By Debra Chandler Landis, St. Louis Magazine | February 23, 2021
St. Louis’ bustling startup scene has received international attention in recent years. In 2018, Forbes ranked the metro area among 10 rising cities for startups, and Popular Mechanics has named it the top up-and-coming startup city in the nation.
“Many of our peers are fleeing traditional tech centers like San Francisco or Boston,” says Ryan Richt, a Washington University graduate and founder/CEO of tech startup Well Principled. “We have long enjoyed the advantage of St. Louis’ infrastructure, metropolitan benefits and outstanding wage–to–cost of living ratio.”
Last year, Well Principled was among the recipients of the Arch Grants Global Startup Competition, which provides equity-free grants and pro bono services to entrepreneurs who keep their businesses in St. Louis for at least a year after receiving a grant. Gabe Angieri, director of development and operations for Arch Grants, says the organization plans to increase the number of grants awarded each year. “The 2020 cohort is the most diverse we’ve ever funded,” says Angieri. “Seventy percent of all Arch Grants companies are led or co-led by a woman, person of color, immigrant, or veteran.”
Likewise, the Cortex Innovation District in the Central West End is focused on supporting a diverse range of entrepreneurs. Founded nearly 20 years ago with a focus on biotech, the 200-acre innovation district has grown to more than 425 companies, including Microsoft, and nearly 6,000 employees.
Before becoming president and CEO of Cortex in 2020, Sam Fiorello served as chief operating officer of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and president of its affiliated research park, Bio Research and Development Growth Park, which boasts one of the world’s largest concentration of plant science Ph.D.s. He also helped create 39 North, a 600-acre innovation district in Creve Coeur that’s anchored by those institutions, as well as Bayer Crop Science, the Helix Center Biotech Incubator, and The Yield Lab (an ag-tech venture capital firm and business accelerator co-founded by former Novus International president/CEO Thad Simons). Fiorello views the two innovation districts as siblings. “We collaborate a lot,” he says, noting that Cortex works with other innovation hubs, colleges, and the public and private sectors on a range of initiatives.
Cortex and Delmar DivINe, for example, partnered with local meeting planning company Filiment to hold a weeklong Thinksgiving event that paired nonprofits with strategy teams from innovation districts, consulting firms, corporations, and creative agencies to solve challenges facing nonprofits. Cortex is also opening the Global Center for Cybersecurity, a network of companies, academic and research institutions, the sciences, defense, health care, finance, agriculture, aerospace, automotive, and technology. And, Fiorello notes, Cortex and 39 North are working on a strategic plan for the region, alongside bioscience and innovation nonprofit BioSTL: “One of the areas of the strategic plan includes workforce training for the life sciences and technology and more inclusive employment opportunities. Cortex is committed to inclusive growth and workforce training that will bring more people of color into the workforce.”
Situated within the district, BioSTL also promotes equity in the local startup sector through its STEM Entrepreneur Inclusion Initiative and the Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective. To date, BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioSTL, has invested $28 million into 84 St. Louis startups, which have gone on to raise $1.1 billion. “That’s a 37:1 leverage on every dollar,” says BioSTL communications director Maggie Crane. “Overall, BioGenerator has supported more than 150 St. Louis startups with some combination of investment, non-dilutive grants, or coaching.” BioSTL also recently announced that it would be opening the Center for Defense Medicine, with the assistance of a $1.5 million federal grant. The center will develop technologies to support U.S. defense. BioSTL has also received a $3 million grant to create the Center for National Pandemic Resiliency through Bioscience.
Likewise, downtown tech hub T-REX is evolving. After recently opening the Geospatial Innovation Center on its fourth floor, the decade-old innovation and entrepreneur development facility is working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to launch Moonshot Labs, a high-tech space specializing in geospatial technology and employing software developers, technologists, and data science personnel. “We want to support them in their mission for our country,” says T-REX executive director Patricia Hagen, “and, in turn, support inclusive regional development.”
The IT Entrepreneurial Network is also bringing new meaning to tech support. ITEN supports tech entrepreneurs by providing mentorships, educational programs, and collaborative partnerships, such as the Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, St. Louis Startup Week, Startup Connection, and the Vision Inclusion Symposium. And in October, ITEN announced the launch of the Eureka Experience, designed to help guide promising startups through the commercialization process.
This robust network of entrepreneurial support—coupled with the region’s colleges and universities, Fortune 1,000 companies, and affordable cost of living—fosters what Richt describes as a “vibrant ecosystem that supports and retains entrepreneurs to build thriving businesses here in St. Louis.”
Kevin A. Roberts | ping pong at CIC