Change in state leadership led to permanent closure of R.I. Office of Innovation

Updated at 3:16 p.m.

THE R.I. OFFICE OF INNOVATION closed permanently last June without a public announcement except for a notice on its website. The office was created under Gov. Gina M. Raimondo in 2016. PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN
THE R.I. OFFICE OF INNOVATION closed permanently last June without a public announcement except for a notice on its website. The office was created under Gov. Gina M. Raimondo in 2016. PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

PROVIDENCE — A shift in state leadership hastened the closure of the R.I. Office of Innovation, according to state and former office employees who say the office had been intended as a temporary measure. 

Beginning in 2016, the Office of Innovation, established with much fanfare under then-Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, helped to launch more than 20 programs aimed at fostering technology and new ideas in the state.

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The office closed permanently last June without a public announcement except for a notice on its website, though some of its programs live on.

Responding to a PBN inquiry, state and former staff members said that the office’s closing had been planned from its beginnings, though not with a specific timeline. 

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“It was always meant to be temporary and help seed innovation and help project nesting in other places,” said former Office of Innovation Director Daniela Fairchild, who led the office from 2018 through its closure.  

Fairchild said “the office sought to ensure closure and/or hand off of programs” by last June largely due to timing of the administrative shift following Raimondo’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of Commerce, while leaving time for office staff to tie up loose ends. Gov. Daniel J. McKee, previously the lieutenant governor, took over for Raimondo.  

“It was never meant to be a permanent fixture, and with the gubernatorial shift, I concurrently shifted roles to Commerce and stayed on in a short-term, part-time capacity to close things out,” she added. Alana O’Hare, a spokesperson for McKee’s office, also said that the Office of Innovation “was intended to be a temporary platform to seed and inspire new systems innovation.” But she did not immediately respond to a request for further information on whether McKee wanted the office closed.

The office launched in 2016 as a joint initiative between the governor’s office, the R.I. Department of Administration, and Rhode Island College and its foundation. At the time, Raimondo’s initial announcement did not detail plans for the office to exist temporarily.

The office’s website is still online and will be “maintained for posterity and to ensure the seeds planted by the office continue to grow throughout the state and beyond,” a note on the site says.

About 98% of the office’s funding came from philanthropic dollars, Fairchild said. 

When reached for comment, a RIC spokesperson said that neither the college nor its foundation could find anyone who could speak to RIC’s role with the Office of Innovation. 

An announcement from Raimondo’s office in January 2016 lays out intentions for the office to serve as “a central hub for innovation efforts in the state,” but does not give any indications of permanency.  

Fairchild did not immediately have a figure for how many of the office’s former programs are still running but highlighted one, Studio Rhode, that was established to update library technology and now continues through the R.I. Office of Library and Information Services.  

Another program, CS4RI, which expanded computer science education across Rhode Island schools, also continues independently of the office. 

Last month, Rhode Island innovation leaders told PBN that they remained optimistic about the state of innovation in Rhode Island despite closures such as that of the Office of Innovation. Saul Kaplan, founder and chief catalyst of the Providence-based Business Innovation Factory, said that he hasn’t noticed a decline in the state’s efforts to support innovation since the office’s closure. 

However, Joseph Devine, who served as vice chairman of the now-defunct Tech Collective’s board of directors, said the state “would be better off if we still had that office,” adding that it served as “a central focus that all innovation initiatives could communicate through and make connections.” 

Karl Wadensten, CEO and president of VIBCO Inc. and a Commerce Corp. board member, also regretted the office’s closure. 

“The office, I think, was a fantastic idea,” Wadensten said. “But again we lose sight of this, and then things just kind of fade into the dust.” 

Fairchild said that while the office fostered strong programming, “innovation doesn’t have to be tied to an office to exist in the state.” 

“It’s about the work,” she added. “Not just some single entity, but the actual ethos and work of innovation.” 

(SUBS 7th paragraph to add comment from McKee’s office.)

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