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Openly Disruptive: part learning, part inspiration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2012 - A luncheon on science fiction? A discussion on localized investment strategies? A lecture on open-source car designers? A forum on citizen involvement in biotechnology?

If you don’t know what these things have in common, then you haven’t met Dan Reus — and that’s a shame because from his engaging laugh to his enthusiasm for shaking things up, Reus is a guy who really seems to enjoy meeting people.

“I’m in this place where I get to connect all of these people and interesting things with each other,” said the 44-year-old University City resident. “It’s a fairly loose concept but these are all pretty bright people that have a sense that things could be a little bit better and they can contribute.”

Reus’ contribution has been Openly Disruptive.

And he’s quite proud of that.

It’s not just a description. It’s a name — one that identifies a venture which seems to act as its own mission statement to encourage the generation of ideas and innovation in what might otherwise be a somewhat buttoned-down St. Louis business scene. Founded in 2010, Reus’s brainchild is just beginning to get events underway this year. Earlier this month, Openly Disruptive sponsored a “Manufacturing the Future” program that brought in guest speaker Isaac Olson of Local Motors, an enterprise that created a vehicle designed by volunteers and built by aspiring owners at shops across the nation.

This week, the organization will host “Citizen Biotech,” a gathering that will explore the potential of biotechnology and the life sciences. The keynote will be delivered by Kristina Hathaway, COO of BioCurious, a Bay Area organization that describes itself as a “hackerspace for biotech” which provides community lab space to entrepreneurs, activists and “citizen scientists.”

The midday session of Wednesday’s proceedings will involve a local panel including representatives from Sigma-Aldrich, the St. Louis Science Center and Appistry, an area analytics company.

“The idea is to talk about how biotech is poised to be this much more inclusive thing as opposed to just being in labs and ivory towers,” Reus said.

Other aspects of the program are more eclectic. One activity will involve participants taking samples of their own DNA and comparing it with others as part of an imaginary crime scene.

“It’s kind of a CSI thing,” Reus said. “You get to use all these tools and do it in an afternoon.”

That democratized, hands-on ethos seems to pervade much of what Openly Disruptive does. Reus, a former marketer turned “chief instigator” said his operation is officially for-profit but only because not-for-profit status was too limiting.

“There are all kinds of rules that make it hard to evolve and change and when you are all about evolution and change, you don’t want to be tied to a board that was elected three years ago that doesn’t understand it,” he said. “You could say we’re for-profit with a public mission.”

And the public it attracts is a diverse group, said Reus. Visionary business people, hobbyists, computer programmers, students, even gamers. And it’s not just proponents of technology who might be in the audience.

“In a lot of places, people who are against genetically-modified food actually participate in things like this because they want to understand what they are protesting,” said Reus.

He calls events like Wednesday’s program part networking, part learning and part inspiration.

“I’m really interested in helping to create this kind of disruptive innovation culture,” he said. “A lot of things are happening in other places and I want people to have just as much a role in the future here in St. Louis as anywhere else in the world.”

“And I like hanging out with these kinds of people,” he adds with a chuckle.

Reus cites a famous quote often attributed to author William Gibson: 'The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.'

The future for Openly Disruptive is just around the corner. An event in May will look at how science fiction can help us to understand the ways we interact with technology. In June, the concept of “locavesting” or innovative methods of investing in local growth will be featured.

Whatever tomorrow holds, Reus wants to be ready for it.

“Forecasters are always saying the future is going to be about XYZ,” he said. “I’d rather take an approach where we can get hands on and understand it rather than just wait for it to come to us.”