Then and Now: Rhode Island’s Biotech Industry 

150 Years of Hospitals, Medical Education and Innovation 

This week, we continue our Then and Now blog series to mark the Chamber’s 150th anniversary and to unearth the roots of our state’s key industries. Here we recount Rhode Island’s history in medicine and how its past has paved the way to our present-day boom in biotech and healthcare jobs.

In 1811, Brown became the third university in the nation to offer academic medical education. Its pupils included physicians who went on to participate in the founding of the Rhode Island Medical Society in 1812 and the American Medical Association in 1847. However, less disciplined students (given to “idleness and dissipation”) may have also contributed to the medical school’s closure in 1827. (According to one tale, some rowdy medical students even rolled a barrel containing a skeleton down College Street. Needless to say, the top fell off the barrel and out tumbled the skeleton.)

Prior to 1868, when the Rhode Island Hospital accepted its first patient, the state was home to no hospitals, save for a military hospital in Portsmouth, a small Marine hospital, Dexter Asylum (opened in 1828 and demolished in 1957) and the Butler Hospital for the Insane (established in 1844 with a donation from industrialist Cyrus Butler). In 1851, the Rhode Island Medical Society petitioned Providence to build a hospital for “the reception of patients who require medical and surgical treatment, and who are not otherwise provided for.” The Rhode Island Hospital, which opened in October 1868, was the result of this petition. In 1873, the 12-bed Newport Hospital was also built. “In an era when most of the sick were cared for at home, a hospital was deemed a necessity for those whose homes were elsewhere: fishermen, military and others who worked the bay and ocean,” according to Newport Hospital’s website today. The two hospitals were the only general hospitals in the state built before the 20th century.

As the century was about to turn, William Osler, MD, spoke to the Rhode Island Medical Society about the continued absence of a medical school in the state, saying, “The existing conditions in Providence are singularly favorable for a small first-class school. Here are college laboratories of physics, chemistry and biology, and modern hospitals with three hundred beds. What is lacking? Neither zeal, persistence nor ability on the part of the physicians, but a generous donation to the University of a million dollars with which to equip and endow laboratories of anatomy, physiology, pathology and hygiene; the money should be the least difficult thing to get in this plutocratic town.”

However, Brown didn’t reintroduce its medical program until 1963, when the Warren Alpert Medical School was opened. By then, numerous additional hospitals had also been built throughout the state. 

This vintage-age pharmacy offers a sharp contrast to today's advanced biologics industry. Rhode Islanders have been leaders and pioneers.

This vintage-age pharmacy offers a sharp contrast to today's advanced biologics industry. Rhode Islanders have been leaders and pioneers.


Between 2000 and 2010, healthcare was the fastest-growing industry in Rhode Island, adding 10,645 jobs. Today, the industry represents about 20 percent of the workforce in the state, which has made a big proposition in particular to companies and individuals in life sciences, biopharmaceuticals, medical devices and digital health. With its optimal location on the Northeast Corridor, Rhode Island rests at the center of a 33-million-person megalopolis with $2.1 trillion in output. Each year, Providence-Boston universities produce over 5,300 biology and biological sciences graduates, resulting in a region that’s home to 192,000 healthcare professionals, renowned hospitals, cutting-edge life sciences companies and world-class medical and design schools. 

In particular, the Rhode Island biotech industry is morphing into a vibrant ecosystem with a tremendous amount of untapped innovation capacity, generating approximately $500 million in revenue annually for the state. In the past 24 months, the state has invested $26 million in the life sciences industry and funded 34 R&D partnerships between companies and universities. Biotechnology companies like Amgen are also being supported by government tax incentives. To facilitate the building of Amgen’s new $160-million state-of-the-art biomanufacturing plant, the Board of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation recently approved tax credits through the Rebuild Rhode Island tax credit program and the Qualified Jobs Incentive Act. 

Incentives have also attracted healthcare companies like Virgin Pulse, which will hire nearly 300 people in Providence, and Magellan Health, which announced plans this past fall to expand its Rhode Island presence with 100 new jobs. 

Among its incentives, the state now offers Innovation Vouchers of up to $50,000 to game-changing companies like EpiVax, Materials Science Associates, S2S Surgical and Vitae Industries. These grants facilitate collaboration across the state’s research institutions and companies: For example, EpiVax is partnering with Rhode Island Hospital on a biotechnology project; Materials Science is partnering with Rhode Island Hospital on a biomedical engineering project; and Vitae Industries is partnering with Brown on biomedical research and development.

As Life Science Leader recently reported, “The smallest state in the U.S. is trying what few other regional hubs have attempted—to create an ecosystem sandwiched between the behemoths of Boston and NYC that is based on the principle of in-state research spawning homegrown startups. Other ecosystems—Boulder, Miami, Houston—are relatively isolated in their parts of the country, lacking proximity to Big Pharma or to a sizable academic research sector. Rhode Island has all that, plus a rich, albeit concentrated research base.”

Further, after 22 parcels of land were freed up a few years ago by the relocation of I-195, the state formalized its plans to build the Providence Innovation and Design District. In September, ground broke on the district’s 191,000-square-foot Wexford Innovation Center, whose anchor tenants will be Brown’s School of Professional Studies, the Cambridge Innovation Center and Johnson & Johnson’s Health Technology Center. (Johnson & Johnson was awarded tax credits under the Qualified Jobs Incentive Tax Credit Program and a grant from the First Wave Closing Fund.) Additionally, the Rhode Island School of Design and University of Rhode Island are working with local companies Lifespan and Ximedica to open a New England Medical Innovation Center in the district. Rhode Island officials estimate that the district will generate about $100 million in revenue over the next 20 years.

As R.I. Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor told The New York Times, “This neighborhood was once a fount of innovation ... We are reawakening that innovative spirit.”

For more of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s Then and Now blog series, check out our posts on Rhode Island’s rich and surprising history in jewelry manufacturing and retail.