Over the past few decades, the St. Louis region has earned a solid reputation as a powerhouse in the ag tech industry, attracting companies from around the globe with assets that include an impressive roster of research, academic, accelerator, incubator and industry enterprises, as well as access to capital, a highly educated workforce and close proximity to a large swath of the nation’s farmland.
“When you’re talking about ag tech and the food-tech cluster, you can make a strong case that there’s no better place in the world to be than the St. Louis region,” says Sam Fiorello, CEO of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
“Our proximity to producers, as well as trade organizations like the American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association, gives us a strong platform to help homegrown startups develop, as well as attract companies from around the nation and the world.”
Founded in 1998, the Danforth Center is the world’s largest independent, nonprofit research center focused on scientific research at the nexus of food, energy, and the environment to improve the productivity and sustainability of agriculture. From its founding, the Danforth Center has aimed to not only create new plant-science discoveries, but also to ensure these innovations amount to the creation of leading-edge companies that will benefit humankind worldwide and create new jobs and economic activity.
The Bio Research & Development Growth (BRDG) Park at the Danforth Center provides state-of-the-art space, resources, and relationships for companies developing solutions to feed and fuel a growing population.
“We’ve had a host of companies that have actually spun out of the Danforth Center. Some of our scientists have created technologies, and they’ve taken those technologies and created companies. Benson Hill Biosystems, for example, grew in our ecosystem using some of our core facilities, like greenhouses and growth rooms, which represent millions of dollars in investment. That’s very difficult for a startup company to do on its own,” Fiorello says.
Vijay Chauhan, GlobalSTL lead for BioSTL, an economic development organization that works to lure international companies to the area, says access to this vast network of ag-based resources not only helps the region attract foreign investment, but also helps local growers compete on a global scale.
“Our agricultural industry is going to be required to do in the next 30 years what it’s never been asked to do before, which is double the production of food on a lot less land with a lot less water and in a much more sustainable way. So innovation is going to be critical. Our farmers in the Midwest need to have access to the best innovation not just from the United States, but the best in the world. It is really a global competitiveness game,” Chauhan says.
Building on an Industry
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership a $500,000 grant to develop a master plan for a 600-acre innovation district dubbed 39 North, anchored by existing agricultural technology institutions, including the Danforth Center and BRDG Park, the Helix Center Biotech Incubator, Yield Lab, Monsanto, and the St. Louis Community College Center for Plant and Life Sciences.
“What we’re trying to do with the 39 North plan is to create a central neighborhood or district for the [ag tech] industry in St. Louis and bring more amenities to people working in this area, such as restaurants and green space,” says Janet Wilding, vice president of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
Fiorello says workforce development plays a critical role in the growth of the region’s ag tech industry. She cites partnerships with the local public school system, Washington University and St. Louis Community College, Center for Plant and Life Science training program in the BRDG Park as positive examples.
“The most important asset in all of these companies is intellectual capital. We have to have an educated workforce. We have to be able to educate folks here in our region, and I mean folks from the technicians in a lab to the Ph.D., what we call a principal investigator or lead researcher,” Fiorello says. “That’s one of the big reasons we decided to embark on the 39 North initiative. We wanted to create an environment which provided all of the components of a great place to work, a great place to live, a great place to play – all the things that researchers, particularly millennials, really care about.”