THE BIOBELT LOOSENS UP
NOTCH BY NOTCH
|Brain Trust, Venture Capital
Fertilizes Ideas Cropping Up
By Bill Beggs Jr.
Biotechnology is growing in St. Louis like, well, a weed.
And if an entrepreneur hasn’t invented a way to manufacture bio-fuel from dandelions yet, dozens of other ventures that nobody, anywhere, could have dreamed of five years ago are flourishing in the economic capital of the Show-Me State.
Long home to such international corporate giants as Monsanto and Sigma-Aldrich,
St. Louis is becoming an ever-more fertile environment for smaller companies to take root.
Could be the millions of acres of rich, black bottomland near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers—indeed, over half of the crops grown in the United States are raised within 500 miles of the Gateway Arch.
Maybe it’s the great scientific minds generated by world-class universities just a stone’s throw from each other—no further than a five-minute cab ride, actually: Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University.
Chances are the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the world’s finest and increasingly at the forefront of global research, has something to do with it.
Perhaps it’s the breakthroughs made with dizzying regularity at Wash U. School of Medicine and SLU... both universities have biomedical engineering schools.
It’s all this and much more, of course. Adding to the metro area’s synergy is the presence of two, count ‘em, two biotech business incubators, when a recently released independent study notes that other so-called “bio-cities” may have only one.
If the BioBelt has a buckle, it’s the resurgent area of midtown roughly defined by Kingshighway on the west, Grand on the east, Forest Park Parkway to the north and Interstate 40/64 to the south. Housed in two rehabbed early-1900s warehouses is the Center for Emerging Technologies (CET), a 92,000-square-foot complex that CEO Marcia Mellitz calls an “incubator/accelerator.” Among the companies housed at CET is Stereotaxis, developer of systems for vascular surgery via catheters that can negotiate complex internal pathways—aided by magnets. Developed in collaboration with the medical school, the idea has been nurtured at CET into a viable business; the company went public in May 2004 and is soon to outgrow its space. Meanwhile, a block or so west, the $36 million CORTEX (Center of Research, Technology and Entrepreneurial Exchange) building will have been completed in time for Stereotaxis to move in.
Like a proud parent, Mellitz will see them off. But the vacancy at CET shouldn’t last long.
| Marcia Mellitz, CEO, Center for Emerging Technologies
“There is a concentration of biomedical companies that want to locate here because of the medical school,” says Mellitz.
But even though so many like-minded institutions happen to be situated in such a concentrated area, these borders are indistinct, unlike the rigid edges of a cast-metal buckle.
Well-established and budding players dot the city, county and region: Sigma-Aldrich interests straddle I-40/64 east of Compton. Linco Research Inc. develops and manufactures reagents for diabetes research at the Missouri Research Park, just south of the interstate in St. Charles. Potentially marketable ideas and sites are evolving at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. When emerging companies move up and move out, they may just go across town—not escape to Boston, San Diego, Madison, Wis., Austin, Texas, or other tech-friendly metro areas.
And, for entrepreneurs and companies developing plant and life sciences businesses, the land of opportunity is here. That wasn’t the case a decade ago, but the movers and shakers have done an astonishing amount of moving and shaking in the last 10 years, redoubling their efforts since Y2K.
“There’s no way these companies could have been sustained without venture capital,” emphasizes Mellitz. Although St. Louis was by no means a “VC” town just a few years ago, several venture capitalists have set up shop here: Prolog, RiverVest, Oakwood, Vectis and Stifel CAPCO, among others.
Venture capitalists and angel investors used to look down on St. Louis... literally. Wags have called our region “The Great Fly-Over,” and investors loath to take a risk saw The Gateway City only from the plane window as they headed to the East or Left coasts. Or, maybe to Chicago, which in the mid-1800s snatched the railroads from St. Louis, because city fathers were so confident the Big Muddy would be able to handle it. Alas, until not too long ago, it seemed that the only gambles being taken here were on a riverboat.
