Building An Innovation Community

By on July 30, 2019

From AGCMO:  by Dennis E. Lower, President & CEO, Cortex Innovation Community

Founded in 2002, the Cortex Innovation Community is a nationally and internationally recognized hub of innovation and technology commercialization located in St. Louis’ Central West End. Founded through a collaboration of Washington University in St. Louis, BJC Healthcare, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, Cortex is the largest regional anchor of a growing ecosystem of innovative startups and established technology companies. It has been cited by the Brookings Institution as a Best Practice among global urban innovation districts.

To date, Cortex has developed 2 million square feet that are home to 420 tech-commercial companies, university academic units, residential developments, and support retail. With 6,000 employees working in the District, it is a 24/7 live-work-play-learn innovation community that is served by a new light rail commuter station opened in 2018, funded by a federal TIGER grant and matched by Cortex. There is a new $20M I-64/40 interchange, and multiple bus routes traverse the District.

Positioning Cortex as the model for Global Innovation Hubs
During the 1990s, several civic conversations were convened to determine how best to enhance and catalyze the region’s entrepreneurial environment to position the St. Louis region as a global hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. In September 2000, these discussions culminated in a pivotal Battelle Memorial Institute Technology Partnership study that provided a roadmap for leveraging regional assets and developing tools necessary to formally establish a regional technology hub that would initially focus on bioscience research and technology.

One of the placemaking strategies that resulted was the formation of Cortex, located in a blighted, industrial-legacy 200-acre district situated between two of the region’s premier universities: Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University, and adjacent to the region’s first technology incubator, the Center for Emerging Technologies. From 2002-2009, Cortex leadership was provided directly by the Board of Directors. Under their direction, significant progress was made.

After incorporating as a non-profit, the founding members capitalized with a $29M investment. A formal redevelopment district was established with approval from the City of St. Louis. The agreement designated Cortex as the Master Developer with powers that include master planning, conferring of incentives on 3rd party developers, and eminent domain to assist in parcel consolidation. With these resources, the Board acquired key land parcels, and secured State of Missouri development tax credits and Federal grants.

By the end of 2009, an abandoned factory had been rehabbed into residential condominiums and apartments; two new technology buildings were constructed (a multi-tenant office/lab building known as Cortex I, and a single tenant, build-to-suit R&D soybean research facility for Solae); and Cortex was home to 35 companies.

Having tested the vision and demonstrated success, the Board decided to hire professional staff to advance the organization’s mission more quickly. In 2010, the first President and CEO was hired, with the staff growing to 13 employees to date. Since 2010, many new collaborations, development partnerships and projects have resulted, including an I-64 District interchange, a MetroLink light-rail transit station, a 3-acre park known as the Cortex Commons, and 15 additional buildings have been or are being constructed.

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