By David Nicklaus, St. Louis Post-Dispatch | May 12, 2021
As the 20th century wound down, St. Louis had an identity crisis.
The giant companies that had powered the economy for decades were running out of steam and being sold. The region lacked the dynamism that was creating new industries in places like Silicon Valley, Boston and North Carolina's Research Triangle.
Bill Danforth, the retired Washington University chancellor, decided it was time to change that. He leveraged his family's Danforth Foundation to pursue a vision of St. Louis as a leader in both agricultural technology and medical technology.
More than two decades later, Danforth's strategy is bearing fruit. The latest example: Benson Hill, an agricultural firm in Creve Coeur, is going public in a transaction valued at $1.35 billion.
Benson Hill, founded in North Carolina, was lured here in 2013 by the assets that Danforth and others began building years before: World-class research facilities such as the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, seed capital funding, available lab space and a skilled workforce.
John McDonnell, the former McDonnell Douglas chairman, was an early Danforth ally. He said his friend, who died last year, would be pleased that the region stuck with his strategy long enough to achieve success.
“Bill from the beginning knew it was not a sprint,” McDonnell said. “It was going to be a marathon. If Bill saw now what Benson Hill has accomplished, he would be very pleased.”
In 2000, business leaders funded a Battelle Memorial Institute study that confirmed Danforth's vision: It said St. Louis had a chance to be competitive with other top centers of medical technology, and a true world leader in agricultural innovation.
The study would lead to formation of an industry group, now known as BioSTL, in 2001. It would encourage the founding of a local venture capital industry, and eventually would even shake loose some money from the state of Missouri. Benson Hill's early investors included BioSTL's investment arm, BioGenerator, and the state-funded Missouri Technology Corp.
Donn Rubin, BioSTL's chief executive, said St. Louis in the late 20th century wasn't capitalizing on its research strengths. “The ideas and discoveries generated here were being taken to the East and West Coasts to create jobs and economic vitality,” he said. “St. Louis was under-exploiting them and losing the benefit.”
By Rubin's reckoning, St. Louis now has billion-dollar winners on both the medical and agricultural sides of Danforth's strategy. Confluence Life Sciences' promising arthritis drug, developed by a 50-person research team in the Central West End, accounts for most of the $1.1 billion market value of its parent company, Pennsylvania-based Aclaris Therapeutics.
The STL 2030 Jobs Plan, published last week by Greater St. Louis Inc., calls for the region to “quadruple down” on its bioscience bet.
What that means, Rubin said, is that St. Louis “should pour resources into scaling this opportunity.” BioGenerator, for example, invests about $3.5 million a year. With more funds, it could seed many more companies like Benson Hill and Confluence.
Other promising agricultural startups here include CoverCress, which is developing pennycress as a new oilseed crop, and NewLeaf, which harnesses beneficial microbes to increase crop yields.
Rubin is confident that the region will see more billion-dollar success stories. “Some are a year away, some might be five years away, but we have a culture that will keep feeding the pipeline. Our research institutions are more entrepreneurial than they were in 2001,” he said.
The region owes a debt of gratitude to Bill Danforth for creating that culture. We also owe it to him to keep investing in his vision.