Geospatial technology—tech-enabled earth mapping and aerial tracking analytics—has long been part of global intelligence operations, and is increasingly being used in industries from defense to transportation logistics, agriculture, and health care delivery. You might be surprised to learn that more and more of this technology is being developed in St. Louis, which is already seeing keen interest from tech accelerators and incubators—with venture capital funds likely soon on the hotfoot.
Where it’s at
Historically known as the “Gateway City” (to the American West), St. Louis may in fact be the Gateway to Industry 4.0. According to Andy Dearing, Project Lead for the GeoFutures Initiative, a strategic planning initiative that supports the region’s geospatial industry, and President of Spatial STL Advisors, a strategic consultancy, the longstanding presence of the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s Western headquarters (NGA West) and its affordable cost of living are competitive advantages to St. Louis startups as they discover scalable market applications for what has long been a government, defense and surveillance technology.
“As companies have come to learn the increasing value in knowing not just where things are but to where they are moving and how they relate to other data points, the use of geospatial technology has increased dramatically,” explains Dearing. “From location-based applications like Uber, Lyft, and Google Maps to mapping the condition of crops, geospatial technology is increasingly used in some way by nearly every major corporation.”
A recent baseline study conducted by research firm TEconomy Partners found that in the St. Louis region, geospatial technology accounted for over 27,000 jobs and nearly $5 billion in economic impact. That same study identified over 350 businesses and organizations working in the geospatial sector.
NGA West is currently building a new, $1.75 billion headquarters just north of the city’s Downtown district, a project due for completion in the next few years. Dearing says the facility is being intentionally constructed with space dedicated to promoting interaction between NGA employees and the private and academic sectors, designed to kickstart new startup growth.
Geospatial: The New Necessary
While geospatial technology aligns with nearly every other commercial sector, a strategic roadmap that GeoFutures recently developed for the St. Louis geospatial sector calls out a few specific industries that are already thriving in the region and actively deploying geospatial technology: national defense, transportation logistics, agriculture technology and precision farming, and health care delivery.
There are also promising new applications and areas for collaboration in fintech, insurance, and retail.
Health research is making increasing use of geospatial technology, where many St. Louis-based research institutions–including Washington University and GeoSLU, the geospatial center at St. Louis University–have led groundbreaking efforts to track the spread of covid-19.
From efforts including overall mapping and the tracking of data shared via social media, to gauging the effectiveness of mask mandates, Dearing says, GeoSLU has employed geospatial technology to help inform health officials and the public about the spread of the virus. In the near future, geospatial technology can be used to develop the most efficient methods of vaccine delivery and for tracking the efficacy of the vaccine itself.
Additionally, Dearing notes, NGA recently announced a partnership with tech incubator T-REX to establish Moonshot Labs, a non-profit development facility for innovation and entrepreneurism, that will advance efforts between NGA, industry and academia in the region.
Other initiatives include the formation of the St. Louis Area Working Group – an organization established in partnership with the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) that includes leaders from business, academia, and government that meets regularly to develop strategies to grow the sector in the region – to the creation of the GeoFutures Initiative – a strategic roadmap to guide the next decade of growth in St. Louis’ geospatial sector.
All point to what Dearing describes as an “unprecedented” level of public-private collaboration focused on the present and future of the geospatial sector across the St. Louis region.
“All this is to say that not only is the startup and existing geospatial sector in St. Louis strong, but it is prepared to grow exponentially in the coming years,” he says.
Make way for VC
Venture capital funds are becoming increasingly interested in geospatial, seeing the technology’s increasing market potential and St. Louis as the center for its development.
St. Louis-based Arch Grants, which provides equity free investments along with additional resources to help early-stage startups grow and scale, recently committed to adding a group of geospatial startups to its annual cohorts.
NGA and the Missouri Technology Corporation recently announced the creation of a new accelerator focused on geospatial technology. The accelerator will be operated by Capital Innovators and will drive research and development and commercialization of geospatial technologies and applications.
Technology innovation center T-REX has created the first in the nation geospatial innovation center, Geosaurus Geospatial Innovation Center powered by Bayer. In addition to Geosaurus, located on the 4th floor of T-REX, NGA recently announced a new geospatial technology lab of its own, located on the 3rd floor of T-REX. Moonshot Labs, will advance efforts between NGA, industry, and academia in the region.
Dearing says other venture capital firms are in the process of developing geospatial technology funds, which will be announced in the near future.
In addition to growing the size and scope of existing companies, Dearing says the city is firmly committed to attracting new geospatial technology firms to St. Louis.
The city’s economic development teams have identified various types and sizes of real estate space to assist firms of any size find the ideal location.
St. Louis can also accommodate needs for so-called SCIF space: sensitive compartmented information facility, which is required for some geospatial tech work. Dearing says that St. Louis is actively developing SCIF space across the region to meet growing future needs.
Additionally, nearly all of the region’s institutions of higher learning have developed or are developing programming related to geospatial. This means that businesses looking for workers will find both a trained workforce and major institutions ready to collaborate.
There are also existing innovation hubs like T-REX and Cortex, which are already home to geospatial firms and organizations, ready to assist entrepreneurs and established firms to gain a foothold in the fast-growing geospatial ecosystem
The city also offers training programs, including LaunchCode and Gateway Global, to train future workers in coding, data analysis, and other skills that geospatial firms will require.
Finally, Dearing explains, the St. Louis geospatial community has declared it a priority to put racial equity at the center of its economic growth plans.
“We have made inclusive growth and racial equity core components of our efforts to grow the geospatial sector here, in order to ensure that everyone in our community can take part in growth and prosperity,” he says.
The city’s business attraction organization, AllianceSTL, has created an easy-to-use webpage on its geospatial sector that provides additional information and contact information for anyone interested in locating a geospatial business in St. Louis.
“On top of our strengths in the geospatial sector, we boast an affordable cost of living, access to amenities, and welcoming community that make St. Louis a great place for geospatial tech firms to start up, stand out, and stay. There is a very supportive community here that wants to see a rising tide lift all boats and that is ready to help out with access to talent, space, and even investment support,” Dearing says.
“Our region speaks with one voice on geospatial issues, and we are working together to ensure we meet the needs of any geospatial firm looking to set up shop here.”