Bioscience as a Foundation for Transforming St. Louis

Ben Johnson, Colleen Ward

The St. Louis region is fortunate to have an extraordinary concentration of world-class scientists in medical and plant biosciences. With the Top 5-ranked Washington University medical school and a leading vaccine center at Saint Louis University alongside the world’s largest independent plant science institute—the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center—and corporate leaders like Mallinckrodt, MilliporeSigma and Monsanto, St. Louis has long been a world leader in academic and corporate bioscience research and development. These assets help place the region among the nation’s leading areas in research dollars committed to medical and plant sciences.

However, St. Louis has not always been as successful in translating its significant discoveries into new firms and jobs. Further, like the rest of the country, the region has experienced a clear shift out of manufacturing firms and into service firms. Significant downsizing in core industries—including the defense industry in the 1990s and more recent restructuring and closures in the automotive industry—has marked this transition. In the late 1990s, several studies confirmed the potential for St. Louis to establish a nationally competitive bioscience cluster and recommended the region take advantage of its academic and corporate assets in biosciences to create a 21st-century knowledge economy.

Following from these reports, in 2001, under the leadership of William Danforth, an M.D. and chancellor emeritus of Washington University in St. Louis, BioSTL was established to execute the strategies and recommendations of the early planning studies and to serve as the facilitator and catalyst necessary for successful growth of an emerging bioscience cluster. The long-term vision of BioSTL, a nonprofit organization, is to transform St. Louis, but not just in the biosciences. Leveraging the region’s unique strengths in this area is a means toward an end—an environment, culture and economic vitality that will make St. Louis a magnet to attract and retain people of all ages to live, work, play and create.

BioSTL pull quote

To achieve St. Louis’ potential, BioSTL has organized business, university and philanthropic leaders around a set of deliberate strategies focused on new company creation and entrepreneur support (through BioSTL’s subsidiary, the BioGenerator); company attraction (U.S. and international); improving access to investment capital (public, angel and venture capital); ensuring appropriate physical infrastructure (labs, incubators and research districts); government relations and public policy (federal, state and local); fostering an inclusive workforce and pipeline of entrepreneurs; and communicating the region’s strengths.

Over the past decade, the St. Louis community has made significant strides in establishing the infrastructure to commercialize bioscience innovation and to capture the economic benefit for our local community. Some of the successes of these efforts include:

  • more than 65 new bioscience companies launched by BioGenerator, with $13 million in business investment attracting more than $330 million in additional capital—greater than 25 to 1 leverage;
  • the growth of the Cortex Innovation Community to revitalize an aging light-industrial area of midtown St. Louis, where $500 million in development has generated more than 3,600 jobs and $197 million in annual payroll; and
  • the U.S. headquarters location of four international bioscience companies (in just the last two years), bringing 110 jobs and more than $26 million in investment to the region.

While much of the economic activity resulting from BioSTL’s work accrues in an underserved geographic area of the city of St. Louis, additional work is needed to connect opportunities of the new economy to the overall region’s underserved communities and underrepresented minority populations. BioSTL believes that the St. Louis region will only achieve its potential if every individual, including those with entrepreneurial aspirations, has the opportunity to achieve economic success.

In 2008, BioSTL established the St. Louis Bioscience Inclusion Initiative with a vision to create a wholly inclusive bioscience community that engages all the promising talent of the region. The Initiative launched with a 20-person leadership roundtable—including chancellors of universities, C-suite executives of major bioscience employers, directors of the region’s incubators and the heads of industry associations—to qualitatively benchmark the region’s standing related to diversity in the biosciences. This Bioscience Inclusion Initiative Network, now totaling more than 90 individuals and organizations, sustains St. Louis’ commitment to collaborative action that increases inclusion within its bioscience and innovation communities.

In 2013, BioSTL launched a new programmatic expansion of the Inclusion Initiative aimed at identifying high-potential women and minority bioscience entrepreneurs and providing a systematic pathway to create viable high-growth ventures. The program 1) builds awareness among underrepresented communities of the possibilities related to biosciences; 2) provides engagement opportunities for individuals to begin exploring their entrepreneurial interests; 3) provides training to build the skills of entrepreneurship; and 4) connects individuals to the resources necessary to start and grow a business, including networks, facilities and capital.

The entrepreneurship program has raised awareness through newspaper profiles, radio interviews, partner meetings and a network of partner organizations; engaged individuals in events that provided insight into opportunities in the bioscience community and connected attendees to entrepreneur support organizations who provided access to follow-up resources; trained participants in an introductory session on the rigors of bioscience entrepreneurship and recruited participants for a 10-week “Square One” entrepreneur boot camp; and provided cash grants to help entrepreneurs reach the next milestones in their business plan.

In 2015, BioSTL again expanded its inclusion activities by collaborating with its counterparts in information technology (ITEN) and advanced manufacturing (St. Louis Makes) to host Vision 2015, the region’s first symposium aimed at building a wholly inclusive innovation community. 2015 also saw the launch of the “Evening with…” series, which highlights successful minority entrepreneurs and/or corporate innovators, with the understanding that it is hard to be what you cannot see.

Additionally in 2015, BioSTL launched a series of externship programs for minority high school students to discover science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) entrepreneurship and career opportunities. The series collaborates with the Diversity Awareness Partnership to extend their EXPLORE program model into biosciences and agricultural science. In addition to leading the program into new fields, BioSTL guided an expansion of the curriculum to add an innovation and entrepreneurship-focused day. Through the programs, more than 50 minority students grew to identify themselves as STEM-capable learners. This year, BioSTL is replicating this series and further expanding into food science.

In October 2015, BioSTL was awarded one of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Regional Innovation Cluster Initiative Services contracts. The award builds on BioSTL’s previous Regional Innovation Strategies awards from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and will allow BioSTL to further scale its small-business support programs. Specifically, the program will target underserved communities of the federally designated St. Louis Promise Zone through intentional outreach by the Inclusion Initiative and through a new entrepreneur training program conducted in conjunction with the Metropolitan Education and Training (MET) Center workforce training facility in an under-resourced, inner-ring suburb.

BioSTL’s experience has demonstrated that the opportunity to boost regional prosperity for the long term is real and the time is right to scale up the endeavor to capitalize on St. Louis’ enormous potential. Through all of its activities, BioSTL will continue to link emerging, new economy opportunities with low- and moderate-income populations and individuals from other underserved communities to ensure that the region is able to reach its full potential. Together with its many partners, BioSTL aims to transform St. Louis and all of its communities into a wholly inclusive, dynamic, prosperous innovation community.

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Ben Johnson is vice president of programs and Colleen Ward is communications manager at BioSTL.


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