The New STL: Innovators 2015 | Thought Leaders

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

 

 

5930_1852.jpg

Jason Hall | Vice President Innovation & Entrepreneurship, St. Louis Regional Chamber

Do you feel St. Louis is poised to become a top city of innovation, and how do you think we get there?

The St. Louis region is poised for incredible growth as a global innovation. We have always had incredible research, business, and talent strengths clustered around cutting-edge technology, but we have worked as a region to better leverage those strengths. Assets like our universities and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are where breakthrough discoveries are occurring. We now have in place accelerators, incubators, mentoring and capital to help move those ideas forward in the form of new companies.

We have taken huge steps forward in better aligning our efforts as a region like the success we are seeing with the SixThirty Accelerator to leverage our undeniable strength in the financial services sector with companies like Edward Jones, Wells Fargo Advisors, and others to attract the next generation of financial services entrepreneurs to St. Louis. We are seeing organizations like CIC choosing St. Louis as the site of its first expansion outside of Boston. We are working with a team to launch the first-of-its-kind accelerator to attract and retain women-led start-up businesses. Germany-based biotech giant, KWS, chose St. Louis over San Francisco and the Research Triangle Park as the site of its first North American research center. Monsanto is currently embarked on a massive expansion of its global research operation in St. Louis. These and many more represent incredible positive trajectory for St. Louis.

What can we be doing to build on St. Louis’ current momentum in innovation?

We need to continue to strengthen our collaborative efforts as a region to increase funding capacity for our entrepreneurship support system and later-stage venture capital. I’m honored to be a part of an unprecedented regional collaborative representing businesses, higher education and other leaders known as Accelerate St. Louis, which is focused on increasing the funding capacity by $100 million over the next five years through our collaborative work, creating a more inclusive, risk-tolerant culture and telling the world of St. Louis’ amazing story of entrepreneurial revival.

What challenges do we need to overcome?

One of our biggest challenges is scaling up and providing funding to the entrepreneurs and the support network that has helped propel the region forward. Organizations like BioSTL, Biogenerator, Arch Grants, Cultivation Capital, ITEN, T-Rex, Helix Center, Missouri Technology Corporation, and many others have been on the front lines of helping entrepreneurs fund, run, and grow their start-ups in St. Louis. We now need to scale up to take St. Louis to the next level.

What is the most exciting innovation to come out of St. Louis in the last five years?

With so many incredible innovations it is impossible to choose just one. What I’m most excited about over the past five years, however, is the structural changes we’ve made to reach our potential as a global innovation hub. It is undeniable that we’ve taken entrepreneurship and innovation to an entirely new level that has been recognized around the globe. It is now a integral strategy of our region’s growth.

5933_1852.jpg

Michael Allen | Director, Preservation Research Office

Do you feel St. Louis is poised to become a top city of innovation, and how do you think we get there?

We are getting there, but we have a long way to go before we are where we should be as an innovation center. Ventures like CIC, Cortex, T-Rex, Venture Cafe and others are helping us get there, but we need leverage our existing resources, such as our incredible built environment, rich talent pool and prestigious universities.

We also need to do a better job of marketing St. Louis to the rest of the world, because this city really packs a punch when people come to visit. It’s getting them here in the first place that’s our biggest challenge. Every major city in the country is working hard to position themselves as “innovation centers,” so we have to think outside the box and distinguish ourselves from other places that are going after the same kind of investment. Our greatest competitive advantage is our rich urban fabric and the ease of being able to take advantage of a quality urban lifestyle. This is a city where risk-takers can live well and still have a roof over their heads even if they fail‰ÛÓat least relative to more popular markets. That’s a big selling point!

What can we be doing to build on St. Louis’ current momentum in innovation?

North Side-South Side MetroLink expansion should be the region’s No. 1 priority. People want to live in cities where they don’t need to rely on a car, and it’s time to think big if STL expects to remain even remotely competitive into the future. St. Louis is lucky to have a relatively dense, compact urban core that would be well served by a completed network of rail transit. A north-south line to complement the existing east-west lines would be a great equalizer in providing accessibility to the most transit-dependent parts of the city, while helping to heal a lot of the racial barriers that have divided our region for generations.

What challenges do we need to overcome?

