The New STL: Innovators 2015 | Part I

St. Louis is reinventing itself as a city of innovation. Meet the bold minds that are helping us get there.

 

St. Louis is poised to become a hub of innovation, garnering national attention for its creative projects, cooperative spirit, ready investors, tech advances and laudable outcomes. It’s changing the way we work, live and play, from an agricultural research facility working to end hunger to a community arts organization unlike any other in the nation. And, in the best of ways, it’s changing the way we think and talk about our city.

ALIVE delved into STL’s innovative spirit in our first Innovation Issue to discover the people, ideas, spaces and places that are creating a better St. Louis. Meet the minds and makers behind the movement.

 

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SPACES: Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Four thousand years ago, innovative Chinese farmers invented plant grafting to ensure their villages had enough food. Today, scientists at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the world’s leading facility for plant and agricultural science and innovation, are working to fight hunger‰ÛÓthis time on a global level. Researchers at the Center’s Institute for International Crop Improvement are using agricultural innovation to reduce hunger in developing countries and improve human health at home by working with partners in sub-Saharan Africa to develop disease-resistant cassava plants, a staple for African farmers whose crops are being destroyed by viruses.

But hunger is not the only urgent human need being addressed. At the BioResearch & Development Growth (BRDG) Park on the Danforth campus, MOgene Clinical Diagnostics, LC, will release ResistDx, the first HIV drug-resistance testing that will determine‰ÛÓin less than a week‰ÛÓwhat kind of mutation the virus has undergone in a given patient to help doctors choose the most effective drug therapy. Also slated for 2015: A Danforth Center building expansion that will provide lab space for more than 100 additional researchers, and a new collaboration with Mizzou that will bring in four leading scientists to accelerate research and education and train plant scientists who will lead future generations. – KA

Photo courtesy of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

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BUSINESS: Donn Rubin | President & CEO, BioSTL

Say you have a school and you want to encourage students to learn to design and build really cool stuff‰ÛÓexcept you think it’s hard or expensive or intimidating. Not so, says Blake Marggraff: With the right tools, someone can get started within five minutes.

To prove it, the Wash U student co-founded Betaversity with a group of peers. It’s the simple idea of taking a shipping container and filling it with tech materials, basic supplies, hardware and software to create a “makerspace” where anyone can invent, design and build. The BetaBox is “designed with the totally naÌøve user in mind,” Marggraff says. Some of the gear, like the laser cutter and 3-D printer, has a learning curve; other supplies, like duct tape and pipe cleaners, couldn’t be simpler.

Users from all academic disciplines have left with physical items ranging from device prototypes to sound/music visualization art projects. Once the students have learned by doing, the next step is getting a job. BetaVersity can help with that too, through Atlas, its process-oriented online portfolio for engineers. ‰ÛÒ AD

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ARTS: Kelly Pollock | Executive Director, COCA

When Fast Company named St. Louis one of five “Slow Cities” worldwide in 2007, Kelly Pollock took notice‰ÛÓand decided to rewire the city. “If St. Louis was to move forward, we, as leaders in arts education, could help develop creative thinking,” she says.

COCAbiz launched in 2010 to provide hands-on arts training to the business community, an approach that caught the National Endowment for the Arts’ eye and elevated the organization to a national platform when Pollock addressed its annual meeting last October. To date, COCAbiz has helped 4,000 business leaders from 350 companies develop innovative, exploratory cultures.

Recently, it has worked with NestlÌ© Purina, Monsanto and Wells Fargo (for more on that, check out our online extra) and partnered with SLU John Cook School of Business’ MBA program.

In September, its SPARK conference will present innovative thought leaders and creativity labs. “People are starting to recognize that human creativity is the ultimate competitive advantage,” Pollock says. ‰ÛÒ KA

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EDUCATION: Blake Marggraff | Co-founder, Betaversity

Say you have a school and you want to encourage students to learn to design and build really cool stuff‰ÛÓexcept you think it’s hard or expensive or intimidating. Not so, says Blake Marggraff: With the right tools, someone can get started within five minutes.

To prove it, the Wash U student co-founded Betaversity with a group of peers. It’s the simple idea of taking a shipping container and filling it with tech materials, basic supplies, hardware and software to create a “makerspace” where anyone can invent, design and build. The BetaBox is “designed with the totally naÌøve user in mind,” Marggraff says. Some of the gear, like the laser cutter and 3-D printer, has a learning curve; other supplies, like duct tape and pipe cleaners, couldn’t be simpler.

