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Plant science incubator in Creve Coeur could more than double in size under plan

Plant science incubator in Creve Coeur could more than double in size under plan

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Benson Hill Biosystems already hiring former Monsanto employees

FILE PHOTO: Greenhouse technician Brittany Beisiegel with Benson Hill Biosystems at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in 2016. Benson Hill is one of the companies that the Missouri Technology Corporation invested in. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

A plan is underway to more than double the size of St. Louis County’s plant science incubator in Creve Coeur, the Helix Center, to help one of its key tenants expand.

The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, which operates the county’s network of startup incubators, is considering borrowing as much as $13 million from Busey Bank for a 40,000-square-foot expansion of the incubator at 1100 Corporate Square Drive.

Opened in 2012, the 33,000-square-foot Helix Center provides technology startups affordable office space and access to wet and dry labs. It’s a key asset of the 39 North plant science district in the area.

Its expansion, though, is being contemplated to accommodate one fast-growing company, Benson Hill Biosystems. The agricultural technology company uses big data techniques to help analyze and sequence genes and has a system that makes the technology more accessible to smaller seed companies and plant science firms. It is also developing gene editing services based on that system, Crop OS.

“We’ve been in the process of wanting to find a larger footprint in the 39 North area,” Benson Hill Chief Financial Officer Mike Wainscott said. “The Partnership wants to make sure we have the option to stay in the area.”

The firm, which has offices in the Helix Center and in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, has been in the process of relocating much of its infrastructure to its St. Louis headquarters, Wainscott said. About 70 of Benson Hill’s roughly 80 employees are now based here. Last year, it announced it raised $25 million in venture capital.

Wainscott said that no final decisions on an expansion have been made.

“We want to do it as soon as we can,” he said. “It will be a limiting factor to our plans if we’re not able to have the lab space that we need longer term.”

He was at a meeting Wednesday of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and spoke to the board in closed session after their discussion of a possible loan agreement to finance the expansion.

The board took no action on the Busey Bank loan, which would include a $2 million bridge loan while the Partnership applies for grant funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“They’re very excited about it,” Partnership Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Ginger Imster said of the EDA and their interest in helping fund the Helix Center expansion.

Though officials did not directly name Benson Hill, Imster told the board the company has developed “a cloud biology platform that is revolutionizing innovation in crop yields.” The company’s gene analytics tools are making technologies that were previously available to only the most well-funded companies more accessible, she said, and have the potential to “fundamentally disrupt” the plant science sector.

The Helix Center expansion for the company “is a priority” for the Partnership, Imster said, and “one of the only affordable options for (the company) in the community.” Space at the nearby BRDG Park is still too expensive to accommodate their expansion, she said.

“Their talent will attract more top talent and that talent will bring more international attention to 39 North and reinforce St. Louis’s dominance in ag tech,” Imster said.

Financing the Helix Center expansion will “really further the concept of 39 North being the agriculture innovation district in St. Louis,” Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney told her board.

The availability of laboratory space to accommodate growing plant science startups in the 39 North area has become an issue in recent years. Imster said there’s currently a wait list of 20 companies for the fully leased incubator, which supports 160 jobs.

Benson Hill’s move to new space at the Helix Center, if it is finalized, could free up labs for other agriculture technology companies. Other tenants are already interested in the potential 13,000 square feet of free space, Imster said.

Part of the plan includes selling one of the Partnership’s business incubators in Chesterfield. Imster said the incubator, built about 20 years ago on Spirit Park Drive in the Chesterfield Valley as that area was still recovering from the Great Flood of 1993, “has performed its service.” It’s about 44 percent leased by young firms and the Partnership has kept them informed of plans to sell it.

The Chesterfield incubator would help secure the Busey Bank loan, should it be approved. If it sells, bank officials told the Partnership Board it wouldn’t affect a deal because of the newly available cash.

The Partnership board took no action on a resolution to hire a broker to market the Chesterfield property, opting to wait for a finalized appraisal and more progress on the Helix Center expansion lease and loan.

Meanwhile, it approved a resolution authorizing the Partnership to hire a firm to perform architectural and engineering design services to expand the Helix Center. It left the amount of the contract up to Partnership staff, which has already solicited proposals from area firms.

Imster told the Post-Dispatch about 20 firms had responded to its request for proposals and that interviews are ongoing.

“We’re not doing anything until financing is secured and a lease is signed,” she said.

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