#StartupsEverywhere: Providence, R.I.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Pat Sabatino, Rhode Island Coalition of Entrepreneurs

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

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Coalescing the Startup Community 

If asked about Rhode Island, any elementary school student would likely inform you that the Northeastern state is smallest in the Union by area. Rhode Island is also home to historic mansions, beautiful beaches, and large ocean bays. These days it is home to something else too—startup innovation and entrepreneurial energy. We spoke to Pat Sabatino, startup founder and executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition of Entrepreneurs to learn more about startups in The Ocean State.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? What is your background? 

I have been a data professional for over thirty-five years, working first for large companies and then a series of startups, all of which saw successful exits. One of those was Jigsaw, which sold to Salesforce in 2010. I then stayed with Salesforce for five years before identifying a gap in the market and founding Datarista, a company that fosters real-time data updates across multiple CRM services in 2015. 

Throughout my experience with startups in Rhode Island, I realized that there was really no meaningful network to meet with other entrepreneurs in the state. That is why we started the Rhode Island Coalition of Entrepreneurs.

Tell us about the Rhode Island Coalition of Entrepreneurs. What is the work that you’re doing?

RICE began in 2017 and is a network of startup founders and CEOs aimed at fostering a community of entrepreneurs. We now have 65 members and want this community to be the entrepreneurial hub of the state, facilitating collaboration and resource access within the ecosystem.

This May, we held our first “Startup Day,” which we plan to make an annual event. This year’s event was a great success and included sessions on funding, product development, human resources, and networking opportunities.

Recently, we have taken on an advocacy role, working to advance the interests of startups in the state government. Working with economists and other interested academics, we are working to measure the economic impact of startup activity in the state to demonstrate to state lawmakers the importance of startups here.

What makes Rhode Island's startup ecosystem unique?

Boston is just one hour to the North, but the cost of operations and cost of living are cheaper here in Rhode Island. That’s kind of our hidden secret. In addition to these lower labor and rent costs, Rhode Island is a desirable place to live. There’s some of the best beaches in the country, walkable towns, and vibrant nightlife all of which serve to attract young talent to the state.

What are the most exciting or important developments that have happened to Rhode Island's startup and tech ecosystems in the recent past?

The first thing that comes to mind is the universities’ contributions to the space. It used to be that entrepreneurs were experienced old guys like me. Now, we see folks graduating and starting their own businesses. This is due to the entrepreneurship centers that have opened recently at our universities--the Nelson Center at Brown University, and others at the University of Rhode Island, Bryant University, and Johnson and Wales University for example. 

Along those lines, there’s been an influx of tech-educated talent into the startup area. The number of computer science majors has exploded. I believe a decade ago, CS majors at Brown were less than two percent of undergraduate enrollment.  Now, it has grown more than fivefold to be their largest undergraduate program. 

Beyond the universities’ contributions, there has been a buildup of ecosystem infrastructure in recent years—coworking spaces, incubators, and accelerators are opening in droves. In Providence, the new Wexford Innovation complex is set to open this summer and will feature office and coworking spaces. The Venture Café will open a location in the building as well.

What issues are Rhode Island's startups and entrepreneurs dealing with that should receive more attention from state and federal policymakers?

There is a dearth of pre-revenue capital sources in Rhode Island. There are just two angel groups here, and the state economic development fund does not have continued funding. So early stage financing challenges are among the foremost for our startups. For example, two-thirds of my funding when I started Datarista was from out of state. New York and Boston are the major funding sources for startups here, which introduces a whole host of new problems, logistically and otherwise. This is something that needs to be addressed going forward. 

What is your goal for RICE over the next few years?

Our goal right now is to continue what we’re doing—supporting the community, holding events like Startup Day, and advocating for startup interests at the state level. RICE is run by our members, 100 percent of whom are volunteers and all of whom have their own startups. Right now we have 65 members, but there are 150 startups we know about here in Rhode Island. We’d like to get all startups in the state to join the coalition, because a rising tide lifts all ships. 

All of the information in this profile was accurate at the date and time of publication.

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email edward@engine.is.