By Bill Beggs Jr.
If there were ever a power outage at the Bio-Research & Development Growth (BRDG) Park at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, all they’d need to do is run wires from Sam Fiorello and the place would get humming again.
To say the least, the president of BRDG Park is energetic. Not to mention enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, when we sat down with him, Fiorello was excited that the first of three buildings dedicated to plant and life sciences research and business development, which will open in mid-June, was more than 60 percent spoken for. Expectations are that it will be completely leased within a year of its opening.
At 110,000 square feet and four stories, Building I has a balance of state-of-the-art wet lab and office space. The park has been designed for plant and life sciences companies interested in expanding research, resources and relationships to achieve commercial success.
BRDG Park’s presence at the Danforth Center facilitates access to the intellectual capital of top scientists, as well as to greenhouses, growth chambers, integrated
microscopy and plant science disciplines from proteomics and mass spectrometry to tissue culture and transformation.
Wexford Science+Technology LLC, a privately held real estate development and investment company based in Baltimore, is developing the complex, which when fully built out will encompass more than 400,000 square feet.
The company’s other five projects are based on the East Coast and in Chicago. That in itself is significant, as Fiorello points out—Wexford’s involvement is third-party validation that the concept of the St. Louis BioBelt, which the region touts is not just boosterism.
“We’re not simply saying we want to be the best, we’re going to be the best,” Fiorello emphasizes. “I am so excited that even in the face of this economic calamity, we’re able to make progress.”
Construction activity was brisk on the grounds surrounding Building I, visible beyond the greenhouses a few hundred yards outside Fiorello’s window in the Danforth Center. One of the area’s incubators, the Nidus Center for Economic Enterprise, is moving across Olive from the Monsanto Campus to BRDG Park, as is one of Nidus’ graduates, Divergence Company, which will also be leasing space in the park.
Integral to the success of the new research park is encouraging companies that graduate from area incubators to continue growing their companies here.
“Not only do we need to engage in smart marketing to attract the new Divergences to St. Louis,” Fiorello says. “We need to assure that we have the facilities to accommodate their post incubation growth once we get them here. Shame on us if we incubate them and don’t keep them.”
Also, essential to the momentum is developing manpower to help sustain it. This is evolving thanks in part to a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to
St. Louis Community College (STLCC). The NSF grant is powering up an integrated effort to train research-ready biotechnologists, which has brought tremendous satisfaction to STLCC’s director of the program, Richard Norris, Ph.D.
“Embedding our students in programs with companies is a new thing for us,” says Norris. “It’s going to be a great model for workforce development—collaboration between Danforth, Monsanto, et al.—if a company
has a specific need, we can train to meet that need.”
Thanks to the NSF grant, STLCC also is able to help prepare high school students for the biotech program. This summer, it will offer two one-week prep programs for high school and middle school students, teaching them the basics of biotechnology and associated career opportunities What’s more, the college will offer its second summer training course for science teachers, as well as a secondary course for those who completed the initial course last summer.
Quite simply, from education to commerce, the park is a bridge between urgent societal and environmental needs and solutions under development. Alternatives to fossil fuels are being developed: Jet fuel derived from algae is one promising project.
Suffice it to say it’s condition critical for inhabitants of this planet, our only home, to stem greenhouse gas emissions. Just as important: To address the world hunger crisis.
Plant science is key to surmounting these challenges. As the esteemed Bill Danforth, Ph.D., told this magazine a few years ago: “Science is nothing more than organized human ingenuity.”
BRDG Park and Danforth Center are
creating an ideal environment for scientists to more closely collaborate and reach
solutions with sustainability top of mind. But, as worldwide demand for food and fuel become exponentially greater, related
“If we can’t find a way to grow more per acre, we’ll have to cut down every tree in the rain forest to feed the growing world population,” warns Fiorello.
That’s not going to happen, if Fiorello and a consortium of companies and hundreds of scientists from every corner of the globe have anything to do about it. Moreover, it’s important to note that the unique academic-corporate collaborations of BRDG Park would not have been possible had not the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center come into being in 1998.
The ebullient Fiorello has time to provide a “dime tour” of Danforth. A few short steps from his office is a lab where scientists from several countries—Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria among them—are working on a component of the hunger problem at the behest of the Gates Foundation.
The Danforth Center building is designed so that scientists not only work in small groups on a particular project, but meet in common areas, which may claim as much square footage of the building as do the labs.
“The problem with the old academic model is silos,” notes Fiorello. “By design, we bring people together.” Even virtually. The white boards where brilliant minds sketch out formulas and share ideas are networked electronically.
Fiorello gestures across the vast, airy atrium where outside light spills across the array of international flags that hangs over the eating area: Germany, France, Korea and China are some of the recognizable ones. A key attached to the railing identifies them all… more than two dozen from Eastern and Western Europe, South and North America, Africa, Asia and Australia.
“We have a U.N. of scientists,” says Fiorello. “This is a global enterprise—
St. Louis’ gift to the world.”
Now the spirit of scientific discovery that the Danforth Plant Science Center nurtured for more than a decade will grow and flourish as entrepreneurs at the new BRDG Park work to develop successful commercial ventures built on the St. Louis region’s strengths in plant and life sciences.