From dubious rankings on “most dangerous city” lists to Ferguson to negative perceptions of “flyover country,” St. Louis is a pretty tough sell these days. But that underdog status is also an opportunity for us to show our true colors as a city. We can’t deny or ignore our serious problems, but we also shouldn’t let them define us. We love this crabby old red-brick city, and we couldn’t be prouder to live here.

What is the most exciting innovation to come out of St. Louis in the last five years?

Arch Grants! St. Louis doesn’t have the luxury of being a coastal magnet city, but we do have a great incentive to foster new business here that has put St. Louis back on the international radar. Arch Grants has proven to be instrumental in concentrating startups here that are transforming the St. Louis economy on so many levels by attracting some of the brightest minds from around the globe and demonstrating that our city has the “stuff” to make things happen in big ways.

5934_1852.jpg

Nicole Hudson | Strategy Consultant, Because Really

Is St. Louis is poised to become a top city of innovation? How do you think we get there?

I think, tactically, it already is a top city of innovation. It depends on who you’re speaking with, right? If you’re looking to some sort of external entity to proclaim it so, perhaps not. If you’re involved in the innovation or part of the culture on the ground, you know that you’re already in the middle of it. We need to claim and own what’s happening and be intentional about living in it instead of waiting for some sort of sign or validation. We got this.

What challenges do we need to overcome?

We need to overcome our inability to acknowledge our warts without fixating on them. We tend to skip the part where we have actual ugly problems to solve and go straight to glossing over them and pretending they aren’t there. We need to own who we are in the moment, as ugly as it might be, and apply our grit and passion to moving through that.

What is the most exciting innovation to come out of St. Louis in the last five years?

I know most would likely point to a product or literal innovation, but I’m gonna go with an accidental one: The Events of Aug. 9 triggered a complete implosion of our status quo. It might just be the seat that I’m in, but I see this ecosystem of change and grass-top thinking and action that will reverberate through this region for a long time to come. I am seeing the decentralized yet high-impact nature of the Occupy and Tea Party and now Ferguson movement being co-opted by doers and thinkers and innovators in a way that perhaps happened in those other movements but was never highlighted. The legal, organizational and community-level energy and action I’m seeing, in my opinion, sets St. Louis up to evolve in ways that could never be articulated prior to this fall.

What can we be doing right now to take St. Louis to the next level?

Stop living in the past. Stop spending out energy in the “what if” and in the navel-gazing phase. Be diligent about focusing our energy‰ÛÓindividually, institutionally and collectively‰ÛÓon what we are doing, what we achieve and offer on a regular basis. Don’t describe and analyze, do and celebrate and then do some more.

5932_1852.jpg

Randy & Jeff Vines | Co-creators, STL-Style

Do you feel St. Louis is poised to become a top city of innovation, and how do you think we get there?

We are getting there, but we have a long way to go before we are where we should be as an innovation center. Ventures like CIC, Cortex, T-Rex, Venture Cafe and others are helping us get there, but we need leverage our existing resources, such as our incredible built environment, rich talent pool and prestigious universities.

We also need to do a better job of marketing St. Louis to the rest of the world, because this city really packs a punch when people come to visit. It’s getting them here in the first place that’s our biggest challenge. Every major city in the country is working hard to position themselves as “innovation centers,” so we have to think outside the box and distinguish ourselves from other places that are going after the same kind of investment. Our greatest competitive advantage is our rich urban fabric and the ease of being able to take advantage of a quality urban lifestyle. This is a city where risk-takers can live well and still have a roof over their heads even if they fail‰ÛÓat least relative to more popular markets. That’s a big selling point!

What can we be doing to build on St. Louis’ current momentum in innovation?

North Side-South Side MetroLink expansion should be the region’s No. 1 priority. People want to live in cities where they don’t need to rely on a car, and it’s time to think big if STL expects to remain even remotely competitive into the future. St. Louis is lucky to have a relatively dense, compact urban core that would be well served by a completed network of rail transit. A north-south line to complement the existing east-west lines would be a great equalizer in providing accessibility to the most transit-dependent parts of the city, while helping to heal a lot of the racial barriers that have divided our region for generations.

What challenges do we need to overcome?

From dubious rankings on “most dangerous city” lists to Ferguson to negative perceptions of “flyover country,” St. Louis is a pretty tough sell these days. But that underdog status is also an opportunity for us to show our true colors as a city. We can’t deny or ignore our serious problems, but we also shouldn’t let them define us. We love this crabby old red-brick city, and we couldn’t be prouder to live here.

