T-Rex Startup Incubator Is Becoming A Geospatial Focal Point In St. Louis
Nearly a year after a soft launch of its geospatial innovation center, downtown-based startup incubator T-Rex is growing into a local hub for geospatial entrepreneurs, academic researchers and federal employees of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Construction is expected to begin any day now on its third floor to make room for the NGA’s Moonshot Labs. It will be the first time NGA employees embed in an innovation community to collaborate on unclassified projects.
Alan Hrebec, project lead, said the space will house between 50 and 70 NGA employees. He expects it will open in the spring.
Hrebec said the design will look like any other modern tech office, with a mix of glass offices and open seating.
“We’re trying to get as close to that industry-like feeling — that space where people want to be,” he said. “I'm young, you think of those cool spaces. I want to walk in and feel energized and inspired.”
Hrebec said the goal of the new lab is to open up the traditionally guarded agency as a resource to the community.
“We’ve been so focused on what’s top secret that we haven’t really looked at what could be unclassified," he said. "So if you look at that pivot, if you look at NGA doing more in the unclassified sector, that’s more we can share.”
Mark Tatgenhorst, a 33-year veteran of the NGA, will serve as a liaison between the NGA lab and T-Rex’s innovation center, known as Geosaurus, where he also serves as program director.
Having the two entities just a floor apart, he said, will give the NGA access to new ideas and talent, while providing startups an opportunity to work with experienced government researchers.
“For NGA it’s an important thing because, one, it creates an ability for them to adopt innovation culture. Innovation in the government is different in this type of environment,” he said.
Tatgenhorst said there are three main goals for Geosaurus: to connect the geospatial community in the region; create an environment focused on innovation and entrepreneurship; and develop a talent pipeline to sustain the industry.
Geosaurus is now home to 15 startups, as well as more established companies — like contracting firm Leidos — and academic offices, including from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Tatgenhorst said the coronavirus pandemic slowed things down a bit, forcing the center to close between March and June. While many employees are still working from home, he said things are gaining steam again.
“I think some of the successes that we've seen here, even during the pandemic, have been monumental,” he said. “We've attracted companies nationally into St. Louis, to be a part of this ecosystem. And within the last couple months, we've had a lot of international geospatial companies who heard about the geospatial revolution, so to speak, in St. Louis and want to be a part of it.”
Geosaurus has one tenant from British Columbia, Canada, and Tatgenhorst said he’s spoken with others from Switzerland and New Zealand, though the center is currently at capacity.
While Tatgenhorst has a long background working for the NGA, he said Geosaurus doesn’t just focus on military intelligence, but rather on how geospatial technology can be used across industries. He said the center is home to companies working with drones, indoor navigation and the rail industry, among other things.
The center offers entrepreneurs different kinds of support, including mentoring and educational programming, as well as funding.
The center recently launched a “geo seed” program to fund geospatial-related university research. It is also housing five startups that recently received an equity-free $50,000 grant, part of a new geospatial-track from Arch Grants.
T-Rex Executive Director Patty Hagen said she recently helped raise funding to build an extended reality lab — which would give researchers the tools to work on augmented, virtual and mixed-reality technology.
Hagen said the larger goal around supporting geospatial companies is to drive economic growth in the region. She’s part of a strategic planning committee — known as GeoFutures — that laid out a plan this summer to grow St. Louis into a global geospatial hub within 10 years.
“Our role, that we see, is to continue to build resources that can support early-stage entrepreneurs, help them get on their feet, help them experiment. And then get those companies out into the community growing jobs and building economic opportunity — inclusive economic opportunity — throughout the region,” she said.
Hagen said T-Rex plans to host a grand opening of Geosaurus once it’s safe to convene in large groups again.
Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnsusan