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Danforth Center grows by being a 'magnet' for plant science professionals

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Jane Hill came to the Danforth Plant Science Center for the first time last month, she was impressed by what she saw. That's good, considering the distance she traveled.

Hill is the chief executive officer for CropLogic, a New Zealand-based company that provides online crop management services for potato farmers. She was in St. Louis for the Ag Innovation Showcase, which has become a major event for the plant sciences industry.

"I was not aware of the importance of St. Louis (in plant science) until (it was) made known to me through the Showcase," Hill said.

"I’m very thrilled we were selected … to get in. We’ve been making contacts with investors looking to raise capital. And we’ve been talking with some parties to have opportunities for partnerships," she said.

At a time when federal and state budget cuts have made governmental-based funding more scarce, the Danforth Center has managed to delve into major plant science research initiatives with the help of public grants, private foundations and corporations. The center has recruited eminent scientists; supplied needed equipment and space to small companies; and continually hosted one of the field’s most important annual conferences.

Sam Fiorello is the COO and senior vice president of the center, which, he said possesses "a critical mass."

"If you measure by publications, by peer reviewed grant awards — we’re best in class. We’re involved in basic science, intermediate science, translational science and science that then turns into startup companies for commercialization," Fiorello said.

As one of the center’s first employees, Fiorello may be a little partial. But he isn’t the only one who’s taken notice.

With a planned expansion expected to provide more space for scientists and staff, both close and distant observers see the center's growth continuing for the foreseeable future.

"This is a major commitment,” said David Stern, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell and a member policy committee of the American Society of Plant Biologists. "This is not going to vanish in 10 or 15 years. Their endowment is bigger now. It’s going to give them some fiscal security.”

Ante up

It wasn’t too long ago that the Danforth Plant Science Center was just an idea, and the land where it would be built was simply grass.

The origins came from a meeting of educational, commercial and institutional leaders in the 1990s. The group included William Danforth, who at the time was nearing the end of his tenure as chancellor of Washington University.

Danforth, according to Fiorello, noted that St. Louis already had institutions engaged in the plant sciences: Monsanto, Washington University, and the Missouri Botanical Garden. The purpose of the Danforth Center would be "to create something in which the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts."

Danforth wanted St. Louis to put a stake in the ground "and claim that we are the best place for plant and ag science," Fiorello said.

Start-up funds for the center came from a number of sources. In December 1997, the Monsanto Fund led with a pledge of $50 million. In early 1998, the Danforth Foundation pledged $60 million (and eventually provided much more). And in April of that year, Missouri put up $25 million through a grant from the Missouri Development Finance Board. The center opened in November of 2001.

A search committee hired Roger Beachy to be the center's founding president. He held that position until 2009, when he was tapped to become the head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Beachy noted that Danforth had recruited plant scientists to St. Louis when he was chancellor of Washington University. But "it hadn’t developed in the way that Dr. Danforth had imagined it would,” Beachy said. Danforth thought of creating an independent research center.

"They recruited me back from La Jolla, Calif., where I was at the Scripps Institute,” said Beachy, who is now a professor of biology at Washington University. "The reason I came back was they gave me freedom to establish the institute the way I thought it should be done, with guidance and input from all the surrounding areas.”

Beachy said people from the University of Missouri, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Monsanto, Washington University and the University of Illinois helped provide the groundwork for the financial and research side of center.

"They had a team that would advise on financial matters and another team that would advise on science,” Beachy said. "And they would say "well this is what we do in our university.’ These advisers really brought me up to speed on the strengths of the community."

"Then I could take a look and say ‘What’s missing here? What could the Danforth Center add to this mixture that would make it more successful?’”

Going big

One of the most notable aspects of the Danforth Plant Science Center is the actual building.

With a spacious atrium, wide walking paths and striking architectural design, the Creve Coeur-based facility is a stark contrast to the stereotypical idea of a scientist experimenting in a dingy basement.