Users from all academic disciplines have left with physical items ranging from device prototypes to sound/music visualization art projects. Once the students have learned by doing, the next step is getting a job. BetaVersity can help with that too, through Atlas, its process-oriented online portfolio for engineers. ‰ÛÒ AD

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EDUCATION: Michael Palmer | Founder & Curriculum Developer, Code Red Education

As a teacher at an alternative high school in Cahokia, IL, Michael Palmer knew his social studies lessons weren’t likely to get his students a job‰ÛÓso he began teaching them coding instead. His students responded, so much so that he took it to the next level: In 2012, he pilot-tested his curriculum at McCluer North High School.

His first client became SS. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Collinsville, IL. 2013 brought him an Arch Grant, and now Code Red is part of the regular computer science or technology curricula in 57 schools throughout St. Louis, including Parkway and several other St. Louis public schools, as well as schools in Cahokia.

With a coder-craving job market, high-school graduates who know how to code have a “viable option,” Palmer explains. “There are some things that we need to grow to keep our talent,” he says. “We do that by building [talent] from an early age. If more kids in the city get jobs as developers, it increases the quality of life for everyone in the city.”

His latest initiative: the just-launched Code World Order, a network to give people of all ages and experience coding skill sets while connecting them with recruiters and channeling and keeping talent in the city (for more on that, check out our extended interview with Palmer). ‰ÛÒ KA

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TECH: Andrew Couch | Founder, CandyBAR (Candy Lab)

Andrew Couch is at the forefront of a seriously trending technology: Location-based augmented reality. Translation: apps that deepen participation in a user’s experience of reality. Described by Arch Grants as a combination of “Google AdWords, Foursquare and Super Mario Bros.,” CandyBAR’s stl250 location-based augmented reality app, commemorating the city’s 250th birthday, took users on a citywide scavenger hunt to collect virtual cakes‰ÛÓeffectively turning the experience of tourism into a game.

Next, its app for Carnival cruise lines, “Get on Board,” went live last month‰ÛÓits biggest project to date. Users in 100 US cities are guided to certain locations to collect virtual cruise ships (their tickets to enter to win a free cruise), participate in quizzes to learn about Carnival’s nine cruise lines and take selfies at locations of interest to share on social media.

Couch has no plans of slowing down any time soon: CandyLab has brought in investment capital, recruited top talent and has projects in development for the coming year (including an app for OneHope, Inc., a Christian organization, to enhance youth ministries engagement) that will be deployed using an automated platform, allowing Couch and his team to continue to focus on the next big thing. ‰ÛÒ KA

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EDUCATION: Joseph Klaesner | Associate Professor of Physical Therapy, Washington University School of Medicine

When Joseph Klaesner started out in the mid-1980s, he couldn’t get a biomedical engineering job. Fast-forward 30 years, and the world has caught up with him. For the past 15 years, he’s been shaping some of the best minds in
the field.

In the senior-level BME design class he teaches along with Dr. Frank Yin and Jonathan Silva at Washington University, recent projects have varied from a pedicle screw device that helps identify the real-time position of surgical tools to a hot pink robotic prosthetic arm for a 13-year-old girl, made with a 3-D printer for only $200.

“All of these students are exposed to incredible new technology,” Klaesner explains. “The ones that are successful are the ones that look at the technology in new ways.”

And Klaesner knows how hard they need to work firsthand: His own research centers on rehab engineering and the WheelMill System, a wheelchair dynamometer that provides a realistic user experience for manual wheelchair
research and training. ‰ÛÒ AD

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BUSINESS: Travis Sheridan | Founding Executive Director, Venture Caf•À_ Foundation-St. Louis

After just three days visiting St. Louis, Travis Sheridan knew it was time to leave Silicon Valley. To him, innovation is a way to “better the human condition” by providing creative solutions to problematic systems. Since arriving, he’s co-founded GlobalHack, a competition that brings in big thinkers to compete and solve a corporation’s challenge (Emerson and TopOpps are among the companies that have reaped the benefits), served as assistant vice president of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership (overhauling its incubator program) and revamped the STL Startup Challenge.

He’s also carried over “boozestorming” from his Fresno roots. Guests invited to his home to “drink outside the box” are asked to “bring brain, bottle or buddy” and submit personally meaningful topics or issues for a group discussion that aims to “create a new reality.” Previous topics include revising the crowdfunding model and what “community” means in terms of shopping locally. “We believe innovation is a social process,” Sheridan says. “It’s fueled by conversation, collaboration and storytelling.”

The weekly Venture CafÌ© gathering is his latest project: Recently expanded from Boston, it works to facilitate “serendipitous collisions” at its Cortex location. Networking is at its heart, and breakout sessions include office hours with subject experts and creative workshops, such as a MUNY set designer applying theater-design principles to business.

Coming in 2015: Youth programs that bring in young minds to help build a “talent pipeline” for innovation. ‰ÛÒ KA

 

Photo credit: Wesley Law (portraits); headshots courtesy of subjects

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