Plant science leaders see recruitment, funding as future challenges | St. Louis Public Radio

Plant science leaders see recruitment, funding as future challenges

Sep 27, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sam Fiorello has done plenty to help establish St. Louis as a plant science hub through his work at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. And he's helping the Creve Coeur-based facility grow and expand into the future.

Now Fiorello has an arguably more ambitious goal: convincing his son to come back to the region after he graduates from college in Montreal.

“I’d love to create an environment where he has a serious opportunity to come back and think ‘I want ... to work and build a family here,’” said Fiorello, who is the COO and vice president of the center.

With major commercial and educational institutions in place and expanding, the St. Louis region’s designation as a plant science research center is unlikely to fade away. But Fiorello’s “big goal” touches on a potential impediment to an upward trajectory: recruiting and retaining talent.

A big challenge, Fiorello said, is “convincing people who are here to stay here.” And a bigger one, he said, “is convincing people who are not already here to choose here versus many other choices.”

Growing St. Louis

Last week, a series of Beacon articles looked at the danger of a declining middle class and development of an hourglass economy. It also outlined the stagnation that’s taken place in the St. Louis region.

But not all is doom and gloom. Ever-trendy Cherokee Street exemplifies what urban areas are trying; Downtown preserves a lot of the old while welcoming the new.

And some industries are finding new ways to work in long-established fields. St. Louis, home of Monsanto and in the middle of the Midwest, has been well situated to expand jobs in agriculture. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center has reshaped that aspiration and is making St. Louis a center for innovation.

“There has to be something that says ‘come here,’” Fiorello said. “And not just because of toasted ravioli or even because the Cardinals are great. We are building a brand and a message that if you’re young and bright, look here because of all of this innovation.”

Others interviewed by the Beacon noted that St. Louis’ venture capital community isn’t as vibrant as bigger cities. And plant science companies in general typically have a harder time finding funding, primarily because companies like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont Pioneer dominate the industry.

Still, both private companies and nonprofit groups have helped emerging plant sciences companies. And others note that the region's collection of plant sciences institutions are naturally drawing people to the region.

Making the move

There are some static realities about St. Louis that simply can’t be changed. No amount of civic planning or brainstorming is going to sprinkle significant amounts of farmland across the city or most of St. Louis County.

And Roger Beachy, a biology professor at Washington University and the former head of the Danforth Science Center, said that farmland could make a difference in recruiting specific types of plant scientists. That includes scientists who study agronomy and soil science.

"Those who want to be close to agriculture ... would be less drawn here than those who are interested in discovering the science that underlies successful agriculture and sustainable ag and the environmental side of sustainability,” he said. St. Louis is more likely to draw scientists interested in the genetics of plant science and how plants grow and reproduce.

David Stern, the president of the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell and a member of the policy committee of the American Society of Plant Biologists, said that “some plant scientists want to be around something more agricultural.” And St. Louis-based higher education institutions like Washington University, he said, don’t have an “agricultural mission.”

While he noted there is more to do in St. Louis than, say, a land grant university in a rural setting, Beachy said there might be some hesitancy for plant scientists from either the West or the East Coasts to relocate to St. Louis.

Stern added “if I had to choose between St. Louis and California-Berkeley or Cornell, I might have to have a compelling reason to go to St. Louis.”

“Maybe my spouse or partner could get a job there more easily. Or maybe the proximity to Chicago,” Stern said. “There’s a lot of geography and personal taste involved.” 

In his experience in recruiting scientists to the Danforth Center, Beachy said “those who were most willing to come had some experience in the Midwest.”

Still, recent employment prospects may clear away some of the impediments mentioned by Stern and Beachy. 

For instance, people from out of state may be willing to apply for one of the hundreds of jobs that will be available when Monsanto expands in Chesterfield. And the Danforth Center’s mix of public and private funding could also be attractive for scientists who want to make a move.

Benson Hill Biosystems CEO Matt Crisp said he hasn’t had many problems recruiting people from out of state to work at his company.

“I find that if people really believe in the vision, they’re willing to move wherever they need to move,” Crisp said. “It just happens to be that St. Louis is one of the two most robust hubs for early-stage ag innovation. We haven’t had a problem yet, knock on wood, with recruiting folks that are high caliber into the roles that we need.”

Other start-ups may locate in St. Louis simply because it gets them closer to Monsanto, which could in turn acquire a smaller company and its product.

“We don’t acquire all of them, by any means,” said Tami Craig Schilling, vice president of technology communications for Monsanto. “But we do have a ton of relationships and they really matter to us. We are always prospecting for certain technologies. We’re not going to invent it all. We’re very open to collaborating and working with folks.”

“And if you can do it in the same city and also have a place where these other science institutions are around, it works really good for everybody,” she added

Venturing out

Another area where St. Louis may be at a disadvantage – especially compared to bigger cities – is in the arena of venture capital funding.

That’s the biggest challenge that NewLeaf Symbotics CEO Tom Laurita pointed to during an interview with the Beacon.