That approach, Beachy said, is purposeful. From early on there was a conscious decision not to proceed in "a slow, organic manner” by adding "a scientist here, two scientists there, putting them at different universities and then when we had 50 scientists … we’d build a building.”

"No, we said we’re going to go right ahead and build a building,” Beachy said. "It needed to be strong enough that it could gain the attention of the press and gain the attention of the scientific community. (We wanted it to) pop up as a place to be contended with, a place you wanted to work.”

There were also great efforts to make the building comfortable for potential scientists and helpful in the research process. The center, Beachy said, brought in psychologists who specialize in thinking about lab design.

They advised that if you move from one temperature to another or from one light condition to the next, "there is a stimulation that goes on in your thought," Beachy said. Consequently temperature and light changes occur throughout the building.

Start-up money was used to construct the building and recruit key scientists.

As of 2013, the Danforth Plant Science Center has about 200 employees — including 170 scientific staff. The roughly 20 flags on the bottom floor of the center are meant to represent the countries of origin for all of the center’s scientists.

"Getting the first employee here was interesting: 'Why would somebody come to a brand new institution? Why wouldn’t they go to the University of Missouri or University of Illinois or Harvard? Why would they come to the Danforth Center?’” Beachy asked. "I had to sell the vision of plant sciences to help people."

In the mix

In recent years, the center has managed to snag public and private funding sources for research projects. According to a fact sheet from the Center, some of those projects include:

• $12.1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to research and develop a new model plant system to advance bioenergy grasses as a sustainable source of renewable fuels.

• $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Energy Department to support research focused on increasing yield and improving the composition of bioenergy grasses.

• $14.3 million from a number of funding sources for the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa Project. That includes $5.6 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $5.4 million from the Monsanto Fund, $860,000 from the Howard Buffett Foundation and $2.5 million from USAID. That project seeks to develop and deliver farmer-preferred cassava formulate to resist serious virus diseases that are greatly reducing crop yield in sub-Saharan Africa.

• $8.3 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support a project aiming to reduce malnutrition by increasing the nutritional value of cassava.

Stern, a board member of the American Society of Plant Biologists, said the expansion of the Danforth Center has been "driven by private funding, which is not a bad thing.”

Stern said the center "is pretty creative, particularly in international agriculture, about tackling problems where the Gates Foundation will get involved or USAID will get involved."

"We call these non-traditional funding sources," Stern said. "So I think they’re trying to match their mission to where resources can be acquired. And I think that’s a good sustainable strategy. But it does constrain the research direction."

Beachy said that different types of grants have varied expectations. For instance, money from the Department of Energy would likely fund, basic science related to energy production, including photosynthesis, carbohydrates and captured energy release. The Gates Foundation would have different goals in mind.

Fiorello said that the center has "a diverse base of funding" from the federal government, private companies and private foundations.

"That diversity gives us a level of comfort that as federal funding goes down and other places are feeling pain, we feel less pain," Fiorello said.

Beachy said that he made a purposeful decision to seek out public and private funding sources when he was head of the center.

"That was something that we were going to do differently," Beachy said. "You had to buffer against the times when certain kinds of funding would fall off. It is a not-for-profit, but as Dr. Danforth reminds us, financially, it’s a not-for-loss."

Fiorello emphasized that Danforth’s research budget of $25 million is a fraction of Monsanto’s $1.4 billion research and development budget. One difference, he said, is that companies such as Monsanto focus their research on "proof of concept toward commercialization."

"They’re trying to maximize shareholder profits … they’re trying to get products into farmers’ hands,” Fiorello said. "They’re not going to take large risks. … They simply can’t … They’re in the business to make money.”

The aforementioned cassava project, he said, falls in line with the Danforth Center’s "mission impact” that seeks to "improve the human condition through plant science." 

"But that’s not the kind of thing that the Monsantos or the DuPont Pioneers are going to focus on, because it’s not revenue generating," Fiorello said.

He added that "all of the research and intellectual property that's created in the Danforth Center is owned by the Danforth Center."

