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'Healthy, vibrant ecosystem' attracts STEM entrepreneurs to St. Louis region

(L-R) Emily Lohse-Busch, Natalie DiNicola and Sam Fiorello share their experiences with the local STEM startup scene.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
(L-R) Emily Lohse-Busch, Natalie DiNicola and Sam Fiorello share their experiences with the local STEM startup scene.

St. Louis has established itself as an attractive city for those with fresh ideas who are ready to take risks. Companies in the science, technology, engineering and math fields are now encouraging entrepreneurs to make their mark in the city’s startup scene.

Benson Hill Biosystems is an example of a local company that began small but has seen tremendous growth over the years. Natalie DiNicola, the company’s chief communications officer, told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh that St. Louis’ “healthy, vibrant ecosystem” gives it a key advantage when recruiting entrepreneurs in the STEM fields.

Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer at Danforth Plant Science Center, and Emily Lohse-Busch, executive director of Arch Grants, joined DiNicola and Marsh on Thursday’s talk show to discuss how and why STEM entrepreneurs are coming to St. Louis..

The Danforth Center will draw on the theme of entrepreneurship Thursday evening at a talk entitled “Entrepreneurs: Artists on Innovations.” The talk is part of the center’s Conversations series.

Through storytelling, the panelists will discuss the 39 North District, the culture and evolution of startups in St. Louis and the role of entrepreneurs in the local science scene. 

Fiorello, who will moderate Thursday’s talk, said St. Louis “has come a long way,” and that the local plant food and agriculture scene “is the best in the world.”

The39 North District is home to many agricultural technologies (commonly referred to as AgTech) and plant-science innovation organizations in the region, such as the Danforth Plant Science Center and its spinoff company, Benson Hill Biosystems.

But international companies have their sights set on the Gateway City as well.

“Companies come from Boston, Germany, Israel and India … not because they care about us or the Cardinals or the community, [but because] they want to pick the best place in the world to grow their business. So they voted with their lives, their livelihoods and their companies,” Fiorello said.

DiNicola listed three things startup companies really need to thrive: infrastructure, capital and talent. She said Benson Hill is now looking to attract talent after establishing itself.

“We’re growing, we’re hiring, and a big part of what we’re looking for is talent in that STEM space, folks with data-science capabilities, plant biology, molecular biology, those kinds of areas,” DiNicola said.

Lohse-Busch, a panelist at the “Entrepreneurs” talk, explained what catches her eye when approving grants for startup companies. Arch Grants awards 20 different $50,000 grants to startups a year.

“Our process is based on vetting companies and putting companies through a process by which the community gets involved in their success throughout … with 400 community volunteers,” Lohse-Busch said.

“We ask people … to look at our companies that are applying and answer the questions, ‘Are [the companies] scalable? Are they innovative? Are they a good fit here in St. Louis?’” she added. “Which is unique – it’s something that we look at specifically as Arch Grants because at our core, we’re an economic development organization for St. Louis,”

What: Conversations: The Entrepreneurs - Artists of Innovation
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, October 18, 2018
Where: Danforth Plant Science Center, 975 North Warson Road Saint Louis, MO 63132

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan an Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.