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Danforth Center Hosts Life Science Startup Discussion

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
mshipp via Flickr

Several factors are helping St. Louis make a name for itself as a startup city.

“First of all is talent,” Thomas Osha told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. Osha is managing director of innovation and economic development for Wexford Science + Technology. “Talent trumps everything. That’s why it is the fuel of entrepreneurial activity. Innovation is totally a social enterprise, so the more folks you can bring into that orbit, the more chance you have of being able to scale those entrepreneurial businesses.”

“We’re the world’s leading center for plant and ag science and innovation, and we can see that with the companies we’re growing and attracting,” said Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer and senior vice president for administration and finance at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.  

Plant science includes nutrition and agriculture, fields that are evolving, Fiorello said. In a recent trip to New Madrid, Mo., he said he saw “tractors that have more technology on them today than the Apollo 11 spacecraft had to put a man on the moon and bring him back. We saw in the coffee shops, farmers with their iPads out talking about not what’s proper for this 100-acre parcel, but this square foot within a farm,” he said. “It’s heavy IT; it’s heavy data; it’s heavy information.”

Fiorello said the challenge now facing the world is how to create enough food.

“We’re going to have to create a lot more food in the next 50 years, almost doubling the food, and we’re going to have to do it with less inputs,” he said. “This is a tremendous challenge for humankind. It also presents an opportunity for innovators, for folks to take technology and deliver that through products and services to figure out how farmers can grow more food using less.”

That is where genetically modified organisms begin to attract attention in plant and ag technology.

“It’s an important point that all of this is necessary for us not to starve,” said David Smoller, general partner at Cultivation Capital Life Science Fund and chief business officer at Horizon Discovery. “Just looking at the amount of meat we eat, we need to feed those animals to be able to get more meat for the population that’s growing, as well as just eating the plants themselves. Without GMOs, we’ll be starving in the future.”

Entrepreneurship In St. Louis

One of St. Louis’ startup strengths is its ability to create hubs and communities.

“We see all of the elements here that could really create what we call an innovation constellation,” Osha said. “What is really neat are these organizations, many of them exist here, that are starting to knit together these various deep threads into a kind of fabric of multidimensional innovation. When you start looking at areas to go where you can go from idea through pilot to action, St. Louis emerges as one of those top premier cities.”

To be successful, though, Fiorello said initiatives must be more inclusive.

“It can’t just be the privilege with Ph.D.s from places like (Washington University) and Stanford, it’s got to drill down to individuals with a high school degree who can then go to a training program at the BRDG Park, run by the St. Louis Community College, to be skilled hands — technicians at the bench. We can’t just solicit to a small group. We need to find diverse ideas from a diverse community because it will make everyone enriched.”

“I think it’s still about a diverse set of talents,” Smoller said. So somebody has a background, maybe, in business and computer science and biology. That together is probably more valuable than somebody that has a single focus around science, especially in entrepreneurship.”

Over the past two decades, Smoller said funding has become easier to obtain.

“The days of just being able to find my parents to get $5,000 is not the only source of funding,” he said. “Today, we have enough to be able to drive these companies to another level. We need more funding to take them to even higher levels.”

The next step for success is to create a culture where it’s OK for a startup to fail.

“We have to celebrate the losses as much as we do victories,” Fiorello said. “Because you know what? A lot of these new ventures, they fail.”

“That’s where the learning curve comes in,” Osha said. “That’s where that seasoned entrepreneur that can help others avoid mistakes can help shepherd others through a process — that’s where they become highly valuable. You never want a region that drives those people away because then what you're doing is starting over every single time.”

Related Event

"Let's Talk About ... Growing St. Louis' Plant and Life Science Ecosystem and Harvesting Commercial Success"

  • When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. A reception starts at 5:15 p.m.
  • Where: Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, 975 N. Warson Road, St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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