"Will we go far afield from what we do if a company comes to us and says ‘we have money, but we want you to do something you don’t work on?’ The answer is no," Fiorello said. "Will we move around the edges to tweak our portfolio to accommodate some sponsored research that would further our mission? Absolutely yes."

The variety of funding sources, James McCarter — entrepreneur in residence at Monsanto — said, helps make the center "a unique asset.”

"They’ve been able to pull in funding not just from the Department of Agriculture, but from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Gates Foundation and Enterprise Rent-a-Car,” McCarter said. "It gives St. Louis a unique asset in terms of the fundamental knowledge generated around plants and what makes plants tick."

Start me up

Adjacent to greenhouses that are big enough to hold tall crops is BRDG Park, an office building run by Wexford Technologies and home to a number of plant science start up companies.

BRDG Park is part of an ancillary goal of attracting and nurturing start-up companies. Some of those companies use the Danforth Center’s facilities as a way of reducing expenses.

"An early stage company in plant science ... needs access to some of the best science and human capital, the best minds in science research. The Danforth Center is best in class. (We) give them that," Fiorello said.

He also said Danforth gives companies access to specialized resources like growth rooms, growth chambers, microscopes, and greenhouses. That's "tens of millions of dollars in capital that a starting company couldn’t afford."

"We give them access to it," Fiorello said. "We charge them an affordable rate.”

One company that’s taken advantage of these resources is Benson Hill Biosystems. It expanded from North Carolina to BRDG Park, maintaining offices in both locations. Benson Hill Biosystems CEO, Matt Crisp, said the center's resources are critical to early ag biotech companies that are cash-strapped.

Tom Laurita, the CEO of NewLeaf Symbiotics, said having access to the center’s laboratory space and personnel was "essential” for his early start up company. It was also helpful, he said, that St. Louis Community College has laboratory space at BRDG Park.

"We didn’t have a lab. We didn’t have equipment. We really were virtual,” Laurita said. "We hired an ex-Monsanto scientist to do some of our original research as a consultant. (He asked) 'well, where am I going to do this work?’ And when we showed him BRDG and [St. Louis Community College] facilities at BRDG, he could hardly believe his eyes.”

Laurita said his company "actually made a major discovery at the community college, which led to a major sampling of patents." He added that "all of that was done at the community college, working with interns, under the direction of our scientists.”

"Not everyone understands the extent to which this is a real opportunity,” Laurita said.

The Danforth Plant Science Center provides start-up companies with more than microscopes or greenhouses.The entrepreneurs can network with experts in the field.

"You can connect them with possible investors in the business,” Fiorello said. "You can get them folks that can serve on their scientific advisory boards. You can connect them with potential partners. You can connect them to potential acquirers.

"Our tagline at BRGD Park is 'research, resources and relationships.' That’s the value proposition that we build.”

Part of that networking angle includes the Danforth Center’s Ag Innovation Showcase, an increasingly popular conference that allows small companies to get in touch with investors. The event drew hundreds of people recently to the St. Louis area.

"Whether you’re in Bangalore, India, or Austin, Texas, or Research Triangle Park, they know about that," Fiorello said, referring to the Ag Innovation Showcase. "This is where you want to be."

Expansion on the horizon

The Danforth Center is planning a $45 million, 79,000-square foot expansion in the next couple of years, which Fiorello said would provide more space for its scientists and staff. BRDG Park is also slated to expand.

Not only will that expansion provide more breathing room, Fiorello said, but it also could attract hundreds of people to move to the region.

"If you add the Danforth Center’s phase one and phase two, that’s another 400 jobs. So now you start to approach 1,600 jobs just here,” Fiorello said, "not to mention the impact it will have helping Monsanto to fill its additional 400 or 500 jobs.”

Beachy said the expansion should set the center up "for the next decade.” And he predicted that it will continue to be an "incredible magnet” to bring people and companies to the region.

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.

Next: How can St. Louis bolster its status as a plant science hub?

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