Renowned for agricultural facilities such as Bayer’s Crop Science division, the 39 North innovation corridor and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the St. Louis region is a worldwide leader in creating technology that feeds the world.
Now, St. Louis is staking a claim as the world leader in creating technology that sees the world.
Construction of the $1.75 billion western headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, starts here next year. The massive project has helped launch a wave of regional development in the geospatial intelligence field that aims to become a tsunami.
Geospatial intelligence, known as GEOINT, was once a little-known technology mostly used by secretive government agencies. In fact, a forerunner of the NGA, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, first obtained images of Soviet missile sites in Cuba in 1962. But while the NGA’s mission is still primarily a national security function, the agency in recent years has launched an unprecedented effort to collaborate with the private sector to boost innovation and insure a pipeline of highly trained employees.
At the same time, GEOINT is becoming indispensable for an ever-widening range of private industries, relied upon in everything from cellular phones to self-driving automobiles to agriculture to delivery of goods ordered on Amazon. The explosion in civilian applications for GEOINT tech has accelerated the collaboration between the NGA and the private sector.
Nowhere is that partnership more pronounced than in St. Louis.
The St. Louis area’s higher ed system, led by St. Louis University, is changing its curricula to meet the demands of geospatial companies as well as the NGA. Cutting-edge training and mentoring programs, including the lauded LaunchCode, also has partnered with the NGA as well as private industry to prepare workers to meet the needs of the burgeoning technology. And companies themselves are investing millions in St. Louis, where they are finding a fast-growing ecosystem of support and innovation.
Austin Korns, major project manager with St. Louis Development Corp., told the St. Louis Business Journal that St. Louis already counts 10,598 jobs in geospatial and location technology, including 3,700 at NGA and 235 in university research and development. Some 27,000 local jobs directly or indirectly depend on the sector, Korns told the publication, with a total economic impact of $4.9 billion. Nationally, according to the article, GEOINT jobs are expected to grow by more than 13 percent annually.
Most recently, spatial analytics giant Esri, based in California, announced it was tripling its St. Louis-based professional services staff from 40 to 120 employees.
“When we looked at the best location to support our rapidly expanding user community, St. Louis was the obvious choice,” said Brian Cross, director of Esri Professional Services. Matthew Harman, head of the St. Louis-based Esri Professional Services team, told Geospatial World: “The (St. Louis) area is a global center for geospatial technology, and by combining new staff with the incredible professionals who already work on the team, we will be able to support our users at an entirely new scale.”
Tech startups such as Boundless Spatial as well as established behemoths like Bayer and Boeing are finding the St. Louis region to be the perfect spot on the map for GEOINT.
When Andy Dearing became chief executive Boundless Spatial, a New York-based startup, he quickly decided the company needed to move its headquarters to St. Louis.
“I said, ‘Hey, there’s a talent pool that’s here in St Louis,’” said Dearing, a St. Louis native. Here, he said, “we could get the infrastructure and support that we need. It’s a great place to grow. And that was a decision that I made with the board and within my first, you know, couple of months of being a CEO, that’s one thing that we did.”
The decision, he said, quickly paid off. The company was recently acquired by satellite imaging company Planet and is now known as Planet Federal, with Dearing as interim president. Planet Federal makes its headquarters in the T-REX innovation incubator, which has partnered with Bayer to build Geosaurus, a 15,000-square-foot space inside T-REX set aside for GEOINT startups.
Patricia Hagen, president and executive director of T-REX, noted that the St. Louis region’s GEOINT ecosystem involves significant investment from academia, industry, economic development agencies as well as the federal government. She fully expects that growth to accelerate.
“The opportunities for inclusive economic development seem limitless,” she said. “This industry touches almost every aspect of advanced information technology. We are going to put a flag in that for St. Louis.”
St. Louis government, business and civic leaders are attending the GEOINT Symposium in San Antonio in June, the industry’s largest annual gathering, to stake that claim,
“St,. Louis is the nation’s center for geospatial excellence,” proclaimed St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, speaking to the area’s contingent before it left for San Antonio. “We’re going to spread the message that if you’re looking to start, if you’re looking to grow, if you’re looking to invest in a geospatial company, you need to be here – right here in St. Louis.”
That kind of commitment hasn’t escaped the vision of the NGA.
Susan Pollman is a veteran NGA executive who serves as the program director for the entire $1.75 billion headquarters project. As a St. Louis native, she said, she was aware of the region’s deep commitment to innovation and its well-earned distinction of being the ideal place for technological startups. Even so, she said, the region’s overwhelming response to the project has stunned her.
“I really had no idea that our selection of the city site would generate this much enthusiasm and this much energy in St. Louis,” she said.
“When I see all of this energy and excitement and possibility for what is my hometown, and what that could then lead to – to further enhance what we do here at NGA – yeah, I just think the sky’s the limit at this point. And, you know, I just couldn’t be more excited.”