April 27, 2021

$2M gift from the family of Donald Ryan ’69 will establish an incubator for entrepreneurship at Providence College

By Vicki-Ann Downing

A $2 million gift from the family of Donald R. Ryan ’69 will create an incubator for entrepreneurship at Providence College — a place where students from all academic disciplines can create and test ideas for new products, services, and organizations.

The Donald Ryan Incubator for Entrepreneurship in the Arts and Sciences, expected to be located in a prominent place on campus, will be equipped with the latest technology, digital displays, writable surfaces, zones for individual work, a presentation area, and collaborative team space.

Small grants will support students and faculty in testing beta versions of their ideas. Mini grants for curriculum development will be available to professors. School of Business faculty will provide support and mentoring. A director will manage programming and connect students with mentors and resources from within and outside the College, including alumni.

The incubator space will be closely tied to the College’s business and innovation minor, which allows non-business majors to develop their skills in global engagement, applied science, and design thinking while learning the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship.

Donald Ryan '69, a political science major as an undergraduate, was an entrepreneur at heart — an out-of-the-box thinker, always two steps ahead of technology.
Donald Ryan ’69, a political science major as an undergraduate, was an entrepreneur at heart — an out-of-the-box thinker, always two steps ahead of technology.

For more than 100 years, Providence College has brought people together to innovate, create, and collaborate — characteristics that the Donald Ryan Incubator for Entrepreneurship in the Arts and Sciences will cultivate in generations of Friars.

“Donald Ryan’s rich life story exemplifies many of the characteristics we wish to nurture in our students,” said Dr. Sean F. Reid, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “It is fitting that this generous gift will provide opportunities for students and faculty to innovate in a space that will bear his name and will assure his enduring legacy at the College.

“From a practical perspective, the flexible workspaces will inspire interdisciplinary collaboration among our students and faculty,” Reid added. “Those opportunities will provide invaluable, practical experiences for our students and will catalyze meaningful idea development and true innovation.”

PC students already are showing their expertise in product development. Despite being the only college in the BIG EAST without a dedicated incubator space, PC won the BIG EAST Startup Challenge in February for “UMeal,” a meal kit that can be assembled from ingredients in a college dining hall and prepared in a student room.

One student on the three-student winning team was a business major, two were business and innovation minors, and their coach was Eric E. Sung, associate professor of photography and director of the Business and Innovation Minor Program.

“The STEM/STEAM movement is active even in elementary schools today,” said Dr. Helen Ryan, Mr. Ryan’s widow. “If youngsters are learning from an early age to be innovative and creative, to be hands-on doers and thinkers, that needs to carry to the college level. Our hope is that this gift will expand what has already begun at Providence College and give even more students the opportunity, through a formal program, to develop an idea and put it into action.”

The family of Donald Ryan '69 gathers to celebrate Helen's birthday in 2007. From left are Keri, Kevin, Helen, and Don.
The family of Donald Ryan ’69 gathers to celebrate Helen’s birthday in 2007. From left are Keri, Kevin, Helen, and Don.

Mr. Ryan, a political science major at PC, was chairman and CEO of CareCore National LLC in Bluffton, S.C., a company he co-founded to provide benefit management services to health care providers. In 2011, when he died at only 64 years old, it had more than 1,000 employees and contracts with 25 health plans representing more than 50 million insured patients. Prior to its founding, Mr. Ryan ran his own company in Maryland.

Helen and their children, Keri and Kevin, initially endowed a $500,000 scholarship at PC in Mr. Ryan’s memory. They also befriended the scholarship’s first recipient, Jesse Borgese ’19, a finance major from Woods Hole, Mass. Now a finance and administration analyst with Phosplatin Therapeutics in New York City, Borgese was impressed by the Ryans during every visit they made to campus.

“What struck me the most about them, in addition to their generosity in establishing the scholarship, was their absolute love of travel,” said Borgese. “They put a travel bug in my ear from the first day I met them. Because of them I spent the fall semester of my junior year abroad in Florence. When I graduated, I told Helen, ‘I hope you’re not disappointed in me for not looking for a job right away, but I want to travel while I can.’ I took a two-month trip to Asia and they were extremely supportive, telling me places I had to visit, places I would never have checked out if they hadn’t recommended them.”

