Building a new church of innovation in Newport

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"We have a very collegial community..."

Building a new church of innovation in Newport

An interview with Tuni Schartner, the director of entrepreneurship and innovation at Innovate Newport

By Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI

Tuni Schartner makes it perfectly clear: she rides “the happy train,” and she refuses to engage in any negative thinking about the future of Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem.

“Together, we are stronger,” Schartner told ConvergenceRI in an impromptu interview last week at Innovate Newport’s new headquarters in the rehabbed former Sheffield School on Broadway, in between hosting tours of the working spaces for potential tenants.

“We have a very collegial community right now,” Schartner continued. “More than ever, I call this the time of the great convergence, when many of us who have been passionately working in our parallel lanes are converging. And the boats are rising with the tide together. This is an exciting time in Rhode Island.”

There are still silos that exist, she acknowledged. But, she said, thanks to efforts of RI Bio and the New England Medical Innovation Center, “We finally have a seat in the life sciences. We’re right next to Boston, and for some reason, life sciences never had a seat at the economic table in Rhode Island. Now it does. As I said, I prefer to ride the happy train.”

Schartner positioned Innovate Newport as a “low-cost innovation center” serving the city of Newport and the greater Newport region – and which also functions as a statewide economic development initiative, with a definite focus on serving as a hub for the blue innovation economy.

The interior of the former elementary school, with its traditional brick exterior, has been transformed into numerous working spaces, many of which feature gleaming glass walls.

The facility has proven to be a magnet for a number of firms to locate there, with some 10,000 square feet set aside as prime office suites, according to Schartner. “Those have been spoken for since November [of 2018] and the tenants started moving in during April [of 2019],” she said.

Among the anchor tenants are INSPIRE Environmental, which described itself as “an integrated team of skilled marine environmental scientists and analysts trained to interpret and contextualize seafloor health,” using rapid reconnaissance tools, according to the firm’s website.

INSPIRE Environmental has leased nearly 5,000 square feet on the top floor of the facility, according to Schartner, as well as three units on the ground floor – one for deliveries, one for equipment storage and a washroom for equipment, and one to create an R&D laboratory.

Other tenants include the Newport Chamber of Commerce, Drupal Connect, and TowerHill Associates, a recruiting agency for clean tech, high tech and life sciences, according to Schartner. “Most of their clients are on the West Coast,” she said, including Uber.

In addition, Innovate Newport is being promoted as a co-working space. The Social Enterprise Greenhouse is developing an outreach node for its operations in Newport, located at Innovate Newport.

InnovateNewport and the blue horizon
In her role as chief proselytizer for what could be called the new church of innovation in Newport, Schartner said she had been engaged in what she described as a “soft launch” for the facility, conducting tours for business groups and holding forums, while ongoing construction is completed.

A recent event during the soft launch attracted more than 200 people, including angel investors and New York City and VCs from Boston, along with a large contingent from CommerceRI, NEMIC and RI Bio, according to Schartner.

“We are acting as a convener space,” Schartner said. “In June or July at the latest, we’ll be kicking off a blue venture forum.” The forum will serve as a complement to the blue innovation forum that was held in Newport in January, sponsored by Salve Regina.

Among the goals of future events in the blue innovation sphere is to attract potential local support services, including from accountants, lawyers and marketers. “We’re going to have monthly events and quarterly start-up venture showcases.”

Richard Asinof is the editor and publisher of ConvergenceRI. This story is reprinted with his permission.