Welcome to 39 North: Plant science companies bloom in St. Louis’ growing ag tech innovation district

When a farmer plants a cover crop in between the year’s two cash crops, it protects and enriches the soil, but that off-season crop typically doesn’t yield a profitable harvest itself.

That’s where a plant such as CoverCress comes in. For six years, a team of scientists has been developing the new species based on the native pennycress plant. Not only will it function as a traditional winter cover crop, it will also serve as a cash crop similar to canola for animal feed, bioenergy or oil.

Steiner

“We’re really close to the point where we have our commercial product,” said CoverCress CEO Jerry Steiner. “The next couple of years are very exciting for us because we’re going to be starting to turn that corner of testing these commercial products, while at the same time we’re starting to produce seed and preparing for our first commercial planting in the fall of ’21.”

To keep a startup like CoverCress growing, however, it takes capital, researchers, offices, labs and equipment.

CoverCress found all of that in 39 North, St. Louis’ newest innovation district.

As part of a larger ag tech corridor that stretches from the Missouri Botanical Garden to the University of Missouri’s agriculture school in Columbia, 39 North is an ongoing St. Louis initiative to create a welcoming ecosystem for agriculture innovators.

Pennycress growing at the Danforth Center

Greenhouses, labs, offices and startup incubator facilities abound here, bustling with a diverse community of some of the top minds in plant science. St. Louis is home to more than a thousand plant science PhD’s — the highest concentration in the world. And while the region has a thriving startup climate, it also serves global corporations such as Bayer that have their U.S. headquarters here.

The 39 North master plan involves business development and attraction, modifying the infrastructure to connect assets and accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists, and hosting popular networking events such as Venture Cafe, said Janet Wilding, VP of 39N and Major Projects at St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

“If you have a strength in something, trying to figure out how to really enhance it and grow it is a whole discipline in economic development that’s become very popular in Europe and now in the United States,” Wilding said.

39 North

Another organization behind the vision is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, an independent nonprofit science facility. In addition to its own research, it leases greenhouse space, 3D imaging equipment to measure plant growth and climate-controlled growing pods that can be fine-tuned to mimic different climates around the world.

“We do this basic research always with an eye toward application. So, ‘What is the problem that we’re trying to solve? What are the challenges facing farmers today?’ ” said Karla Roeber, Danforth’s VP of Public and Government Affairs.

This is where CoverCress does some of its plant development.

“CoverCress is supported very well in this ecosystem because they’re at the incubator,” said Roeber, referring to the Helix center just down the road from Danforth. “They had interns from the community college, some of which are now employees, and they are able to use Danforth’s greenhouses. That’s an example of how it all works together.”

Steiner concurred.

“One of the cool things that’s happened for us at Danforth is this whole idea of speed breeding, where we have 21 hours of light,” he said. “It has really accelerated our plant development cycles, because getting more cycles per year enables us to deliver faster genetic improvements to the farmer. It’s really important for us as a business.”

Supported by BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioSTL (another driver of 39 North), BioGenerator@Helix is a shared lab space hosting several ag tech startups like CoverCress.

John Killmer is the CEO of RNAgri, another business housed in Helix which, like CoverCress, also receives investment dollars from BioGenerator. He said the facility-sharing model has fostered collaboration and synergy between the different businesses using the space.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to interact with other ag companies, and that usually generates ideas and ways to make your company more successful,” Killmer said.

Killmer

RNAgri’s research focuses on formulating new types of weed killers and insecticides that are environmentally benign and safe for humans, Killmer said. The science involves leveraging RNAi technology to reduce insecticide-resistant enzymes in weeds and pests.

“There’s a huge trend now to not just see how much food is produced, but how the food is produced,” Killmer said.

Both aspects are pieces of a global puzzle that scientists and growers are working to solve. Vijay Chauhan, the GlobalSTL Lead at BioSTL, is addressing the big picture.

“We are trying to feed an ever-growing world,” Chauhan said. “That’s going to be almost 9 to 10 billion people by the 2050 timeframe, and we have to figure out how to feed that world with a lot less land and a lot less water, so innovation is really needed.”

Up to 70 percent of U.S. agriculture production and distribution takes place within a 400-mile radius of St. Louis, Chauhan said.

“That’s a pretty big market, and what we tell these international companies is, ‘If you want to be successful in the biggest agricultural system in the world, you’ve got to come to St Louis,’ ” Chauhan said. GlobalSTL is now working across 12 countries to recruit ag tech companies to put down roots in the region.

Another challenge they are tackling, Chauhan said, is how the ag tech innovation pipeline too often tries to go against the grain. 

“A lot of people are coming to the farm pitching ideas: ‘Hey, we’ve got this.’ But nobody’s putting that idea off to the side and saying, ‘I just want to know what it is that you’re looking for that nobody has paid attention to,’ ” Chauhan said.

That’s how GlobalSTL’s Early Adopter Grower Innovation Community began.

“These are farmers who are tinkerers. They’re constantly trying new ideas. We want to sit down with them and say, ‘What are you looking for? What problem do you want solved?’ ” Chauhan said.

From there, as new technologies are developed across GlobalSTL’s network of innovators, the goal is to engage the young, tech-savvy members of agriculture communities to bring solutions back to the farm.

“It’s one thing for a city slicker to show up and tell the farmer, ‘Look what we’ve got for you.’ It’s another when one of their own community is able to do that,” Chauhan said.

Providing enough resources for a rapidly growing world population is no small task. But Chauhan is confident that our state’s role in the task will be a critical one. “We will become the place where the world is going to say, ‘Thank God for what you guys did in St Louis, Missouri, because now we can feed 9, 10 billion people,’ ” Chauhan said.

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