Emerging Technology

A Generational Model for Inclusive Clusters in St. Louis’ Tech Triangle

06.14.23 | 9 min read | Text by Ryan Buscaglia

The St. Louis Tech Triangle coalition will receive approximately $25 million to support the region’s advanced manufacturing cluster – which will support and grow the existing biosciences and geospatial clusters. One of their primary projects is the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center (AMIC), which will be the hub of an inclusive ecosystem and bring investment to a historically excluded area of STL.

Tracy Henke is the Chief Policy Officer/President of ChamberSTL with Greater St. Louis Inc., lead of the region’s Build Back Better Coalition. GSL was founded on January 1, 2021 as a result of combining the strengths of five legacy civic organizations into one with a unified focus around a common vision and strategy for fostering inclusive economic growth. Ben Johnson is Senior Vice President, Programs at BioSTL. Since 2001, BioSTL has laid the foundation for St. Louis’ biosciences innovation economy with a comprehensive set of transformational programs leveraging the region’s medical and plant science strengths. 

This interview is part of an FAS series on Unleashing Regional Innovation where we talk to leaders building the next wave of innovative clusters and ecosystems in communities across the United States. We aim to spotlight their work and help other communities learn by example. Our first round of interviews are with finalists of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge run by the Economic Development Administration as part of the American Rescue Plan.

Ryan Buscaglia: Could you tell us how your coalition came together and the history of your partnership between organizations? Were you working on elements of this project before the EDA even announced their process?

Tracy Henke: The whole concept for the hub of our proposal originated back in 2015. Some workforce training and items related to innovation and entrepreneurship were already going on. But they were going on separately. The St. Louis Tech Triangle and the partners came together through identifying synergies that existed that could be built upon and leveraged. This [Build Back Better Regional Challenge] was an opportunity to identify those synergies and bring them together more cohesively with the support of federal funding to accelerate that work to make certain that we could move together instead of in isolation.

So, Ben, on the Bio side that you work on, had you been working on individual projects related to advancing the bioeconomy in St. Louis, which maybe hadn’t had as much connection to the other two legs of the triangle before this partnership came up? 

Ben Johnson: I would echo Tracy in that this was an opportunity to grow existing, and find new, synergies across the industry cluster. For the biosciences, over 20 years in St. Louis, we’ve been working as a coalition of academic institutions, corporate partners, entrepreneurs, support organizations, philanthropy and civic organizations, to build our bioscience economy. With the success of that collaboration in building innovation infrastructure, we now feel like we’re just at the starting line of realizing the economic potential in some respects. These were existing partnerships and projects and collaborations that were in the works. In some ways, Tracy and her organization gave us a bit of a framework to knit that together with other emerging clusters in a way that some of the other clusters hadn’t really been positioned to organize in the past. I think a critical piece there is that we didn’t come together exclusively for the purposes of ‘here’s Build Back Better, let’s react to it.’ We had a foundation, we had coalition partnerships. We were able to come together around an organized thesis that really drives inclusive growth for the region. From there, projects knit together well. It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, here’s the NOFO. Let’s figure out what exists in the world.’ There was an existing framework for that discussion, including the STL 2030 Jobs Plan, stewarded through Tracy and Greater St. Louis Inc. 

Could you talk about why you decided to focus on three distinct fields (advanced manufacturing, geospatial, and biosciences) in your project?

Tracy: Understand that while it is the St. Louis Tech Triangle, the driver of our submission is advanced manufacturing. Advanced manufacturing supports biosciences, it supports geospatial and it leverages the history and existing strength of our region. Metro St. Louis has always been a leader in manufacturing and so that question, ‘why focus on all three?’ It’s a focus on advanced manufacturing that supports our biosciences, energy and our geospatial, and more. Also, we call it the tech triangle because when you look at an overview map of the region, you can literally create a triangle that links the placemaking hubs of the three clusters. 

Growing the advanced manufacturing cluster supports our existing bioscience and geospatial activities, but also helps grow and further grow, for instance, our aerospace and other opportunities that might exist, and that’s leveraging our past and present history in the region.

With all of these different projects ongoing, which coalition actually took the lead on writing and submitting the application?

Tracy: Greater St. Louis, Inc. did. Why was it Greater St. Louis? Partially because we’re not an implementer of any of these programs in particular. We are a convener, we are an entity that works with all of them. Hopefully they all see GSL as a partner in this effort. And because you can’t have 20 writers, it doesn’t work well. If you have 20 people doing these interviews and you try to put it together in one cohesive document, you have 20 different voices. And so for the overarching narrative it needs to be in one voice to make sense for those reviewing.  We shared it, and we ensured that partners offered feedback. We incorporated as able, but of course, had the limitations put on us by EDA on page numbers, numerous requirements, etc. Individual partners wrote their individual submissions; it doesn’t mean partners didn’t provide edits and guidance, and I did as well to ensure linkage with the overarching narrative, but they all wrote their own. We met on a regular basis, but there always has to be one person with the pen.

