What are we, St. Louis? What is our identity? What do we want to be? Just a baseball town? A beer town? How about making St. Louis a technological and entrepreneurial hotbed? The kind of city that invites and fosters some of the brightest young minds that this region and country have to offer?
If the people in the Cortex district have their way, the latter is likely our city’s future. More than 250 companies currently work, grow, and thrive in the Cortex Innovation Community. From the beginning of the project in 2002, it has poured more than $550 million into constructing and rehabilitating 1.7 million square feet of space. And more is planned. Cortex will continue adding mixed-used development space, in addition to a new MetroLink station. But what it all comes down to is jobs, and here, Cortex has delivered. As of now, it has generated 4,200 positions; it is predicted to add a total of 15,000 overall.
From the very beginning, the Cortex’s mission has been ambitious. “The main vision of Cortex to support high-growth discovery has remained the same since its founding in 2002,” says Phyllis Ellison, Director of Entrepreneur Services and Institutional and Corporate Partnerships at Cortex. “In 2010, the mission and master plan for development were revised to expand the focus from life sciences and to include technologies across other industries. The physical view also shifted from only office buildings to include a mix of retail and residential.”
This new focus, called “Cortex 3.0,” includes a hotel, event space, and a MetroLink stop at Boyle Avenue. All of this is building toward the ultimate goal of creating a solid corridor of innovation, stretching from downtown to the Danforth Plant Science Center. “The innovation community should be fluid enough for entrepreneurs to shift to the resources and support they need,” Ellison says.
Bringing Minds Together in a Perfect Space
This corridor of innovation and experimentation is exciting for the city and region in countless ways. It’s cultivating homegrown talent and attracting brilliant minds from across the country and globe. It’s fostering collaboration and R&D between brilliant people in an open space, here in our city.
The formula is working. Just ask Influence and Co. founder Kelsey Meyer, who has her St. Louis office based in the Cortex. “One of the best benefits for our team is the amazing amenities offered by CIC,” she says. “Our team appreciates the free snacks, catered lunches, and frequent waffle Wednesdays, Pizza and Beer Fridays, and Venture Cafe Thursdays. But I swear it's just not about the food, it's about the sense of community that is built by these things bringing the different companies in the building together.”
But Cortex goes beyond what is expected, trendy, or simply needed to fill an office suite. It is making a concerted effort to create an inclusive ecosystem throughout its management and leadership teams. “We want to see people of color and women in leadership roles at all levels, and we want them to see their ideas and values represented in the diversity of the ecosystem’s resources,” says Christy Maxfield, Director of Entrepreneur Development Services. “The biggest win is that we’re talking about it and finding ways to address the root causes of inequity. We already have the BioSTL Inclusion Initiative and Prosper Women Entrepreneurs, but we have a long way to go.”
Education for Growth
When you join the Cortex/CET, it doesn’t just get your signature, pat you on the back, and wish you luck. It offers so much more.
One of the ways it provides support is through its Square One hands-on training program designed to provide resources to early-stage and first-time business owners in the St. Louis region. Square One Bootcamp combines formal instruction with hands-on learning, networking and mentoring for startups in high-growth industries. Local experts lead tracks in bioscience, information technology, and advanced manufacturing. The goal of this pre-accelerator accelerator is to help first-time entrepreneurs and introduce them to the St. Louis startup ecosystem.
“A lot of the other organizations have areas of specialty and programs that are only accessible if you have a lot of the business model validation pieces already completed,” Maxfield says. “There needs to be a feeder source for those kinds of resources and a way for having potential entrepreneurs validate their business model — that’s really what Square One is trying to provide.”
Simply put, all of these programs and opportunities infuse St. Louis with hope. The thousands of jobs the Cortex adds alone have huge implications for a town once devastated by the economic downturn caused by the demise of the American Rust Belt. The project’s effects ripple far beyond the physical Cortex campus. “This isn’t a city-centric result — this is a region-wide goal to create jobs and a growing, vibrant economy,” Ellison says.
Bringing so many people and minds together in a concentrated area has the future of St. Louis looking brighter than it has since the birth of the Industrial Revolution that made the region one of the most vital and vibrant in the nation. Kelsey Meyer certainly isn’t alone in seeing the potential and exponential possibilities of the Cortex Campus. “We're very excited about the continued growth, and we know that more growth will equal more people and opportunities for all involved,” she says.
The plans and developments of Cortex/CET are what the best futures are built upon: Inclusion, opportunity for all, a level playing field, help when needed, freedom to create and collaborate, and space in which to do all of these.
St. Louis may always be seen as a baseball and beer town to a passing glance. But those who look a little harder will see a city that is sitting on a powder keg of innovation and excitement. Thanks to the people at Cortex/CET, the future of our city will explode on the American landscape. With any luck, we’ll one day be seen not only as the geographical center of this nation, but the innovation epicenter, too.
Will Saulsbery is a native St. Louisan and a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the front man of the St. Louis-based band Money for Guns.