will coax more startups and big businesses into the state. Sizeable investments have also been made in both our public education and higher education system, designed to attract, retain and train a long pipeline of future workers who will be able to start companies, fill the jobs we have and grow the economy.

On top of that, the Innovate Rhode Island Small Business Fund defrays the costs Rhode Island's small businesses must shoulder when applying for innovation awards and hiring interns. And the state's Innovation Vouchers have enabled eligible enterprises with fewer than 500 employees to receive grants of up to $50,000 to fund R&D assistance from a Rhode Island university, research center or medical center. Yet another grant encourages clusters of companies in key industry sectors to work together to solve problems, exchange ideas and develop talent.

You'll notice the heavy focus on innovation-namely, on giving our state's current and future entrepreneurs and business owners all the opportunities and tools needed to start innovative ideas here from seed and to help them grow, perhaps (hopefully) even bigger than imagined. Investing in our homegrown innovation is investing in our future, which means investing in something unknown and unseen, but rich with promise.

There is so much at stake, and not only because all states – ready or not – are now engaged in an innovation race. If Rhode Island does not successfully create an environment where R&D- and STEAM-oriented industries can flourish, it may fail. During the Great Recession, our unemployment level spiked higher and declined more slowly than every other New England state. Even though we sit at the center of a 33-million-person megalopolis and are home to top academic and research institutions, 400 miles of coastline and a network of towns and cities with no shortage of charm, our advanced industry employment base has continued to shrink. This trend is shared by most all states and by countries around the world, but is dire nonetheless.

The good news is that Rhode Island's investments are already paying off, with a report in August from the Brookings Institution ranking us top in advanced industry job creation in New England. And with a transfusion of new jobs-Rhode Island's economic incentives led to the creation of more than 240 new jobs in August alone-our unemployment rate continues to decline.

The kind of opportunities made available here over the past two years have already secured the arrival of companies like Lexington Lighting and GE, which will open GE Digital in Providence, and have helped ensure the continued success of Rhode Island companies like General Dynamics Electric Boat (the primary builder of Navy submarines) and of startups like Agcore Technologies, my biotechnology company. In fact, an Innovation Voucher from the state has facilitated our partnership this year with URI's Department of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science to better understand the dietary needs of fish and to test our aquaculture products.

These might seem like one-off successes, but they are symbols to the rest of the world that Rhode Island is back in the game, and is a great place to start a business.

It was the nature and scale of Rhode Island's economic challenges that necessitated this new degree of partnership between the private, public and civic sectors. By investing in these partnerships, our state is supporting progress and innovation that will drive results in all sectors.

Our shared successes this year are an indication that a rising tide is building, one powerful enough to lift all boats. Lawrence Dressler is president of Agcore Technologies.

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