Neil Steinberg at his final Rhode Island Foundation annual meeting, May 17, 2023 – Courtesy of the Rhode Island Foundation

Neil, you retired last May as the longtime president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, when the baton was handed to now-head David Cicilline. For a short while after that, you were out of the public eye. What did you do during what might be called that “silent” period?

After a long career including a very busy last 15 years at the Rhode Island Foundation, I took the summer ‘off.’ I slept later in the a.m., read newspapers and books on my deck, spent time at the beach with my wife at Scarborough or Colt State Park, walked regularly and went to the gym three days a week (lost 10 pounds). It was great not being tied to a schedule and not being out several nights a week. I also took time to meet informally with former colleagues and folks looking for input and advice and mentoring. I like to stay informed, so I followed all local print, TV/radio and online sources in Rhode Island. 

Anyone who knows you suspected you would not long rest on laurels. You hinted as at much when you said in your farewell address: “My goal now is to take my own advice….look forward and not live in the past, be positive, not become a grumpy old man, and to take rhetoric to action as I wear the t-shirt  that hangs in my office that says: ‘Just Do it!’ ” So it was perhaps no surprise when Gov. Dan McKee last October appointed you chairman of The Rhode Island Life Science Hub. For those who may not be familiar with it, what is the Life Science Hub?

The Rhode Island Life Science Hub, RILSH, is an independent quasi-public organization that was established and passed by the legislature and governor last May. It is funded with $45 million of ARPA dollars to support, build and grow the life science sector in Rhode Island. The priorities include hiring a CEO and staff, supporting inclusive workforce development, and helping establish an incubator/wet lab space and a fund for grants and possibly investments in growing life science/biotech companies. The goal is to convene all involved in and interested in this growing sector, and foster collaboration among the private sector, academia and government.

What does the chairman’s job entail?

This is a volunteer position chairing the board and establishing the hub. It was subject to the advise and consent of the state Senate in January, so while I had done a lot of prep work beforehand, I was not official until January, when we had our first board meeting. Until we have the CEO on board, I have in effect been running the organization with strong support from Rhode Island Commerce, especially Lilia Holt, Vice President of Business Development. It has been amazing how many people have reached out to me interested in growing the sector. I have been meeting regularly with a significant number of people who I did not know before!

Who are some of the other members of the Hub board?

It is a very experienced and committed board that includes the Presidents of Brown University, the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College; the CEOs of Lifespan and Care New England; the dean of the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown; and executives from Amgen and Vertex. A recent press release issued by the governor’s office listed the entire board:

  • Neil Steinberg, Chairman (Sr. Exec. Banking, Grant Making & Fundraising)
  • Secretary Liz Tanner, RI Commerce, Vice Chair (Ex-officio)  
  • Ernest Almonte, Treasurer (Public Member, CPA & member of the RI Society of CPAs)
  • Director of Economic Development, City of Providence (Ex-officio) 
  • Dr. Christina Paxson, Ph.D., President, Brown University (Ex-officio)
  • Dr. Jack Warner, Ed.D, President, Rhode Island College (Ex-officio)
  • Dr. Marc Parlange, Ph.D., President, University of Rhode Island (Ex-officio)
  • Armand Sabitoni (Representative of Organized Labor/Designee) 
  • Dr. Kerry Evers, Ph.D. (President/Sr. Exec of RI-based Life Science Company/Designee) 
  • Dr. Michael Wagner, MD FACP, President & CEO, Care New England (Ex-officio) 
  • Dr. Mukesh K. Jain, MD, Dean, Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University (Ex-officio) 
  • Dr. Patrice Milos, Ph.D. (Life Science Trade Association/Designee)
  • Dr. Chris Thanos, Ph.D. (Sr. Exec. RI-based Life Science Company specializing in Biomanufacturing/Designee)
  • Brian Britson (Sr. Exec. RI-based Life Science Company specializing in Biomanufacturing / Designee)
  • Dr. Kerry Evers, Ph.D. (President/Sr. Exec of RI-based Life Science Company/Designee)

What is your sense of support for the Hub and its ambitions from the state’s industries, healthcare systems, schools and others?

There is tremendous enthusiasm and commitment for the hub. Startups, existing companies and industry groups are all in and there are many opportunities. While Boston/Cambridge is the epicenter, the sector is large and growing — for example, Worcester has been very successful building a life science cluster. Career opportunities include researchers, lab technicians, and many others.

You are seeking to hire a CEO. Tell us about that position and the search for the best hire.

The RILSH board had its first meeting in January and after an RFP process, we engaged Korn Ferry to conduct the search for a CEO. This is a high-level leadership position for someone with life science experience and knowledge who has the ability to convene, collaborate, and develop business and support business. We need to get a “can-do “ leader who can effectively work with industry, academia, and the state. The link to the position description is available through Korn Ferry and the search is underway.

RILSH, of course, did not spring from nowhere. It was the subject of a report the Foundation commissioned about finally realizing a life sciences hub in Rhode Island. That report was released in October 2022. Tell us about it.

I was introduced to Travis McCready and Bob Coughlin about 2 1/2 years ago. They work in the life sciences real estate field now at JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle) but most significantly, Travis headed the Mass Life Science Center and Bob headed Mass Bio when then-Gov. Deval Patrick made a bold commitment to the life science center in Massachusetts many years ago. They asked me why this sector has not grown more in Rhode Island and I could not tell them. So we engaged them to do a quick analysis that we presented to the governor, speaker and Senate president. It highlighted the existing network and cohort of companies and the research resources at Brown, URI, Lifespan and Care New England, as well as the jewelry district buildings – and the gaps in the commercialization/tech transfer results at the universities and the fact that we have no commercial wet lab spaces. The speaker asked us to go the next step and develop a plan to build the life science industry here. We did that, producing that report you referenced. It recommended the model in Massachusetts of a quasi-public agency funded for and focused on establishing the organization, supporting incubator wet lab space, training the workforce, and financially supporting companies in Rhode Island. The governor then allocated $45 million of ARPA funds in the budget. Legislation was passed last June, and the Rhode Island Life Science Hub was created.

R.I. House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi has been a big champion of the Hub, including sponsoring the legislation which created it. Why has he been so bullish?

I think the speaker really sees the long-term potential for this sector in Rhode Island building on capabilities we have and leveraging further investment. He stated early on that it will take  academia, industry and state government all working together to make this successful.

There has been talk for years of bolstering life sciences research and industry in Rhode Island, which seems eminently suited to complement – or compete with – those centers just to the north in Massachusetts.  From your perspective, why until now did the talk not bear fruit as it might have

We have not coordinated, collaborated and leveraged the existing resources and entities we have.

Massachusetts Governor Healey recently announced a proposal for $1 billion over 10 years for their Life Science 3.0 initiative. What does this mean for the new Hub?

Then-Gov. Deval Patrick made the original 10-year $1 billion commitment several years ago and Massachusetts continues to build on that. It is great to see that they still firmly believe in this growth sector. Their scale and world-class track record is much larger than ours and we are really implementing Life Science 1.0. However, it is the long-term aspect of the commitment that we need to consider beyond the initial funding that we are now leveraging. This is an investment in our future which takes time, not just a short term budget expense!

Anything else on the horizon for Neil Steinberg?

I look to support, inform, and lead in sectors that are important — including education, housing, and economic development — and advancing an inclusive Rhode Island for all of us.