June 5, 2012
by David Baugher
With the sounds of drills and hammers ringing in the background, it doesn't take long to realize that the Helix Center Biotech Incubator is still a work in progress. The construction debris everywhere is another big clue.
But all the hard work is getting ready to pay off.
"There is a lot of really great entrepreneurial activity," said Beth Noonan of the St. Louis County Economic Council. "We see it all the time in the work that we do. We see it when we go to different activities and events. There's a need out there."
It's a need that Noonan, as the quasi-governmental organization's vice president of biosciences and technology business development, hopes the new Helix initiative will fill. When the dust settles later this month, organizers will cut the ribbon on more than 30,000 square feet of space in a Creve Coeur office park where they aim to nurture startups in the area's nascent life sciences field.
The initiative isn't the council's first foray into entrepreneurial endeavors. It also runs four other incubators in the region. But this one is unique, containing not just conference areas and office slots but also 16 lab spaces, including a core lab with shared resources and an onsite lab operator.
"We're trying to get innovative companies to locate in the facility," Noonan said. "We've had bioscience companies in the other incubators, but they've had to build out their own space in the warehouses."
It also has something else not on the blueprints - like-minded neighbors. The Helix Center is nestled not far behind the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and just down the street from agricultural and biotech giant, Monsanto. In fact, Danforth was a co-applicant in the $4.6 million Department of Commerce grant that helped put Helix on the map. About $2.6 million federal funded the $7.5 million project with the rest coming from county bond proceeds. A separate stream of funds from the Department of Energy helped make the building energy efficient.
Noonan thinks the proximity to Danforth will be a big boost since it also puts them close to BRDG Park, the nearby life sciences park that leases space to various clients, including St. Louis Community College's biotech workforce development and training program.
"It's a great opportunity to bring students over here," Noonan said. "I know at least three or four different companies that have really been able to take advantage of their program and bring students in."
She said that while Danforth does research and BRDG Park deals with mature companies, there was a hole left for new ventures that were beyond the workbench but not quite ready for full-fledged adulthood. That was the niche its creators hoped Helix fits.
Though its name doesn't suggest it, the facility isn't just a landing place for biotech. Other high-technology companies are welcome as well. Associated industries like researchers, consultants or legal service providers may also figure into the mix.
"It's not about getting just anybody in here," she said. "It's about getting people in here who are the right fit. We're in it to grow companies and grow employment opportunities in the community so we really want to make sure we bring in people who fit within the technology and innovation focus."
Noonan said an incubator works to make connections and build culture.
"It's not just to be a benevolent landlord," she said. "The idea is to provide training, networking opportunities and resources that will help companies grow and their business mature."
Despite the challenges of a fickle economy, Noonan is confident Helix will fill up. She hopes eventually to have as many as 20-25 clients in the facility though none has signed up as yet. A previous tenant already occupies a significant amount of space in the two-story building, which is owned by the council, but is not part of the incubator.
"I'm here at least two or three times a week taking people through. We've had a lot of interest," Noonan said.
Potential tenants will also have the opportunity to try before they buy though a special "hotelling" concept. It's a membership-at-large program for those not quite ready to rent square footage. They can pay a fee for shorter-term arrangements that allow them to use space, hook into the wi-fi and be in a professional environment for a set number of hours.
"You have a desk and if you have to have meetings you are not meeting at Starbucks," she said.
It also allows interaction with people and the creation of new concepts, something that's a big part of the center's mission.
"The idea is that in the mix of tenants that you have, there are opportunities for people to work together," she said. "You create enough energy and enough mix of people so when they bump into each other, interesting things can happen."
The center's grand opening is set for June 25.