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St. Louis develops a reputation as pre-eminent plant science hub

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Tom Laurita had options when picking out a location for his company.

Laurita is part of a cadre of people that started NewLeaf Symbiotics, a small company that seeks to harness a certain type of plant bacteria for commercial use. After considering Boston, North Carolina and several places in California as home bases, Laurita decided the St. Louis area was “the obvious choice.”

Laurita – a Maine native – said that NewLeaf picked BRDG Park in Creve Coeur, which houses a lab run by St. Louis Community College. It’s right next door to the Danforth Plant Science Center, which in turn is close to Monsanto’s headquarters. And it’s fairly close to several private and public universities.

"I can’t say that it’s the major epicenter," Laurita said. "But I do think it is a major epicenter."

Rightly or wrongly, St. Louis will always be judged alongside other cities. But one designation that may not receive as much attention as the city’s baseball fervency or its crime stats is its reputation as a major hub for plant science research. It’s the type of status that’s bringing people like Laurita – and countless other professionals in the field – to the region.

While deeming a city the “best” in plant science research is subjective, there is widespread agreement from experts across the country that St. Louis possesses essential commercial, higher educational and institutional elements to stand out from the crowd.

That collection of institutions and companies, some say, make St. Louis a “magnet” for start-ups. Smaller companies can use the laboratories and equipment of nearby facilities to substantially reduce their capital costs.

But those engaged in the field see room for improvement.

Some say the region lags behind bigger cities when it comes to access to venture capital. Others point to the challenge of getting people to settle down in St. Louis – especially when enticing locales like Boston, San Francisco or San Diego are on the table. And there's also the need to make St. Louis a destination for immigrants -- a goal of local civic and political leaders.

At least one local leader in the field – Sam Fiorello, COO and senior vice president of the Danforth Plant Science Center – says there’s still the challenge of getting the word out to ordinary St. Louisans about what we have now.

“If you’re to ask someone in South County who’s not an investor, not an innovator, not a scientist, about the Danforth Plant Science Center, they may or may not have heard of it," said Fiorello, who contended St. Louis is the number one place in the world for plant sciences research. "It's not a household name."

Laying the groundwork

Plant science research is a broad catchall term. It includes, but isn’t limited to, studies of agricultural cultivation, biofuels, plant diseases and immunities, and nutrition.

Plant science research can  have different goals, depending on where it’s being conducted. A big company like Monsanto or a start-up business such as NewLeaf may embrace plant science research for commercialization. Researchers at universities or nonprofit institutions may have broader missions than making money.

But whether the spark is profit or altruism, James McCarter – an entrepreneur in residence at Monsanto whose job is to help start-up companies – said the research is needed because "feeding the world is a huge mission.”

“You have to be able to produce more food in the next 30 years than we’ve produced in the last 10,000 years in order to feed 9 billion (people with an) increasing demand for protein in diets,” said McCarter, who came to Monsanto after that company purchased Divergence in 2011. "We have to produce this huge increase in food with less land, less water, less pesticides, less fertilizer, less energy.”

“You can’t overstate the seriousness of that challenge as scientists look at (the increased demand) and say ‘How are we going to do this?’” he added. 

One big reason St. Louis is considered a plant science hub is the prominent commercial and institutional organizations within its geographical borders. Besides the Danforth Center and Monsanto, St. Louis is home to Washington University, which has conducted extensive plant science research in its biology department.

It's relatively close to state universities with strong agricultural programs, including the University of Missouri-Columbia, the University of Illinois and Purdue University. St. Louis also is home to the Missouri Botanical Garden, which can provide plant specimens for research.

“If you ask people where in the country do you go to be involved in economic development around plant science, St. Louis is one of the leaders,” McCarter said. “Whereas if you ask about biotech overall, we’re not of that scale that you would see in a San Francisco or a Boston.”

Fiorello added that St. Louis’ Midwest location makes a difference, saying that 70 percent of the U.S. agricultural production happens within 500 miles of the Danforth Plant Science Center.

Tami Craig Schilling, vice president of technology communications for Monsanto, said the region’s natural geography is a big factor. That includes, she said, proximity to major universities and the closeness to transportation hubs.

“The Mississippi River (is) a lifeblood of opportunity to move products like fertilizers and crops out to other countries or even further down the river from Iowa to Louisiana,” Schilling said.

"When we think about being a Gateway to the West and how food gets produced – so many things converge in St. Louis," she added.

Triangle offense

St. Louis, of course, is not the only place in the country where there’s a collection of institutions that focus on plant sciences research. San Diego and various cities in Texas are among those that are considered "competitors."

But David Stern, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell and a member of the American Society of Plant Biologists’ Science Policy Committee, said in an interview that St. Louis’ institutions and agribusiness provide “an interesting combination" compared to other cities.

For one thing, Stern said there's no land grant university in St. Louis. That, he said, makes for "an unusual kind of genesis for plant sciences."

Stern also said the Danforth Center’s expansion runs “counter to the tide of reduced investments, particularly in the land grant universities.” He noted that the Danforth Center received money from private foundations and companies, in addition to governmental sources. Many other institutions depend completely on federal grants, which sparked problems during governmental budget cuts.

“I think the fact that [St. Louis] is competing in those circles is quite significant,” Stern said. “And I really am delighted that these investments are being made (in plant sciences)."

Laurita said that while other cities have research universities and other institutions that prevent St. Louis from being unique, he added “it’s close to it.”

