On Thursday, October 18, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center welcomed an audience of more than 200 members of the general public to the Conversations event “The Entrepreneurs – Artists of Innovation.” Moderated by Danforth Center COO Sam Fiorello, panelists included Jerry Kent, chairman and CEO of TierPoint and Cequell III; Matt Crisp, president and CEO of Benson Hill Biosystems; and Emily Lohse-Busch, executive director of Arch Grants. Topics of discussion ranged from successful establishment of company culture and narrative, to confronting failure and knowing when to change course. Along the way, the executives talked about talent, forming partnerships, and why St. Louis is a great place for start-ups.

Why St. Louis
“We are here for a reason: St. Louis has the money, the infrastructure, and the talent,” said Crisp, president of Benson Hill Biosystems, a company co-founded with Danforth Center scientists. Benson Hill recently made headlines as the first start-up in Missouri to attract the interest of GV (Google Ventures) who invested $60 million in C-series financing in July of this year.

“You can’t find a community like we have in St. Louis,” said Lohse-Busch. “People are incredibly generous with their time, expertise, and resources.” “And you have to love the Midwestern work ethic,” added Kent.

Fiorello, who also serves as president of the Bio-Research & Development Growth Park on the Danforth Center campus, cited the role of cluster initiatives in St. Louis’s success, as noted in a recent Brookings Institution report. “The Brookings Institution is one of the finest think tank policy analysis organizations in the in the world,” said Fiorello. “When they write that the Danforth Center is the ‘physical hub of innovation’ in the St. Louis ag-tech industry,’ it really shines a spotlight on the region’s strength in ag innovation and commercialization.”

Room for All
“Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not,” said Fiorello, starting off the conversation on diversity in the start-up world. Lohse-Busch emphasized the need for intentionality in hiring, a sentiment seconded by Crisp who advised looking for ways to counteract implicit bias. Jerry Kent followed, citing the tech industry’s poor track record on diversity: “We have to reach out sooner—early on in the schools—to inspire diverse people to careers in these non-diverse industries.”

Fiorello echoed this sentiment, citing the Danforth Center’s STEM education and outreach programs serving more than 2,500 students in the St. Louis region. “Partnerships are essential,” said Fiorello. “Without partnerships with area schools, community colleges, and universities, we can’t succeed.”

The Imperative
Why is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center interested in entrepreneurship? Because by 2050, we will need to grow more food than in all of previous human history. We can’t achieve this goal with current technology. We must accelerate research, and entrepreneurship can do that. Entrepreneurs live at the intersection of imagination, risk-taking, and talent. They fuel dramatic change in all sectors of modern society. Anchoring the new 39 North ag innovation district, the Danforth Center is enhancing the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science in order to spur innovation and speed research.

The Conversations Series is organized by members of the Danforth Center Friends Committee, offering individuals the opportunity to learn about the work of the Center and the partners who help to sustain it. Everyone is invited to submit questions to the panel during the event and to join the conversation online by tweeting @DanforthCenter using the hashtag #ConvoStL.