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How the 39 North AgTech Innovation District fits into St. Louis’ ag and biosciences landscape

A White woman with brown hair, wearing all black clothes and glasses, stands with one hand on her hip. She is lit in warm, golden-hour sunlight, in front of a hill of tall yellow grasses.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Emily Loshe-Busch, executive director of 39 North, on Wednesday outside the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Olivette.

St. Louis’ strong and established agriculture and biosciences industries got a boost in April when a nonprofit formed to run the 39 North AgTech Innovation District located near Olive and Lindbergh in St. Louis County.

The district has existed for years with entities like the Danforth Plant Science Center, Cities of Creve Coeur and Olivette and others helping bolster its presence, said 39 North Executive Director Emily Lohse-Busch. But coming out of the pandemic there were questions about how the district can and should move forward, she added.

“There’s more to do, there’s more that we can do,” Lohse-Busch said. “What is the best structure to carry this thing forward most effectively and leverage what it can be?”

The answer was establishing an independent nonprofit to directly lead the district and help relieve pressure on the entities that had been very involved in leading it, she said.

“It was very clear that there was a lot of activity and a lot of really good work happening and there was a gap in the ecosystem,” Lohse-Busch said.

She explained that gap was a standalone organization whose primary focus would be on developing the resources for a company looking to grow into a world-class agtech venture.

“How do we create conditions where it makes more sense for a company to either stay in St. Louis and build out whatever it is they're going to be doing, or move here, if they want to do something related to agtech?” Lohse-Busch said. “And that we’re first to come to everybody's mind.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Eric Schmid recently sat down with Lohse-Busch to discuss 39 North and what lies ahead for the innovation district.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Schmid: St. Louis is a leader in this space. We have a built up biosciences and agricultural landscape with BioSTL, Bayer, Bunge, the Danforth Center and others. Can you put a fine point on the way that 39 North fits into that ecosystem and elevates it?

Lohse-Busch: We can develop facilities and physical spaces. There's a huge need in our region for companies that need lab space. And it doesn't always have to be high end top of the line, medical grade lab space. They need a good place to work with their plants or their product and they want to do that in proximity with others who are doing similar work.

Then it also is all the wraparound. It’s connections, where we have regular planned events that bring together the AgTech community and be able to not just have that initial conversation but have an entity whose goal it is then to make sure that those connections move forward.

I can’t stress that enough, that to have an entity like 39 North that very clearly fills this gap helps the Danforth Center, BioSTL, Bayer, CoverCress, Benson Hill. It helps all of these entities be more effective.

A White woman with brown hair. She is lit by warm, golden-hour sunlight. Behind her is a large building of red brick and glass.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Emily Loshe-Busch is photographed on Wednesday outside the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Olivette, Mo.

Schmid: What do you see for the district and St. Louis in general in the ag tech space in the next three to five years, maybe?

Lohse-Busch: In the next couple of years, our focuses are on creating affordable warehousing and lab space. Number two: 39 North needs a front door. I don't actually mean one space, but we need different points of entry into the district. Third is connectivity. For anybody who's been on the campus, there's parts of it that are very well connected, and it's easy to walk from building to building, and then there's other parts where you have to exit and go out onto two pretty major roads.

One thing that I'm actually coming to terms with is the time horizon for this and being really intentional about our growth. Realistically to be where we want to be we're probably looking at more of a 5-10 year horizon, and then truly a 10-15-20 year horizon. Right.

Schmid: Do we have enough people with the right skill sets here to foster the growth you want to see?

Lohse-Busch: The short answer is not at this moment. There are a number of efforts in place but we absolutely need more people to be excited about the different roles that exist in the ag space.

I also think there's a different way to think about that question that is related to the Ag expertise we have here in St. Louis. The number of people who have decades of working with Monsanto (now Bayer) or other companies in this space, is one of our greatest advantages. When you look at the people who are starting companies and becoming CEOs and Chief Scientific Officers, not only do they largely come from that background, but they know one another even if they're not in St. Louis anymore. They know people who are all over the country who potentially could come back here. And then you add on top of that the Danforth Center, and that those people are now in our ecosystem. At that level, I think we have an incredible wealth of talent.

Schmid: What keeps you up at night?

Lohse-Busch: Building a new organization. I mean, right now, I don't think it's any secret to anybody that the commercial real estate market is not in a boom phase. I actually don't think that that's necessarily a negative for us because we have the ability to be intentional about how and where we build out.

The Ag tech sector is changing very rapidly. I think that's important for us to be very aware of, I think all of it represents opportunity, but it also if we are not vigilant, we can go really far down a road that is maybe not going to benefit us.

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