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New Taylor Geospatial Institute hailed as ‘big deal’ for St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS — Bolstering the city’s bid to become a hub for geospatial technology, economic development and academic leaders announced Thursday the creation of a new research center that will help build an industry officials see as key to St. Louis’s economic future.

Funded with a “legacy investment” from Andy Taylor, executive chairman of rental car giant Enterprise Holdings, as well as contributions from eight area research institutions, the Taylor Geospatial Institute will fund research and develop programs to draw top scientists to the St. Louis. It will also hire research support staff, house cutting-edge equipment and computing power, and build an extensive data library in a bid to draw the top minds in the field here.

“Geospatial is the critical technology in nearly everything we do, and it is imperative that St. Louis have the world’s leading geospatial research institution to fulfill our promise as the global center for geospatial technology in the next decade,” Taylor, who is also the founding chair of business and civic booster Greater St. Louis Inc., said in a statement. “It is my hope that this institute will cement St. Louis as the world’s true center for geospatial excellence.”

An exact figure for the donation wasn’t released, but the Taylor family has put well over $1 billion into the area’s cultural institutions and civic initiatives over the years, from the St. Louis Symphony and Missouri Botanical Garden to the Arch Grounds revamp to the new Major League Soccer franchise and downtown stadium.

Taylor Geospatial Institute announcement

Andrew C. Taylor, executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings Inc. and Founding Chair of Greater St. Louis Inc., speaks at the announcement of the launch of the Taylor Geospatial Institute, a first-of-its-kind institution that brings together eight leading research institutions to collaborate on research into geospatial technology. The announcement was made Thursday, April 21, 2022, at St. Louis University. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

“When the Taylor family gets involved,” said Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis, “they do big things.”

The Taylor Geospatial Institute is a “big, big deal for St. Louis,” Hall said. Setting up an entity that can finance foundational research in the geospatial sector will help draw talent and investment from firms that want to be around innovation, Hall said. He called geospatial the “most critical industry for the future success of this metro right now.”

Beyond government agencies like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, location science has applications for agriculture, public health and a host of consumer and business products, as more devices communicate and connect with each other.

“I’m hoping that this becomes another industry that brings a lot of people from out of town, creates a lot of business, students that are here stay here after they graduate,” Taylor told media after the announcement was made on St. Louis University’s campus Thursday. “It’s also very good for society, if you look at the things geospatial can do, whether it’s food security or national security — the light went on, and it just made a lot of sense to me.”

Launching a geospatial research collaborative was one of the key priorities in the STL GeoFutures report, released in 2020 as regional leaders laid the groundwork to leverage the western headquarters of the NGA to further build an industry sector where St. Louis has a competitive edge. The thousands of jobs at the NGA, and the intelligence agency’s desire to shed its insular reputation and work more closely with industry and universities, have already drawn the interest of locational science firms that have moved to set up offices in St. Louis.

Former NGA Director Robert Cardillo, at the announcement Thursday, said that when he made the decision to build the agency’s new headquarters in north St. Louis, he hoped it would help spur collaborative efforts to propel geospatial research. He and those still with the agency are excited about the opportunities the Taylor Institute might provide. Future geospatial innovation is likely to come from beyond the agency, Cardillo said, and the Taylor Institute can help the NGA solve problems and train its future workforce.

“It’s a win for the NGA and their national security mission, it’s a win for talent and core science, but the big win is for the region,” Cardillo told the Post-Dispatch.

The launch of the Taylor Institute follows other geospatial efforts from organizations such as T-Rex, the downtown business incubator that has a whole floor devoted to geospatial firms and has attracted the NGA’s Moonshot Labs and a University of Missouri St. Louis outpost devoted to the sector. Arch Grants, which offers grants and resources to startups, has set aside funding specifically for geospatial firms.

Harris-Stowe State University, St. Louis University and others have joined business and government leaders to orient their activities in ways to help grow the geospatial sector in St. Louis. Harris-Stowe signed a cooperation agreement with NGA to collaborate with the agency on course offerings. SLU has launched a geospatial institute to work with NGA on research and develop curriculum for careers in the field.

Area universities will be deepening their involvement in the geospatial sector, with seven partnering to form the new Taylor Institute: SLU, Harris-Stowe State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University.

SLU will house the Taylor Geospatial Institute, though the institute will operate as its own nonprofit with its own director, for which it will conduct a national search.

Though it will be based at SLU, the new institute is “much bigger than any one university,” said SLU President Fred Pestello. He likened it to the area’s success in ag tech, which, in addition to anchor employers and universities, also built off a private research institute.

“Much like plant science, you need the research that you then apply to commercial applications,” Pestello said. “Without this piece of it, I don’t think St. Louis would be able to become the leader it aspires to be in geoscience and not really be able to take advantage of the enormous, tremendous asset we have with the NGA.”

The other institution partnering on the Taylor Institute is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a private research institute that Hall and Pestello said is similar to the vision for the new Taylor Geospatial Institute. It was founded by another St. Louis family, the Danforths, and it helps draw top researchers and funds foundational research for the industry.

Geospatial tech has plenty of applications in plant and agricultural technology that the center can help develop. But more broadly, the hope is that the Taylor Geospatial Institute can replicate some of the success St. Louis has had in plant science for the geospatial sector. An investigator at the Danforth Center, for instance, co-founded the now publicly traded Benson Hill.

“Communities that really get ahead in an industry,” Hall said, are “where the ‘new’ is getting created.”

Originally posted at 11:15 a.m. Thursday, April 21.

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