St. Louis Rising: Turning an Industry into an Ecosystem
Thanks to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s forthcoming campus, Next NGA West, St. Louis is becoming a major hub for GEOINT activity and investment. A panel of local leaders at GEOINT 2021 explained how the city is investing in the human capital that’s needed to fuel its future.
Sometimes, the city of St. Louis feels like a bakery. Which is to say: Something’s always cooking. Except it’s not a cake that’s in the oven in the Gateway City. Instead, it’s a world-class industrial hub for the booming geospatial intelligence sector, which will be fully baked and ready for consumption in 2025, when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) opens its $1.7 billion Next NGA West campus in north St. Louis.
Although GEOINT is not your typical baked good, it’s just as sweet to St. Louis, which is working overtime to assemble all the ingredients that are needed to make the city a successful home not only for NGA, but for the entire GEOINT industry that works for, with, and adjacent to it.
One of the most important ingredients, economic development, was the subject of a panel discussion Thursday afternoon at GEOINT 2021. Titled “Expanding Geospatial Tradecraft Through Innovation,” the 40-minute discussion featured moderator Nathan Rubbelke, a reporter who covers technology and startups for the St. Louis Business Journal, as well as four panelists from local organizations that are driving geospatial entrepreneurship and economic development in the St. Louis region:
- Sam Fiorello, CEO of Cortex Innovation Community, a 200-acre business hub for entrepreneurs and startups in St. Louis’ historic Central West End;
- Dedric Carter, chair of the Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC), a state-sponsored public-private partnership that promotes entrepreneurship and fosters the growth of tech startups in Missouri;
- Brian Monheiser, co-founder of GEOINT consultancy GEO261 and a member of the Geospatial Advisory Committee at T-REX, an innovation and entrepreneur development facility whose purpose is strengthening the economic vitality of St. Louis; and
- Emily Lohse-Busch, executive director of Arch Grants, a nonprofit that awards $50,000 equity-free grants to innovative, scalable, and job-creating startups that choose to headquarter their companies in St. Louis.
In conversation with Rubbelke and with each other, each of the four panelists described the ways in which their organization is working to attract, empower, and grow geospatial startups within the city of St. Louis. Individually and collectively, they agreed, the key to their success is being collaborative instead of competitive.
“I have seen in the last several years, as this geospatial wave has continued to build, a growing understanding and sense around the entire region of abundance,” Lohse-Busch said. “The key, then, is organizing effectively and efficiently, and making sure that we are talking. It’s a growth mindset, not a protectionist mindset.”
The old adage comes to mind: A rising tide lifts all boats.
“There’s more potential here than any one of us could harness,” Lohse-Busch continued. “Let’s see what we can do if we combine efforts.”
More than building individual companies, the goal of their combined efforts is building an entire industrial ecosystem, the net effect of which will benefit not only businesses, but also individuals, families, and communities.
Look at Washington, D.C., for example. Because the federal government is a stable employer for citizens and a stable customer for businesses, it also happens to be a wonderful place to live.
“Washington is a great place to spend time as a service provider because there’s a stability to the need, and that stability leads to a great quality of life,” said Carter, who envisions St. Louis becoming as popular a place to live and work as Alexandria, Virginia.
But St. Louis will not become a magnetic city overnight. First, it needs investment. Not just in physical infrastructure, but also in human infrastructure. To that end, panelists said a major goal is investing in workforce development. In order to make St. Louis a thriving hub for GEOINT, they said, the city must educate its citizens about what GEOINT is and what opportunities it affords—starting with children in inner-city communities who will hopefully comprise the diverse and inclusive GEOINT workforce of the future.
Concluded Fiorello, “The Chinese have a saying: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second-best time to plant a tree is today. In St. Louis, we say the same thing: We’re planting the tree today so we can have the workforce in a year, in five years, in 20 years that looks more like the workforce that we care about and the workforce that reflects this community.”
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