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St. Louis’ current position as a global leader in plant science and biotech didn’t happen overnight. Instead, careful planning over the course of two decades laid the foundation for the booming startup ecosystem in St. Louis that we all enjoy today.

EQ got a chance to catch up with Maggie Crane, communications director at BioSTL, while she was performing her role as master of ceremonies at Startup Connection 2017. Crane gave a brief explanation of the founding story of Cortex to EQ in a live video interview at the event and discussed the regional collaborations that have transformed the St. Louis startup scene over the past 15 years.

A history of entrepreneurship

Using the downsizing of Pfizer as a concrete example: When the company announced that it was planning major layoffs in St. Louis due to globalization, the loss of yet another major employer was likely hit the local economy hard. Furthermore, losing Pfizer’s highly skilled scientific workforce threatened to deepen the St. Louis brain drain in the years ahead.

“So community leaders came together and said, ‘Hang on a second, we have to do better than that,'” Crane explained, recalling the mindset of the day.

BioSTL decided to identify regional influencers to work with, effectively treating St. Louis — the city — as a startup, to lay out a plan of action and set the region on a path for growth. Instead of focusing on its weaknesses, they started by evaluating St. Louis’ strengths.

They immediately recognized two things. First, that the city was really strong in biomedical science, with organizations like Washington University, BJC, Monsanto, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. And second, that the region could only grow by forming new companies. St. Louis needed entrepreneurs to launch new companies and fill the gaps left by the departure of the old.

Coming from strength

Building on the strengths of the region, they realized that St. Louis was home to many scientists who wanted to do their own research, and that enabling these scientists to succeed would further attract other talented STEM professionals to the region.

Reaching out to the scientific community, the civic leaders quickly discovered that the researchers needed help building their companies. They also needed funding to pay for lab space and lab equipment. So, BioSTL purchased all the equipment they would need to form a coworking science lab, then formed the investment arm BioGenerator to accelerate these new companies.

Think local, act global

Since then, BioSTL and BioGenerator have continued to pursue their mission of bringing entrepreneurs to St. Louis — and have expanded the program globally. Global STL has been formed to attract companies from all over the world to St. Louis. Most recently they brought in an IoT company called Atomation and connected it directly with the power company Ameren, which helped them win a lucrative contract and open its North American HQ in St. Louis.

And unlike John Oliver’s critique of Kansas City, Missouri’s tax incentive program, Global STL and BioSTL’s soft skills-based economic development program (above and beyond hard cash) really works.

In 2017, BioGenerator saw its first unicorn-style exit when Confluence Life Sciences, one of its first founding portfolio companies, sold to to Aclaris Therapeutics. Not only was Confluence valued at over $100 million at sale, but Aclaris kept over 40 scientist jobs in St. Louis and has spun up a new regional division, with plans to build and expand locally.

This is exactly the kind of quick thinking and long-term strategy that underpins St. Louis’ civic growth strategy. It demonstrates the level of commitment to startup growth that founders and CEOs receive when they relocate their businesses to St. Louis.

This story first appeared on EQ.

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