Innovation holds the promise of improving our lives in many respects and has been a defining feature of St. Louis for generations. This characteristic remains just as strong today as the city stands as a model for transforming from an older, industrial city into one driven by a new tech economy and a demonstrated openness to innovation.
It is this history of innovation that has led a national organization that advocates for autonomous vehicles as a way of reducing U.S. oil dependence to select St. Louis to launch an important national discussion on how this new technology might impact communities in the Midwest.
For generations, American prosperity relied on the industrial foundations of our nation’s heartland. Embracing cutting-edge technology, the Midwest powered growth on the domestic front and exported products worldwide. Yet, in the absence of competition, some of the very companies that led St. Louis’ growth in the last century ceased to innovate or increase productivity — and are no longer growth engines for our region.
Now we see sustained investment in startups and in a new innovation economy that has become synonymous with the industrial Midwest’s dynamic future. St. Louis has reestablished itself as a leader between the two coasts and as a city of innovation focused on startups. A bevy of incubators and industry-specific accelerators like Yield Lab (agtech), SixThirty (financial-services tech and cyber) and Stadia Ventures (sportstech) have emerged, along with new funding dedicated to helping entrepreneurs survive their fragile early years. BioSTL’s investment arm BioGenerator has invested more than $22 million to St. Louis-based bioscience startups, attracting more than $800 million in follow-on capital from around the world.
Even though Boston, San Francisco and New York seem to dominate the tech industry limelight, many Midwest industrial cities are hotbeds of crucial research. According to the Brookings Institution, St. Louis, in particular, draws nearly 14 times more funding per capita ($1,350) from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation than the U.S. urban county average of $96.80.
St. Louis will benefit by learning from our past and continuing to innovate across all platforms so as not to be outdone by competitors. We’ve undergone a cultural change and now are known as a city that embraces a wide range of creative entrepreneurs in a wide range of domains.
One such technology to keep an eye on is autonomous vehicles, which hold the promise of significant benefits in safety, mobility and efficiency. National advocacy organization Securing America’s Future Energy tracks the impact of autonomous vehicles technology, concluding that the vehicles have the potential to generate benefits totaling $850 billion per year by 2050. More importantly, the report has proposed that autonomous vehicles might become the next catalyzing technology that produces a step change in American economic productivity, in much the same way as the intercontinental railroad, the Interstate Highway System and the internet — benefits that could be magnified exponentially with St. Louis’ flourishing innovation economy.
Yet, as with any technology that has automation at its core, workers greet the vehicles with a dose of skepticism. While the report anticipates the self-driving cars will have a “muted” impact on the U.S. labor force, diffused over a 30-year period, achieving consensus warrants robust conversations around this burgeoning technology. St. Louis is proud to be at the center of these discussions about vehicle automation and its impact on communities, with BioSTL joining with Securing America’s Future Energy and the Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity to co-host a town hall-style event on Tuesday.
While St. Louis will undoubtedly benefit from sustained investment in innovation, a role as a thought leader and convener around cutting-edge technologies can accelerate St. Louis’ resurgence as a national center for innovation — adding to its status as the leader of the industrial Midwest’s innovation-driven resurgence.
Donn Rubin is the president and CEO of BioSTL, an organization driving innovation and the entrepreneur ecosystem in St. Louis.