From geospatial to ag-tech, St. Louis’ business scene is booming.
Business is booming in St. Louis. Even national publications are taking notice. Seek Business Capital recently ranked St. Louis as a top city for women entrepreneurs. Business Insider credits the startup scene as one of the fastest-growing in the country. The Penny Hoarder and Redfin named St. Louis as the top city for millennials and the most affordable, and the Council for Community and Economic Research credits St. Louis as having one of the lowest costs of living among the nation’s 20 largest metro areas.
Today, St. Louis is home to nine Fortune 500 companies. Last year, Edward Jones, Enterprise Holdings, and Emerson—all of which give back to the community, like so many other St. Louis companies—landed on Forbes’ list of Best Employers for Women. And Bunge and Bayer are expanding their footprints here.
The city also has been long recognized as a leader in plant sciences, with more than 1,000 plant science Ph.D.s, the largest concentration in the world. And with construction underway on the 97-acre Next NGA West campus in North St. Louis, the city is expected to become a leader in geospatial technology.
At the same time, the Cortex Innovation District, T-REX, and 39 North are creating programs and initiatives to fuel technology and innovation.
But all of this growth didn’t happen overnight.
START ME UP
In the early 2000s, the 200 acres where the Cortex Innovation District is now located, between Washington University’s medical campus and Saint Louis University was largely desolate. “It was a tired, industrial area with vacant lots,” says Cortex president and CEO Dennis Lower. “It was really the hole in a donut of fairly decent infrastructure.”
So a group of civic leaders gathered to create a road map. Their goal: to develop an innovation district that would bring high-paying tech jobs to the city, generate new tax revenue, and become the most inclusive innovation district in the country. “This has been a very intentional effort,” Lower says. “We have been growing this now for almost two decades, and now we are getting to the place where we are getting traction.”
By 2018, a study showed that Cortex companies and employees generated a direct impact of $1 billion. When looking at the indirect impact, that number jumped to more than $2 billion. Today, there are approximately 6,000 employees in the district, and that number’s expected to more than double next year. At inception, there were 2 million square feet of office space; in 2020, 1.2 million square feet will be added. The new construction will provide a hotel, a 244-unit residential building, and three parking garages. The goal is to move to a 24/7 environment. “We want people to come early and stay late,” says Lower.
A research building in conjunction with Washington University School of Medicine will provide a designated location for neuroscience labs. “Neuroscience research is one of the strongest departments in the School of Medicine,” explains Lower, “and we’re looking to leverage that with commercial tenants who want to be close to that research.”
Washington University Chancellor Andrew D. Martin moved away from St. Louis five years ago. When he returned, in 2018, he noticed a palpable change. “The energy around entrepreneurship, innovation, and the tech community changed remarkably,” he says.
It’s this energy that’s fueling growth across the region.
Perhaps it’s St. Louis’ manageable size or neighborly demeanor, but one reason the business community is thriving is because the institutions are invested in each other. There’s a shared understanding that businesses are stronger if they work together.
“One of our unique strengths are the partnerships between our public and private institutions,” says Martin. “The business community, the higher-ed community, and other leading nonprofits and government all work together to focus on growth in the region.”
These partnerships can be found all across town.
Ann Marr, vice president of global human resources at World Wide Technology, says the company looks much different from when she first started. Twenty-two years ago, she recalls, the company had about 130 employees and $120 million in revenue. It’s since grown to more than 6,000 employees spread across 11 global locations. Marr credits this growth to the constant evolution of technology and innovation, as well as the thriving tech community here. “We have branded ourselves the Silicon Valley in St. Louis,” she says. “A lot of startups started here: [the founders of] Square and Twitter.”
Growth requires more than space. It requires programming and an environment where people feel supported. So Cortex opened Venture Café in 2014 as a way to connect innovators. Downtown, T-REX provides a technology incubator and an entrepreneur resource center, as well as a co-working space. And 39 North is bringing together ag-tech researchers and innovators across the region.
But all of this work doesn’t happen in a bubble. Executives at World Wide have led sessions to help newly established startups. The company also offers a STEM Student Forum for area high school students, with the winning project receiving a grant. “It’s so much fun just to see the creative ideas and the passion for technology,” says Marr.
There are many instances in which genome technology and information technology work together.
“We are not just one technology sector,” says Lower. “We believe that innovation happens a lot of time where the tech sectors overlap.”
