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With new fund and new center, St. Louis County doubles its emphasis on bioscience

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2010 - St. Louis County hopes that establishment of its own version of the double helix will do for bioscience research and development here what discovery of the double helix structure of DNA did for science nearly 60 years ago.

The $1.5 million Helix Fund is designed to provide seed money for startup businesses in the plant and life sciences. The Helix Center, located in 33,000 square feet at 1100 Corporate Square in Creve Coeur, will provide office and lab space to entrepreneurial scientists who are trying to grow their ideas into businesses.

The goal: To develop new procedures and new foods to be able to feed the world in the 21st century and beyond.

Comparing the twin initiatives to the breakthrough of the double helix during ceremonies Tuesday, Denny Coleman, president and CEO of the St. Louis County Economic Council, said, "We think this will be monumental in the history of bioscience in St. Louis County."

Coleman said that when the River City casino opened in the Lemay area, County Executive Charlie Dooley came up with a challenge about how to use the revenue that would be available to the county. It could go into the county's general fund, he said, but Coleman recalls him asking:

"Let's think creatively. What do we really need to make a difference in this community?" not only for science but for more jobs in the county.

Their answer was to play on the strengths and the synergy already developing in Creve Coeur -- with the Danforth Plant Science Center, BRDG Park and Monsanto headquarters -- to nurture scientists and researchers who needed help turning their ideas into money.

Besides the money from the Lemay casino, the county is also using $2.4 million in federal funds and $5.1 million in county money to purchase and renovate the site of the Helix Center, which is scheduled to be complete early next year.

The key to both the Helix Center and the Helix Fund, Coleman said, was the collaboration involved, not just with the nearby institutions but with efforts like the BioGenerator, the Nidus Center and others that have been trying to provide budding science-based businesses with the support they need, to the point that they can attract outside venture capital.

"If there are scientists at the Danforth Center or Washington University Medical School who have an idea they want to pursue, and are just starting out, they could use the facilities at the Helix Center," Coleman said. "As they progress and get further along toward their own company, they could lease more advanced space.

"We're trying to help them at the entry level, where they have had no place to go before now."

John McDonnell, former head of McDonnell Douglas and now chairman of the BioGenerator, which began in 2003, said Tuesday that in the early years of the fund, ideas were slow to come along.

Now, he said, "We have more potential new companies than we have money. This is the right thing at the right time."

Having sources of money and other support dedicated solely to bioscience is important, Coleman said. "This is a highly specialized area," he explained, "so we didn't want to duplicate the effort."

William Danforth, chairman of the board of the Danforth Plant Science Center, said the entire effort is "a chance to do something wonderful for the world.

"This is in a sense a gift to this region, but it's also a gift from this region to the entire world. None of us can do these things alone."

That sort of cooperative spirit permeated Tuesday's ceremony -- but there was one note of disagreement.

In his introduction, Coleman noted that everyone there had learned about the double helix model for DNA when they studied science in high school. But when the 84-year-old Danforth's turn to speak came, he talked of a different experience:

"I didn't even learn about the double helix in medical school, or in my first few years of practice. I didn't know this crowd was that young."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.