Foundation's 'innovation fellows' learn lessons as they test bold ideas to help Rhode Island

Associated Press

Change comes slowly. Flexibility is critical. Failures aren't all bad.

These are some of the lessons Rhode Island's "innovation fellows" have learned as they test bold ideas with the help of $300,000 grants from the Rhode Island Foundation that come with few strings attached.

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The inaugural fellows are in the home stretch of their three-year fellowships, as the foundation combs through hundreds of new applications for the next round.

Soren Ryherd's Retail Project set out to revitalize Main Streets in Rhode Island with new small businesses. His plan was to create online stores first, then open brick-and-mortar locations later.

The pace has been slower than he envisioned. He thought he would have dozens of online stores by now (he has three, with a fourth in the works) and at least one storefront (none have opened yet). But he says he's encouraged by the healthy growth his brands, including high-end pet products and indoor gardening supplies, have experienced in the last year. He plans to keep the work going.

Allan Tear, who co-founded the Betaspring incubator program for technology startups, aimed through Rally RI to prompt a "startup revolution" in other areas, including food, design, social ventures and advanced manufacturing. He launched new monthly gatherings to bring entrepreneurs together to share ideas, and held other events and created platforms to showcase work and talent.

He said he has had the most success helping catalyze the food and design communities.

"I feel good that we're on the right path in food, and I feel like we're on the right path in design, but I don't have the outcomes yet," Tear said. "It has taken longer than I would have liked, but not longer than I would have expected."

He advises new and future fellows to try to build broad coalitions around their work as soon as possible.

"The job of the innovation fellow should be to run experiments and see what's working and not," he said. "But as a larger community, we need coalitions to double down on what's working. I would have built those earlier and more purposefully."

The vision of philanthropists John and Letitia Carter, who established the Innovation Fellowship, was simple and broad, said Neil Steinberg, Rhode Island Foundation president and CEO.

"They wanted to support Rhode Islanders that had new ideas, had innovative ideas, on how to help Rhode Island — help with opportunities, help with challenges," he said. "And that was it. It was that broad."

The fellowship is unique in encouraging risk and acknowledging the reality that not every project will work.

"I love that openness, that recognition that failure can actually be a really productive thing, that you can fail forward and use that to create something better and even more meaningful," said Adrienne Gagnon, who won the fellowship in 2013.

Her "Innovation by Design" project, which she has tweaked along the way, is introducing the power of design to classrooms as a way to cultivate problem-solving skills. Dr. Lynn E. Taylor, an infectious disease specialist who also was selected in 2013, is working to make Rhode Island the first state to eliminate hepatitis C.

The application deadline for the next round passed recently, and the foundation got 354 proposals. Said Steinberg: "We look forward to being surprised."

The winners will be announced in the spring.