Subscribe for 99¢
NGA Aerial view of the Next NGA West campus concept from the northwest.

Architectural rendering depicts a potential aerial view of the Next NGA West campus concept from the northwest. (McCarthy HITT, via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

If a deliberate, research-based approach to building an industry worked for St. Louis once, it should work again.

That’s the conviction guiding 29 business, civic, academic and government officials who think the region can become a leader in using and analyzing location-based data. Operating as the GeoFutures Initiative, they’ve hired research firm TEConomy Partners to study St. Louis’ assets and opportunities in the geospatial sector, which is becoming critical to everything from agriculture to finance to national security.

A similar group set out two decades ago to understand how St. Louis could develop its plant and life sciences industry. Research by the Battelle Memorial Institute painted an optimistic picture but outlined a list of needs, including skilled workers, capital and lab space.

BioSTL, a group formed to implement the study, says the promise Battelle saw has largely been realized. The number of life sciences firms has quadrupled, employment has more than doubled and companies assisted by the BioGenerator, BioSTL’s investment arm, have raised $880 million in outside funding.

Andy Dearing, who’s leading the GeoFutures effort, thinks the geospatial industry could see similar progress in 20 years. “It’s growing tremendously,” he said. “I don’t think we fully appreciated the potential until the NGA made a move to be more transparent and participate more with the private sector.”

Indeed, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is at the center of the region’s hopes. At about the same time it decided to build a new, $1.7 billion campus in north St. Louis, the agency signaled that it needed private firms’ help to meet the Pentagon’s need for geography-linked data.

Dearing’s former firm, Boundless, moved from New York to St. Louis in 2017. This year has seen a flurry of expansion announcements by geospatial firms: California-based Esri is adding 40 jobs here, Colorado-based Maxar Technologies is opening a 50-person office downtown and Swedish-owned T-Kartor USA is hiring 30 people.

OGSystems, a geospatial firm owned by engineering giant Parsons, just opened a new midtown office to accommodate its growth. “There’s probably more geospatial knowledge here than most people realize,” says Timothy Siems, a division lead at the company. “It’s in the DNA of the city because NGA and its predecessors have been around a long time.”

The industry is about much more than military intelligence, however.

Transportation companies use geospatial data to manage fleets, and farmers use it to fine-tune planting decisions.

GeoFutures’ initial assessment shows 10,598 area residents working in jobs directly related to geospatial data, producing $2.5 billion of economic activity.

Several hundred of those employees work for Bayer and its Climate Corp. subsidiary. Steven Ward, a Climate Corp. senior director and GeoFutures committee member, said St. Louis is blessed with a combination of an anchor government agency in the NGA, universities to produce talent and companies that understand and use geospatial data.

“I am sincerely convinced that St. Louis is positioned better than almost anywhere else in this growing sector due to the presence of those three critical elements,” Ward said.

Even before the GeoFutures research is complete, the industry is rapidly adding key ingredients. T-Rex, the downtown technology incubator, is developing a space called Geosaurus as a hub for geospatial activity, and St. Louis University just launched a Geospatial Institute.

The GeoFutures group will release its study in March. Dearing pledges that it will have an economic inclusion component, aimed at making sure minority groups participate in the jobs and business ventures this sector creates.

There should, he says, be plenty of opportunity to go around.