Mr. Ryan and his wife returned to Connecticut upon graduation, where he worked for Pratt & Whitney while taking night classes toward a master’s degree in business at the University of Connecticut. When a religious sister who sat next to him in class advised him to change his major to hospital administration, he took her advice and enrolled at the University of St. Louis — and was awarded a graduate scholarship to pay for his education.

Through an internship, Mr. Ryan went to Hutchinson, Kan., where a new community hospital was being built from the closing of a Catholic hospital and a Presbyterian hospital.

“He was involved from the beginning, from the dissolution of the hospitals to the building of the new hospital,” Helen Ryan said. “That part of Kansas was a more innovative area than I ever thought possible. Most of the patents were on farm implements. The people who you met in the public sector were people who had more than one patent. They added to their farming income as they improved their farming techniques.”

The Ryans moved to Gaithersburg, Md., in 1977. Mr. Ryan initially worked as a health care consultant, “but the schedule was sheer nonsense,” Helen said. “You fill your suitcase on Sunday, and you return home on Friday. He was traveling all over the world. He decided what sounded like fun was not really fun at all.”

So Mr. Ryan, an out-of-the-box thinker who seemed always to be two steps ahead of technology, went into business for himself. He began by developing a billing program for radiologists, then expanded it and sold it to a hospital. After that, he launched several walk-in healthcare centers in metropolitan Washington, D.C.

“Once he got four of them up and running, he sold those to the hospital,” Helen said. “Then he and some partners started a mobile MRI business and eventually sold that to the hospital as well.”

Mr. Ryan spent 21 years as CEO and owner of his company, Practice Management Associates. It was a family affair. No job was too small — or too big — for his family. Helen, Keri, and Kevin pitched in at nights and on weekends where necessary. Their experience of collaborating on Mr. Ryan’s business endeavors inspired them to honor his memory with the incubator program. Understanding that he was an entrepreneur at heart, they wanted to help spark that creativity in students.

Donald Ryan '69 founded two companies before his life was cut short in 2011. His family hopes its $2 million gift to PC to establish an incubator for entrepreneurship will honor his legacy as an innovator.
Donald Ryan ’69 founded two companies before his life was cut short in 2011. His family hopes its $2 million gift to PC to establish an incubator for entrepreneurship will honor his legacy as an innovator.

Mr. Ryan co-founded CareCore in 1994. The business began by providing benefit management services to radiology providers, then expanded to include cardiology, medical oncology, radiation oncology, pain management, sleep apnea, and laboratories.

In 2007, Mr. Ryan moved the firm from Wappinger Falls, N.Y., to Bluffton, S.C. The move had an immediate economic impact on the region, creating 300 jobs. Mr. Ryan was named the Beaufort County ambassador for economic development by the governor, and CareCore was presented the Regional Economic Impact Award from the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce. In 2010, when the company opened a second building and added 200 jobs, it was honored as Bluffton-Hardeeville Small Business of the Year.

Kevin said that when Clemson University sought to create innovation incubators in five locations in the state, Bluffton was the first community to receive approval, but had no site to house it.

“I told my father about it, that it was a great program, innovative, and would be helpful to the town, and he immediately said, ‘Sure, we’ll give them the space.’ He died before it officially opened, but everybody recognized it wouldn’t have happened without his commitment to offer up free space without hesitation,” Kevin said.

Today, the Don Ryan Center for Innovation is still in operation, having recently moved to a larger location in the same technology park, Kevin said.

One of Donald Ryan’s favorite sayings, attributed to Canadian physician Dr. Kerr L. White, was “Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment,” Kevin remembers.

“It means that people need to get out there and experience the trials that go along with entrepreneurship, overcome the challenges, and pivot from the mistakes made early on,” Kevin said. “Having an incubator for entrepreneurship at Providence College, where students can have the experience of what’s been gained from bad judgment and can avoid those mistakes in the future, is priceless. It’s the best lesson you can learn.”