Meanwhile, the much-ballyhooed BioBelt evolved from talk, to paper, to concrete, and steel. And broadband, wet labs, mice and... nematodes. The integration and cooperation of multifarious educational institutions, business interests, economic developers, research cells and governmental entities may be unparalleled in this country, if not the world, industry experts and observers say.
| Dr. Robert Calcaterra, president and CEO, Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise
Dr. Robert Calcaterra, who heads up the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, an incubator that opened for business on the first day of the new millennium, is no stranger to the process, having previously started and run two such operations. Calcaterra ran an incubator in Boulder, Colo., for three years, then began again in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he stayed for seven years until being lured to St. Louis. Lured back, that is: Calcaterra completed his post-graduate work at Wash U.; his wife is from Edwardsville, Ill.
Suffice it to say, this is not the same town he left.
“I had no idea of the commitment of the community,” exclaims Calcaterra, whose facility, in Creve Coeur on the corporate
campus of Monsanto, is home to more than a half-dozen start-ups.
Corporations, foundations, business and civic leaders, universities and individual investors helped lay the groundwork for the BioBelt. Federal grants were secured.
Of course, a clear vision was necessary.
St. Louis has had a visionary or two, from Lewis & Clark in 1804 and Charles Lindbergh in 1927 to 21st-century women and men like William Danforth, former Wash U. chancellor.
Now, Lewis & Clark weren’t just two guys in two canoes paddling like hell up the Missouri to go west. Lindbergh didn’t go it alone on his “solo” flight, either. He’d have never got off the ground, much less to Paris, without
St. Louisans who were willing to pony up, even if they thought Lindy’s big splash was to be somewhere in the Atlantic.
OK, but... nematodes? Derek Rapp, CEO of Divergence, knows plenty about the pests that wreak tens of billions of dollars of damage on crops worldwide. An employee of Monsanto for 12 years before coming aboard at the emerging company, Rapp asserts that the firm couldn’t have made it this far without outside capital and, especially, the incubator experience.
Among innumerable other things, CET
provides help with marketing and securing
regulatory approvals; Nidus offers assistance with business plans and access to on-site childcare.
Acknowledging, he states the obvious for anyone at all familiar with the environment, Rapp says: “Success requires many factors, and we have so many elements right here.”
That goes not only for the 42,000-square-foot Nidus building that houses Divergence and its biotech neighbors, but also for St. Louis.
“To steal a line from ‘Field of Dreams’: If you build it, they will come,” Rapp says.
But where the plant and life sciences are concerned, “grow” is a more suitable word than “build.” The acorn can’t be, shouldn’t be, forced to grow into a mighty oak.
Research takes time. Scientists accept the possibility of failure. A dream may not become reality in the dreamer’s lifetime. But the life’s work of these men and women is a journey, not a destination.
“Our success could make a difference for society as a whole,” says Rapp.
Observers point out that few inventions occur in a vacuum, that great minds often benefit from working together. (Edison was so 1900s.) Proximity can enable creativity. Sometimes it’s chatting casually at lunch in the common areas at an incubator. Or, more formally, across a boardroom table.
“St. Louis is small enough that groups can work together,” says Peggy Stohr, a vice
president and controller at Stereotaxis. But the benefits aren’t always so profound, even at the incubator level, she adds with a
chuckle: “Sometimes it’s the little things, like swapping furniture.”
At CET, unlike a commercial space, fledgling companies don’t sign a long-term lease. Nor are their feet held to the fire financially for facilities they’ll only need occasionally, like a boardroom: “You pay when you use it, and you don’t pay when you don’t use it. This is a very necessary piece of the whole St. Louis ‘thing’.
“The biggest advantage is, people (at an incubator) understand that as a developing company, you can’t always predict. They’re able to accommodate growth.”