What is the most exciting innovation to come out of St. Louis in the last five years?

Arch Grants! St. Louis doesn’t have the luxury of being a coastal magnet city, but we do have a great incentive to foster new business here that has put St. Louis back on the international radar. Arch Grants has proven to be instrumental in concentrating startups here that are transforming the St. Louis economy on so many levels by attracting some of the brightest minds from around the globe and demonstrating that our city has the “stuff” to make things happen in big ways.

5935_1852.jpg

Alex Ihnen | Owner & Editor, NextSTL.com

Is St. Louis poised to become a top city of innovation?

It’s possible, if we stop trying to be the next somewhere else and focus on the unique potential and opportunities in St. Louis. We get there by falling in love with what we have and who we are. Then we get busy building a great place for the people who are here and not the tourist or visitor.

How can we take St. Louis to the next level?

We need to develop the ability to define our own narrative, to be able to tell the rest of the nation (and perhaps more importantly ourselves) who we are and what we do.

What challenges do we need to overcome?

St. Louis needs confidence. This isn’t marketing, or public relations or smoke and mirrors, but the confidence that comes from knowing and owning our past, and believing that we can dictate our future.

What is the most exciting innovation to come out of St. Louis in the past five years?

Impatience.

5936_1852.jpg

Jason Deem | President, Cherokee Street Business Association | Owner, South Side Spaces and Nebula

Does St. Louis have the potential to be a top city of innovation?

I think St. Louis is poised to become a leader in innovation on a national and global level. We have the infrastructure, talent and support systems that entrepreneurs and small businesses need to succeed. But we need to work together as a region if we want to be competitive: We need to make investments outside of the central corridor, reconnect North City and South City to Downtown and merge the city and county. Strengthening these connections will be essential to the future of St. Louis.

We need local government to think small and put big money behind a wide range of small projects and companies instead of shooting for the silver bullet master plan. The next big idea to come out of St. Louis won’t come from a boardroom; it will start in a garage, basement or coworking space. We need to find ways for the city to support these early-stage companies and maximize their chances of success.

What can we be doing right now to take St. Louis to the next level?

Invest in small businesses, startups and the arts. Artists and creatives play a critical and often overlooked role in promoting innovation. We need music in the streets, public sculpture, large-scale murals, and a thriving culture of creative experimentation. Innovation is about finding novel solutions to complex problems. The best solutions are creative solutions and creative solutions require creative inspiration. Innovation needs inspiration plus financing.

What challenges do we need to overcome?

Access to capital is limiting opportunities for innovative ideas to get off the ground. We need to expand the pool of public and private funding sources.

Regional decisions and conversations are dominated by large corporations and special interests. If we want to give a voice to entrepreneurs and small businesses we need to level the playing field. Campaign finance limits would be a good start.

The process for opening a businesses in the city of St. Louis is overly complex and archaic. We need to remove unnecessary barriers to businesses and streamline the process. Allowing businesses to apply for licenses and occupancy permits online would bring the process into the 21st century.

Also, there’s a lack of late night dining & delivery options. Innovation happens 24/7. I often find myself starving at 3am with an empty fridge and an empty stomach.

What is the most exciting innovation to come out of St. Louis in the last five years?

The startup culture and growing number of organizations and resources dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship. Arch Grants, Cortex and the variety of unconventional workspaces in St. Louis. It’s amazing to think that none of this existed five years ago.

6073_1852.jpg

Jill McGuire | Executive Director, Regional Arts Comission

Do you feel St. Louis is poised to become a top city of innovation?

I want to believe that St. Louis is poised to become a top city of innovation, and, by some measurements, we are ranked in the top five in tech funding and have a robust investment community. We get there through strong leadership that makes sustained change a priority so that innovators can thrive.

What can we be doing to take St. Louis to the next level?

We have to exhibit leadership, foresight and a willingness to collaborate to institute real change in our region and find ways to create equity that will unite us, not pit us against each other. We cannot ignore the fragmentation that exists in our region’s governmental structures and must work to bring St. Louis governance into the 21st century. Reading Better Together’s reports is something we can do right now.

 

Photo credit: Headshots courtesy of the subjects

Recent Posts