I’m glad you took the pen for St. Louis! Could you talk a bit about the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center (AMIC-STL) and why that is the hub of this proposal?

Tracy: The Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center, which is referred to as AMIC-STL, was identified in 2015. The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership is a partner in our specific submission, not just the overarching narrative, but our specific submission on cluster growth. They received a grant back in 2014, I believe, when it looked like there was going to be significant downsizing in the aerospace industry here in the St. Louis metro, specifically Boeing. And so that’s when a defense readjustment grant was provided to help the region think about what does this region need to do, how do all those people get trained for other employment, and they looked at once again, this region’s strength in manufacturing.

AMICSTL is modeled off of the AMRC in Sheffield, England. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Sheffield, England, was initially a Boeing funded entity. There are other manufacturing centers in Europe, I believe there’s also one in Japan now, they’re all a little different. But in our opinion, and what we have studied here within the United States, there isn’t anything like we’re talking about here in the United States. The Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center will be an opportunity to do the research and development. It will be an opportunity to do prototyping and small batch manufacturing, but also an opportunity to create what we call verticals in different spaces. So an aerospace vertical, a bioscience vertical, an energy storage vertical. Something that brings not just a prime entity like hypothetically, aerospace and Boeing, but then all their other suppliers, all the entities that feed into Boeing and what Boeing does and the research that goes along with it. By co-locating, it allows cross pollination of ideas and also cross pollination of how to use things in other ways.

The Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Sheffield, England, was initially a Boeing funded entity.

So something that might be used as relates to technology on a drone to look under the canopy of trees might have some technology applicable to the healthcare space. Or researchers might be able to take something that they learned from the development of a specific technology and apply it in a completely different field. Having these researchers and developers and the ability to prototype etc, allows for cross pollination of ideas and that growth, which then spurs additional development and additional growth. 

If you look at what happened in AMRC and Sheffield, they started with a handful of R&D individuals, they now have over 500. And they now have over 400 units of housing built. They started with one building, they now have multiple buildings.

Ben: Another point I think that was critical, particularly for our regional strategy and commitments but also for Build Back Better and EDA is the physical geographic location in a significantly disinvested historically excluded community. It really gives an opportunity to bring some of this new manufacturing innovation, bridging the biosciences and geospatial, as sort of a beachhead into a neighborhood and community where that type of investment has not occurred in a significant amount of years.

Tracy: When you look at the history of St. Louis, and you look at how communities were built up, a lot of them were built up within the urban core around manufacturing. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of that and then saw out-flight. Even early in 2015-2016 with the conversation about the establishment of this Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center, they talked then about how its location should be in a historically disinvested community. And so this is a strategic location in the heart of the city where the land currently exists, right next to a technical school and in close location to multiple education institutions as well that can help on the workforce side, strategically located near NGA West, near our cortex and biosciences partners, as well as surrounded by other workforce partners.

Recognizing that this is a tough challenge, how are you making sure that AMIC-STL has a constructive and growth minded and equitable result for the community rather than continuing a trend of either pushing people out of homes / businesses or making it difficult for existing residents and existing community members to stay there?

Tracy: Almost every week GSL brings our AMIC-STL partner and our city partners and our neighborhood partners where AMIC-STL will be located to the table. 

Once again, this is purposeful on its location. There is nothing currently on the site. Most of the surrounding community, quite honestly, has suffered from disinvestment. There are vacant homes and boarded up buildings because of the outflight and more. And so we are working to ensure AMICSTL, being that centerpiece, sort of like AMRC and Sheffield, will create this domino effect. But to do that, we also have to make sure that partners are at the table. In addition we must have community engagement and will use BBBRC funding to help with this. We’re also drafting an RFP on establishing the baseline of metrics as it relates to the manufacturing ecosystem in the region, as well as the spokes of that and how far they reach. 

We’re looking at this holistically. We’re not just looking at building a building.

Also, our workforce partners are looking at what gaps exist in workforce training, and not creating new workforce programs necessarily, but how do our existing workforce entities fill those gaps. We’re looking at this holistically. We’re not just looking at building a building. I think that’s the important thing.

How will St. Louis look different in ten years if you’re successful in doing what you proposed?

Tracy: In ten years: AMIC is built and the dominoes have started resulting in growth. Our workforce training, our innovation entrepreneurship, our community engagement, our cluster growth is working. Can I say this is going to be overnight? No, I cannot. Is this going to be easy? No, it is not. In ten years is it our hope that we’ve seen progress? Yes. Can we say that it is our hope to continue seeing AMIC growing with verticals with benefits to different areas and lines? Yes. We are doing this deliberately and with intention to ensure a higher probability of success.

Ben: Ten years from now, I believe through Build Back Better and the collaboration to form it—with AMIC as its embodiment—will be a longitudinal and generational model, even if it is a model still in progress. It will be a model for how we do intentional, inclusive economic growth with increased permeability between innovation districts and underserved neighborhoods. A new model for STL and beyond for lessons learned and successes. Ten years, we will still be getting better and continuously improving in that work, but AMIC will be a significant mile post in that journey of St. Louis doing things differently.