Rhode Island's Recipe for Success
sponsored by Rhode Island Commerce Corporation
Posted September 2018
Crain's - The Ocean State’s mix of innovation and entrepreneurship helps new and established businesses thrive. It’s no secret that Rhode Island has long been fertile ground for small businesses to succeed. It’s advantageously located between Boston and New York and boasts a high quality of life that attracts and helps retain top talent. The state is home to 11 colleges and universities, including Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Rhode Island, which provide a pipeline for employees.
What’s more, the state has a long history of innovation that dates back to the Industrial Revolution. “Rhode Island is a compact place, but it’s packed with amazing research institutions and phenomenal talent,” said Stefan Pryor, the state’s secretary of commerce. “Emerging from that combination is an excellent innovation."
One reason that Rhode Island is home to so much innovation is the state’s vibrant, well-connected business community. “We have a tight ecosystem in which you can access capital, source legal talent, find top-notch designers and work with worldclass vendors,” said Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. “In this ecosystem, people are names, not numbers.”
Both legacy companies and new startups can take advantage of the rich resources that Rhode Island has to offer. Here’s a look at a pair of success stories.
Bradford Soap Works: A legacy brand makes a big shift
Bradford Soap Works was founded in 1876, when Rhode Island was a major textile capital. The company produced flake soap for scouring wool used in the mills. By the 20th century, it had expanded into industrial soaps for paper mills, as well as flame-retardant treatments for textiles and polyethylene emulsions that create a glossy finish on paper stock. Then, however, the paper and textile industries began leaving New England—and relying on suppliers other than Bradford.
Bradford’s began its self-reinvention by making bases for high-quality consumer soaps, and investing in downstream products such as bar soap processing and packaging. Bradford partnered with major brands including Kiehl’s, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson to make their products and co-develop new ones. For example,Tom’s of Maine approached Bradford for help developing an all-natural soap. Bradford developed a new chelator, a key ingredient, which led the company to produce the first all-natural soap that was widely retailed.
Today, Bradford draws on generations of knowledge and a strong talent pool to help it continue to innovate. “We’ve got people working in our factory whose families have been with us for four generations, who provide great institutional knowledge,” said Benton. In addition, the company draws on the state’s deep talent pool to fill new positions for chemists and other high-level jobs, and works with local organizations that support the business community. For example, Bradford partnered with Design Rhode Island, a group which facilitates collaboration and innovation among local creatives, and has received an innovation grant from the state to support its work on a new anti-acne soap product. “Partnerships like these help support our innovation and design work, which we then take to our customers,” Benton said.
RI Mushroom Co.: Entrepreneurs find their niche
In 2013, Michael Hallock and his business partner, Robert DiPietro, started RI Mushroom Co. in a closet in Middletown, Rhode Island. They began growing 40 pounds of mushrooms per week to supply to local restaurants and sell at farmers’ markets. After four months, demand was so strong that the business was able to move to its first real office space.
Today, RI Mushroom Co. occupies a 10,000-square-foot facility, employs 30 people and sells up to 50,000 pounds of mushrooms per week, some of which are available at Whole Foods stores across the Northeast. That growth was possible thanks in part to a $325,000 loan it received from the Business Development Company in 2017. The private lender partners with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to fund business.
Now Hallock and his partner are hoping to expand again, this time aiming to build a $115 million, 2.5 million-square-foot facility, which would also house hydroponically grown lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Hallock said the plan would create 270 local jobs and produce 31 million pounds of produce each year, all in an Agricultural Innovation Campus proposed at the University of Rhode Island.
“I don’t think we would have been as successful as we’ve been anywhere else—and I’ve lived all over the world,” said Hallock. “Because of Rhode Island’s small size, I have personal relationships with everyone—from the head of the department of agriculture to the governor. As entrepreneurs, we have the ability to have our voices heard quickly and easily."