“In St. Louis, it doesn’t really have any venture community or history,” Laurita said. “There are some individuals who invest, but it’s really been very limited." 

But Laurita and others say venture capital funding has always been a challenge for plant science companies. Laurita added while “obviously everybody wants to find the next Facebook,” many venture capital companies “don’t want to find the next ag product.”

“When we were raising capital, I had known for two years this was a big idea that had big potential,” Laurita said. “But just because you think that, obviously doesn’t get you anywhere. Getting in front of the right people was challenging. If you look at the profiles of the three venture groups that ended up investing in our company, you’ll see that only one of them is a true ag fund."

Stern concurred that finding venture capital is not a “St. Louis problem,” but a systemic issue percolating throughout the field. He also said the regulatory environment for genetically modified plants is expensive and can cut down on profitability.

It's difficult for people to "find a niche outside of corn, soybean, cotton and canola – things like that – that’s not dominated by big agribusiness."

“In the plant sciences, it’s very hard to get any venture at all,” Stern said. “And that’s partly because of dominance of the big ag companies. You know, the Monsantos, the Syngentas, etc. They have a lock on a lot of technology. It’s hard for a little guy to get going."

Donn Rubin, president and CEO of BioSTL, whose group aims to lure and nurture small life and plant science start ups, said: “We still have big gaps. We’re not a Boston or a San Diego. We’ve still got a long way to go in attracting more entrepreneurs here. And capital is really our biggest hurdle.”

But he added that the environment has gotten better over the years, including more “local investors” who want to help out emerging companies.

“They’re beginning to feel left out if they don’t," Rubin said. "And that’s exactly the kind of dynamic we were shooting for when we started just a decade ago. St. Louis was a conservative community and a conservative financial community. I would say it’s changing slowly, but I would say that change is accelerating.”

James McCarter, an Entrepreneur in Residence at Monsanto, said he's part of a group within Monsanto called Monsanto Growth Ventures. That entity, he said, wants to invest around $150 million in start up companies over the next five years -- including ones in St. Louis.

"We’re looking for those next great ideas that are coming out of entrepreneurs in life sciences," McCarter said. "And we’re really focused around how do you help farmers produce more, conserve more and improve lives. So much of that is driven by plant science." 

Beachy too said that the environment for venture capital in St. Louis has improved substantially over the years.

Evidence of this, he said, is the growth of BRDG Park on the Danforth campus, adding "somebody will always have a new idea that has a niche. It can create a niche market, and the niche market grows and it gets acquired."

Thinking globally

Attracting immigrants to move here, Fiorello said, is another important factor in keeping a steady trajectory for plant science research.

"If you’re an innovator from India or China or Malaysia or wherever, this is a place for you. We’re going to ... help you build your business here. And your life,’” Fiorello said.

St. Louis political and civic leaders are making a major push to be an attractive home for immigrants. Officials in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County recently started the Mosaic Project to accomplish that goal.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley told reporters in late April that Monsanto's expansion "really puts the St. Louis region on the map." He also said it helps the region's efforts to attract more immigrants to live in the area.

"Because a lot of those scientists ... are probably going to be immigrants or persons of diverse backgrounds," Dooley said. "And they need to see St. Louis as a culturally diverse place."

BRDG Park, which is located next to the Danforth Plant Science Center, has had some success in attracting international companies.

“There’s a company here from Delhi, India. Great intellectual property. Great investment,” Fiorello said. “They could have gone anywhere. They were being courted by places in India and across United States and Europe. In the end, they chose to come here because of the compelling case that it’s the best place to grow your business.”

Still, “we have work to do,” he added.

Hope for the future

Even with the capital and immigration challenges, and the ongoing struggle to compete with other geographic locations, most contend that St. Louis will remain a major hub for plant sciences for the foreseeable future – and could potentially bolster its designation.

“If you look where we’ll be and what things will look like in 20 years, I think the first thing that I hope to see is bigger numbers of people involved,” McCarter said. "(More) plant science scientists and entrepreneurs."

Beachy also said he hopes to see an expansion of smaller companies arrive in the next few years, especially as the Danforth Plant Science Center and BRDG Park continue to expand.

“When you have the right facilities that others can share in, it begins to attract (people)” Beachy said. “Because it’s a good place to start out with just a million dollars. Because you can’t buy all the expensive equipment.”

Rubin said there’s a growing belief that St. Louis’ role as a plant science hub will expand.

“It’s really a snowball that’s getting bigger and bigger."

In this series, reporter Jason Rosenbaum looks at:

  • Where the region stands in national rankings of plant sciences or the greater biotech realm.
  • How Plant Science Center developed and how it plans to grow.
  • The challenges that exist to maintain and expand the center.

Other Beacon articles that inform the discussion of innovation and economic growth include

Agricultural innovators look to grow bumper crop of businesses in St. Louis; Startup owners discuss challenges of life in the Lou; St. Louis hopes immigrants will find beauty in Mosaic and City and county launch initiative to invest in -- and keep -- start-ups.