“Not everyone understands the extent to which this is a real opportunity,” Laurita said. “Danforth has some of the top plant science researchers in the country working there. And they’re expanding … so you’ve got some really heavy-duty original research going on there. Then you’ve got the BRDG facility, which is also planning to expand. In some ways it functions like an incubator, because you have the access to the community college.”

One place that’s often mentioned as another “center of excellence," as McCarter put it, is Research Triangle Park in North Carolina

Keith Thomas, the CEO of Toronto-based ViVe Crop Protection, said that Research Triangle Park is “really the dominant area for (plant science) in North America.”

“You have a larger number of companies that either have their North American headquarters based there or their R&D based there,” said Thomas, referring to research and development.

Some of agribusiness’ heavy hitters – including Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer  – have branches at Research Triangle Park. It's also home to a number of biomedical and technology companies, which can often work hand-in-hand with plant science researchers.

According to Thomas, "You definitely have a very close second city to the Research Triangle area. What you have is phenomenal. It’s a great nexus of information and companies."

The fact that St. Louis is the home base for Monsanto, said Roger Beachy, former president of the Danforth Plant Science Center and a professor at Washington University, serves as a disincentive for other big agribusiness companies to have branches here. But on the other hand, Beachy noted that none of those companies has decided to make Research Triangle Park their world headquarters. 

While Research Triangle Park attracts plant commerce, Fiorello equates it to a "big corporate park." He said some of the things St. Louis has -- such as Washington University or the Danforth Center -- aren't available there. 

"(When) we’re in negotiations with other (U.S.) companies, it’s down to Research Triangle Park or St. Louis and BRDG Park as their North American headquarters for research," Fiorello said. "The big difference is you go there and you’re in a corporate park. You come here and you’re going to be in a hub of innovation." 

Fertile ground

While St. Louis isn't likely to poach a big agribusiness company, it appears to be attracting a lot of smaller ventures.

That includes Matt Crisp, a North Carolina native and CEO of Benson Hill Biosystems. The three-person company is located in Missouri and in North Carolina.

He told the Beacon in a telephone interview that St. Louis had the needed elements for an “early stage” plant science company to succeed.

“The first is people,” said Crisp, adding that several people who joined his company had experience working at the Danforth Center. “These guys are renowned experts in their respective fields. You’ve also got good bases with Monsanto across the street and Wash U. And you’re in the Midwest at the end of the day, right? So you’re certainly in agriculture country.”

Crisp also said places like the Danforth Center offer small companies lab space and equipment – which usually would have eaten up a lot in capital costs.

“We have the ability to work with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and access some of their core facilities,” he said, adding those facilities include growth chambers and greenhouse space. “

Donn Rubin, president and CEO of BIOSTL, said with “the largest plant biotech company in the world” and “the largest independent research institute in the world dedicated to plant science right across the street from each other, (it's) natural (St. Louis) is going to be a plant science magnet.”

He noted that BRDG Park – an office complex on the Danforth Center’s grounds – is filling up fast. And he said most of the companies are drawn there “because of the plant science strengths, because of the amazing facility that the Danforth Center has and makes available for entrepreneurs.”

McCarter said there’s enough expertise in and around St. Louis to provide assistance to “early stage” companies.

“Some of those (new) technologies will flow to places like Monsanto,” McCarter said. “But others will stay independent and grow up in their own right.”

Economic development opportunity?

There’s tangible evidence that Crisp and Laurita’s testimonials aren’t aberrations.

Fiorello said both the Danforth Center and BRDG Park are planning to expand, which will provide more space for researchers and small businesses. And Monsanto is planning a major expansion in Chesterfield that could bring even more professionals into the region.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said earlier this year that Monsanto’s expansion could bring hundreds of people into the St. Louis region with the earning power to make a big impact.

He said no matter where in the area they live, "that’ll help our local economy. People are going to spend money, buy houses," Dooley said. "It’s going to help all of us.”

And that, Fiorello said, could provide an economic development jolt that would have tangible results for St. Louis’ economy. After all, he said, expansions at Danforth and BRDG Park will mean hundreds of new people coming to the region. Fiorello predicts St. Louis will possess a “brand” that will attract"young, bright minds" to the region.

“And if they come here and go to school here, they have a better chance of staying here,” he added.

Growing St. Louis

Last week, a series of Beacon articles looked at the danger of a declining middle class and development of an hourglass economy. It also outlined the stagnation that’s taken place in the St. Louis region.

But not all is doom and gloom. Ever-trendy Cherokee Street exemplifies what urban areas are trying; Downtown preserves a lot of the old while welcoming the new.

And some industries are finding new ways to work in long-established fields. St. Louis, home of Monsanto and in the middle of the Midwest, has been well situated to expand jobs in agriculture. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center has reshaped that aspiration and is making St. Louis a center for innovation.

In this series, reporter Jason Rosenbaum looks at:

  • Where the region stands in national rankings of plant sciences or the greater biotech realm.
  • How Plant Science Center developed and how it plans to grow.
  • The challenges that exist to maintain and expand the center.

Other Beacon articles that inform the discussion of innovation and economic growth include
Agricultural innovators look to grow bumper crop of businesses in St. Louis; Startup owners discuss challenges of life in the Lou; St. Louis hopes immigrants will find beauty in Mosaicand City and county launch initiative to invest in -- and keep -- start-ups.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.