These partnerships extend to universities. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, for instance, works with Washington University, SLU, and the University of Missouri.
“When you look at the quality of the universities in the region, it’s a vitally important resource,” says Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and president of the center’s affiliated Bio Research & Development Growth Park (BRDG Park). “We have to continue working with these partners to figure out ways to help leverage them even more.”
In 2016, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced it would build its new western headquarters in North St. Louis. “The NGA project is more than a new federal facility,” said Mayor Lyda Krewson. “It is the opportunity to transform the neighborhoods around the site with businesses, housing development, and opportunities for residents.”
The $1.75 billion headquarters is projected to employ 3,100 employees and help position St. Louis area as a global geospatial leader. Organizations are currently looking for ways to leverage that investment. Taking a collaborative approach similar to Cortex, a new initiative called GeoFutures aims to create a framework in which to drive investment in location intelligence technology. The advisory committee, composed of nearly 30 businesses and academic leaders, meets monthly. It’s “an opportunity that our area is leveraging for inclusive economic development that will be sustainable over the long run,” says T-REX president and executive director Patricia Hagen.
The downtown tech incubator’s entire fourth floor is being redesigned as Geosaurus, a resource for encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in the geospatial sector.
“We are focusing on geospatial, because we have a lot of great partners in the field and we believe St. Louis can really stand out as a leader in geospatial expertise and innovation,” says Hagen, “so much so that we want to be the international hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in the geospatial world.”
At the same time, the St. Louis metro area continues to grow as a global ag-tech leader. At the heart of the ag and food innovation ecosystem is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the largest independent plant science research institution in the world, with state-of-the-art specialized facilities, including research-grade greenhouses and wet lab space. The center’s reputation attracts researchers from around the globe—currently, there are 320 full-time employees from 24 countries.
“Talent is the real currency,” says Fiorello. “It’s relatively easy to get capital and access to great science, but you have to find and recruit the talent and then get folks to stay here.”
Every year, the Danforth Plant Science Center hosts an investor conference that brings together businesses, venture capitalists, and other funders. For many of the companies in the nearby Helix Center, this conference was their first time in St. Louis.
But that’s just the beginning. Leaders at the Danforth Plant Science Center, Helix Center, BRDG Park, Bayer, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, and more are partnering on a 600-acre space called 39 North. The district will be geared toward science professionals’ lifestyles, with mixed retail, residential, and office space connected by trails and green space.
“Having 39 North and what Cortex is doing with the live-work-play is critical,” says Fiorello.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
St. Louis affords a number of advantages over Silicon Valley and New York. “Not all great technology happens on the East and West Coast,” says Marr. “You can access things easily, and the cost of living is better.”
Hagen concurs. “It’s becoming more and more expensive to be an entrepreneur and an innovator on the West and East Coasts, so the cost differential here is significant. You can get office space downtown for around $18 per square foot. There is no way you could replicate that on the East or West Coast.”
Then there’s the variety in high-quality housing stock. “You can live in an urban neighborhood or on a farm and still work in the city,”says Martin. “That diversity is something that the places we compete against don’t offer.”
St. Louis is also a comfortable place to live, work, and raise a family. One feature has to do with its size. “We’re not too big or too small,” says Martin. The metro region’s large enough to make a significant impact but small enough that companies can benefit from partnerships and relationships with other institutions.
There’s also something to be said for Midwestern friendliness. “It’s the people,” says Hagen. “It’s just wonderful to have a community of support here.”
“At the end of the day, it all comes down to people,” Martin agrees. “People are going to do their very best work in places which are livable.”
Newly revitalized neighborhoods are also attracting more professionals to the city. “Talent doesn’t want to come and live in the middle of nowhere,” says Jason Archer, vice president of business development and workforce innovation at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. “They want restaurants. They want vibrancy. They want energy.”
St. Louis has long been known for its family-friendly draws, including affordable cultural attractions; the recently renovated Arch and Kiener Plaza, as well as the St. Louis Aquarium, are adding to those options. The restaurant scene’s also evolved, with such nationally recognized restaurants as Vicia, Balkan Treat Box, and Cinder House. Such neighborhoods as the Central West End, Midtown, Tower Grove, Shaw, and Botanical Heights are some of the “hottest real estate markets in the entire region,” says Lower.
As Marr observes, the city is “trying to constantly reinvent itself to make sure it can attract and retain talent but also provide these things for people who already live here.”