At Nidus, being amidst some of the world’s most brilliant “ag” minds at Monsanto, within eyesight of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center across Olive Blvd., might indicate that the incubator houses labs dedicated to the health of living things green and leafy. Yes, and no.
Graphic Surgery develops systems that animate surgical procedures. The technology not only may help patients take a look at what an elective procedure may involve, but is also a valuable training tool. It also can simplify record keeping, not to mention provide video that could prove vital to countering malpractice claims.
Now, about those nematodes... Divergence aims to develop technologies and products for animal and human health as well. Quite simply, it’s genetic engineering designed to “prevent and cure parasitic infections,” says Rapp.
“A lot of science cuts across many different applications. It’s foundational, based on the same platform.”
Good science thrives because of great minds, people who live to discover things other than what they were looking for, the things that others may not see or understand. But without business sense, communication skills, development savvy or the ability to team-build, good science languishes. It must evolve from micro to macro—from the cellular level, to greater crop yields worldwide, from a new chemical compound, to a better way of developing and delivering life-saving pharmaceuticals.
As did several people interviewed for this article, Rapp cites William Danforth as one of the key St. Louisans who has seen past that to the BioBelt and beyond, to the region’s proper place in the world of plant and life sciences.
“A mark of brilliance,” says Rapp, “is a
person who can see the connections beneath the surface.”
Visitors to St. Louis 10 years ago may only have noticed decaying, blighted city neighborhoods. Added to that the exhaustively publicized exits of several major corporations and tens of thousands of jobs, the Gateway City’s prospects looked bleak.
On the surface.
The “new” St. Louis, the BioBelt, is busting out all over. A project like the CORTEX building, for example, is hard to miss. Typically for
St. Louis, a committed coalition of universities and other institutions has seen to that. The facility is the brainchild of the University
of Missouri-St. Louis, Wash U., SLU, BJC Healthcare, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, in civic partnership with the RCGA, Civic Progress, and the City.
Along with financial commitment from the public and private sectors, getting such a facility off the drawing board has required the unwavering support of civic leaders who see its necessity to the BioBelt. It’s that vision thing, you see.
“Bill Danforth has been a real spearhead,” says Lewis Levey of Paragon, who with John Dubinsky of Westmoreland Associates, among others, has been very publicly committed to CORTEX. Slated for completion in December, the building is already 50 percent
pre-leased. Stereotaxis will be there... but
without such a facility, they might not have been. All along, understandably, other bio-cities have tried to entice Stereotaxis et al. to pull up stakes.
Meanwhile, CORTEX and the RCGA have been talking with biotech firms from out of town, and overseas.
Finally, St. Louis is getting its due... and this isn’t simply boosterism from the locals. Independent studies show that its ranking among biotech-friendly U.S. cities continues to rise. In fact, to use the term employed
by Calcaterra and other scientists interviewed for this article, St. Louis is approaching “critical mass.”
CORTEX Corporation—Going Beyond the Incubator
By Linda F. Jarrett
Last December 16th, another step in establishing St. Louis as a biotech corridor was taken when Clayco Corporation broke ground at the corner of Boyle Ave. and Forest Park Ave. for the CORTEX Building.
| CORTEX under construction at the corner
of Boyle Ave. and Forest Park Ave.
Clayco Vice President Kirk Warden says, “This facility is an important step in establishing St. Louis as the BioBelt. “The CORTEX building will provide state-of-the-art space for companies that are past the incubator stage, but not yet ready to build their own facility.”
The three-story, 165,000-square-foot facility is the first building of a major research center development.
This facility was established through a partnership between Washington University, Saint Louis University, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Other partners in the project as directors are the city of St. Louis, Civic Progress, the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences and the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.
Warden says they hope to have the building completed by the end of the year. “The challenge so far is that we have one major tenant that has
to be open in
conjunction with some of this existing lease
expiration dates, so that has put some pressure on the team to get the building designed and built in a time frame that’s much faster than one would normally expect.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -