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St. Louis’ agtech sector sees Cultivar STL forging stronger ties with Latin America

A group of people watches a demonstration of augmented reality.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
A contingent of a few dozen startup executives, investors, researchers and others involved in the agtech space in Latin America tour the XR lab on Wednesday at TREX in downtown St. Louis. The visit is part of a new initiative to build stronger ties between the agtech sector in Latin America and St. Louis.

St. Louis has a strong history of innovation in the biosciences and agtech industries, and now those local sectors want to make stronger connections abroad.

Cultivar STL, an initiative launched this month, aims to do that in Latin America.

“Both of our regions stand to gain a lot from learning from each other,” said Stephanie Regagnon, executive director of innovation partnerships at the Danforth Plant Science Center. “While we have built some amazing things in St. Louis and we have a lot to offer, we also still have a lot to learn.”

The initiative aims to help Latin American startups in agtech or geospatial land in St. Louis and also help similar companies in St. Louis more easily expand to those international markets, she said. It also has the goal of helping with global challenges like food security and climate change, Regagnon added.

The St. Louis region is well situated, located within 500 miles of more than half of the agricultural production in the U.S..

“Partnering with other agriculture regions that are already good at production but may not have all the tools they need can help accelerate innovation and therefore food security,” she said.

It’s led by a collection of organizations including the Danforth Center, BioSTL, the Yield Lab LATAM, the World Trade Center St. Louis, Greater St. Louis Inc. and 39 North Agtech Innovation District.

“St. Louis has all of the tools that an agtech innovator needs to be successful,” said Ben Johnson, senior vice president of programs at BioSTL. “Cultivar STL packages all of what St. Louis has to offer and provides a one stop entry point, particularly in agriculture in Latin America.”

It aims to take the past six years of relationship building and turn that into economic activity for the region, he said.

“We’re at the starting line now of what has been a lot of preparing for the race,” Johnson said. “It allows us to take a relationship from Chile, Brazil or Mexico and harness it through one network.”

Part of the launch of Cultivar STL included the region hosting a few dozen startup executives, investors, researchers and other people involved in the agribusiness in Central and South America.

For some it was their first interaction with the resources in St. Louis.

“So far, I’ve been happily impressed,” said Ana Maier, academic vice president at Zamorano University in Honduras.

She added she felt there’s opportunity for her institution to collaborate with those in St. Louis.

“When I saw yesterday all the research at the Danforth Center is doing, we could be a strategic ally for them in Central America,” Maier said. “We have the infrastructure, the knowledge, and we could be great research partners.”

Others see St. Louis’ success in collaboration between different institutions and organizations and want to replicate it in their countries.

“I try to copy and paste some of this to our country with the Yield Lab and other stakeholders,” said Marcelo Torres, president of the Argentine Association of No-Till Farmers. “I have labs, good researchers, knowledge, but I need to work a lot to articulate all of these.”

But making this happen may be easier said than done, Johnson said.

“We have all of these tools, but for someone coming from Latin America, that ecosystem can be overwhelming,” he said.

Cultivar STL aims to remove friction by focusing on what a startup may need, Johnson added. That could be through accessing greenhouses or startup space, field trials with a nearby grower, collaborating with a larger corporation in the St. Louis region or an investment, he said.

This kind of partnership, especially with a community in the U.S., is powerful for Latin American countries in general, said Tomás Peña, managing partner and co-founder of the Yield Lab LATAM, a venture capital firm focused on the ag space.

“Talent is distributed all over,” he said. “What we need is access to knowledge of how to turn that talent into business.”

And St. Louis is a region that has found success creating ecosystems focused on new technologies in agriculture and geospatial, Peña added.

“We’re trying to bring talent here from Latin America to open offices in St. Louis,” he said. “And when we hire people from St. Louis that they feel confident this is a serious endeavor.”

Cultivar STL also comes as institutions in the St. Louis region are investing more resources for the Latino community, said Karlos Ramirez, vice president of Latino outreach at the International Institute.

“People are starting to understand the value of the workforce, the value of innovative programs,” he said.

Ramirez noted Cultivar STL and other initiatives hit on an economic need for the region, which has a stagnating overall population, though Latinos are one of the fastest-growing population groups in the area.

“Bringing in people to hopefully create more of a workforce is going to be beneficial,” Ramirez said. “It makes sense that we would try to do some of that work with Latin America as it relates to biotech and all the areas that Cultivar is working with.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.