STRATEGIC INSIGHTSEconomic Development
The Danforth Center attempts to seed Midwestern life science growth
By Barbara Depompa
May 19, 2004
| When it comes to places with a strong biotechnology presence, St. Louis, Mo., may not be the first city that springs to mind. But this Midwestern community has been bucking its "old economy" industrial image for more than seven years, and leveraging its plant science strength to transform itself into the self-described "Bio Belt."
The leading example of this transformation is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, opened in the fall of 2001 — the foundation of the local chamber of commerce's efforts to promote the region as a world-class location for plant and life science research.
Since about 1998, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association has campaigned to build the region's biotech presence. In 2000, the chamber funded a $200,000 study by the Battelle Memorial Institute to find out if its idea of forming a hub for biotech and life science research could bear fruit.
GROWING IN MISSOURI: The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (top) and an offshoot greenhouse complex. With industry and academic backing, the center studies plant biology.
The Battelle study found the region ripe for biotech, especially plant and life science development. "The study reported that St. Louis could lead the nation and the world in plant sciences and be a top-tier contender in human life sciences," says Richard Fleming, president, St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.
Indeed, the region has many stakes to the claim. Monsanto is based in St. Louis, as are Sigma-Aldrich and an R&D division of Pfizer, among others. Meanwhile, Washington University in St. Louis is one of only three U.S. institutions where research on the Human Genome Project was conducted.
And the Danforth Center, a $146-million nonprofit plant science research center, is betting that it, too, can contribute to building the Bio Belt. Conceived in 1998, the Danforth Center was funded via a partnership led by Monsanto, which donated the land, and by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the University of Missouri-Columbia, Purdue University, and Washington University.
The Danforth Center's mission is to increase research into plant biology and apply that knowledge for the benefit of human nutrition and health, as well as improve the sustainability of agriculture worldwide. The center is also designed to foster the development and commercialization of promising technologies and products, and contribute to the education and training of students and scientists.
Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Center, left a teaching post at Washington University 16 years ago to join The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. But he was lured back to St. Louis again just four years ago by the opportunity to head the Danforth Center. Internationally known for his groundbreaking research on virus-resistant plants, Beachy is responsible for developing and implementing the Danforth Center's strategic direction, recruiting its staff, and formulating its research programs.
Leaving sunny San Diego for landlocked St. Louis wasn't too traumatic for Beachy. "By 1999, I realized plant sciences would likely never be a primary focus of research for Scripps, and the chance to build this type of facility from the ground up was simply too enticing to turn down." His return to the region wasn't unusual for someone with ties to the Midwest. In fact, most of the Danforth Center's staff has roots in Chicago or somewhere else in the Midwest, especially the Illinois and Missouri areas.
Beachy says at least three other scientists moved from California to work at the Center. He cites St. Louis' Midwestern quality of life, the much easier commute, and the ability to buy a nice home for $250,000 as strong incentives for scientists and other researchers considering relocating to the region.
The state recently earmarked about 25 percent of its tobacco-settlement money (about $400 million) for life science research.
One challenge for the St. Louis region in general, and the Danforth Center in particular, has been building venture capital. The Battelle study noted that the region had to amass at least $100 million in local venture capital. And despite the difficult VC market nationwide, the region has managed to raise $284 million so far to back early-stage biopharma companies.
A persistent drag, however, has been sluggish job growth. The number of jobs in the St. Louis region has grown by only 0.25 percent since 1997, which is considered slow. And Beachy admits that some concern remains about the staying power of the region's commitment to biotech and plant sciences. "Job candidates worry that if a startup here crashes, there may not be enough other firms around where they'll find a new position quickly," he says.
But for those who don't mind being far from an ocean, the area does offer culture-rich entertainment venues, such as a first-rate orchestra and zoo, as well as mountains within an hour's drive.
And a planned commercial wet-lab building for life sciences is being built on eight acres next to the Danforth Center to provide space for young life science companies to develop. This facility, expected to open in June 2005, will provide lab space and equipment along with access to the Danforth Center's labs. "The wet-lab facility is important for biotech firms interested in the St. Louis region because the cost of building such facilities is high," Beachy observes. He's hoping the lab will attract early-phase businesses that haven't been able to find suitable space.
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