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Cortex CEO Dennis Lower Reflects On A Decade Of Building St. Louis Into A Tech Hub

Dennis Lower will step down as CEO of Cortex early next year after spending a decade in the role. Dec. 13, 2019
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Dennis Lower will step down as CEO of Cortex early next year after spending a decade in the role.

A lot has changed at Cortex since Dennis Lower took the reins as CEO a decade ago.

Back then, he was tasked with designing an innovation community — a place where people from big corporations, small startups and academic research institutions could break out of their silos and bounce ideas off each other.

“We call them serendipitous collisions, and that truly is what does happen,” Lower said of the mixed-use business and retail area in midtown St. Louis.

But as Cortex grows — a new hotel, apartments and office space are under construction or in the planning stages — Lower is preparing to transition from his full-time role. That move will take place in the first quarter of 2020 when his successor will be named.

Lower said he intends to help get the new CEO fully up to speed and then stay on part time to spearhead at least two special projects in the cybersecurity and geospatial sectors.

By mid-2020, he said Cortex plans to formally announce the launch of a nonprofit, the Global Center for Cybersecurity at Cortex. The initiative brings together around 30 regional and global corporations, including Daimler Mobility AG. Its head of global information security, Josh Jaffe, will chair the new board.

Lower will also help usher in the Geospatial Consortium at Cortex, which will work closely with St. Louis University’s Geospatial Institute

“I do believe geospatial is going to have a significant impact on the economy of the region,” he said. “But I believe it’s going to be over a longer time period than most people think. It’s not going to be transformative overnight.”

Lower said these kinds of initiatives — that bring together corporations, academic institutions and startups — will be key to the next phase of innovation in St. Louis.

And he said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family, as well as consulting other cities on how to build innovation districts.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Corinne Ruff: Cortex looks much different now than in did back in 2010 when you were first hired. And I wonder, how did your vision for building it up then differ from what actually played out over the next decade?

Dennis Lower: My vision did not change over the decade. The program of a mixed-use horizontal innovation community is really what we started to put in place in 2010, 2011 — and it’s played out. The bumps along the way really have more to do with all of the trench work that we had to do. You know people look at Cortex today and say, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ But, this is fantastic because we paid a lot of attention to each physical building transaction.

Ruff: When you started, there were around 35 companies. Now there are over 400, and they support about 6,000 jobs. What do you think were some of the most important pieces of keeping those companies in this innovation center?

Lower: The programming, the placemaking — those were the things that set up the environment that attracted the companies. And it’s like anything — if you see value, you’ll pay for it. And that’s what we have created, and that’s what as we grow now becomes the challenge — how do we retain those companies in the district? Unfortunately, our price points are rising. So we are kind of gentrifying Cortex, and the neighborhoods around it are also getting more expensive. So that’s now become a major issue that the board and the staff are dealing with and trying to figure out how do we solve for that. It’s kind of the flip side of success.

Ruff: Is there something specific that you wish you could have done during your time here at Cortex but maybe didn’t have the time or the resources to do?

Lower: I don’t have a lot of regrets. I have some board members that would like us to go faster and further, and I do share that as well. But I also know we can’t go faster than the marketplace.

Ruff: It sounds like in part, you’re saying the success of Cortex depends on the market and what the market needs. How has Cortex impacted the larger business community here in St. Louis?

Lower: I think what Cortex and our partners across the region are doing is bringing a lens in focus and an image of ourselves as St. Louisans as being an entrepreneurial community. The future is in innovation, whether we embrace it or not. If we don’t embrace it, we as a region will be left behind.

Ruff: What do you think are some of the big barriers standing in the way of St. Louis being a bigger business town?

Lower: We need to address the disparity issues across the region. It holds us back from a business development perspective. Compensation is now number three or four as a reason why a young employee will accept employment with a company. The first several reasons have to do with social responsibility, community engagement, work-life balance. If we aren’t a place that embraces those values, then we’re going to be less attractive to that talent — and talent is really the raw material in an innovation economy.

Ruff: What do you hope to see out of the future of Cortex and the leadership here?

Lower: What I see for the future is an evolution of the Cortex Innovation Community into the St. Louis innovation community, and that we view all of the technology presence across the region, all of the companies — as part of an innovation corridor. And I think that will take us in the next decade or two to the level that we want to be.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.