The pandemic may not yet be in the rearview, but that hasn’t stopped a coalition of St. Paul-area officials from reigniting a dormant business initiative that once aimed to install 200,000 square feet of new co-working and “innovation-related” commercial space throughout the capital city.
Full Stack St. Paul was launched in 2017 to advance the work of the city’s Innovation Cabinet, which developed a five-page action plan around “people, places and promotion.” The goal at the time was to recruit techies, entrepreneurs and other new talent, prep real estate to better accommodate innovative new businesses, and market the city as a potential startup hub.
“Right about the time that the steering committee turned its sights to ‘what’s next,’ the COVID-19 pandemic started, so the committee took a pause in 2020,” said Shannon Watson, vice president of public affairs for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, a key partner. “But now they’re back.”
The Full Stack steering committee recently added new members, including Srinivas Somayajula, a vice president of Global Technology Partnerships with Ecolab, who will co-chair the committee alongside Chamber President B. Kyle, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert.
There’s also a new and refreshed website, fullstacksaintpaul.com, and “a renewed focus on leveraging the power of tech and innovation to drive equitable, resilient economic development in St. Paul,” Watson said. “The good thing about COVID-19 is that it really amplified the importance of technology, it forced a lot of innovative thinking, and the tech and innovation scene in St. Paul is coming out of the pandemic stronger than ever.”
That innovation didn’t just spring from tech companies. Diane Rucker, executive director of University Enterprise Labs (UELMN.org), a life-science and health care business incubator on Westgate Drive, pointed to the example of how restaurants pivoted to curb-side delivery during the pandemic. “One restaurant included a toilet paper roll with every delivery, or an add-on mask if you wanted one,” she said. “Hyacinth St. Paul limited their menu. They chose a single-meal concept you could purchase, and they limited the number of those. They not only created an artificial demand, but it was ‘hurry up and get your order in while you can.’ ”
“If you looked at the groups that have thrived in the last year and a half, they said we’re going to look at our traditional business plan, and we’re going to go sideways,” Rucker added. “Every business has had to revisit what they do, who they do it for and how they do it. That’s created some really cool innovations we hadn’t expected.”
Additional new members of the Full Stack committee include Paul Campbell, co-founder of Brown Venture Group; Ling Becker, executive director of Ramsey County Workforce Solutions; Phil Haan, a St. Paul-based business consultant and retired Delta Air Lines executive; Stephanie Hammes, a senior vice president of innovation with U.S. Bank; Caroline Karanja, chief executive officer of Hack the Gap and 26 Letters; Jeff Aguy, founder of 2043 and NCXT, and Angela Casselton, executive director of the Creative Enterprise Zone.
NEW REAL ESTATE FOR INNOVATION
Back in 2017, the Full Stack committee set the ambitious goal of attracting 2,000 tech-related jobs to the city by the year 2020. It also aimed to hit refresh on St. Paul’s real estate offerings by increasing co-working desks and other “innovation-related” commercial space by 200,000 square feet. To connect entrepreneurs socially and professionally, Full Stack envisioned hosting or promoting 50 innovation-focused events annually throughout the city. A fourth goal focused on highlighting the city’s innovators every year through 2020.
But the events of the past year all but emptied out downtown and put some of that energy on pause, yet a three-page Innovation Cabinet report indicates that each of the four goals has been achieved.
Tolbert, the St. Paul council member, recalled a Full Stack meeting that was scheduled to be held shortly after business lockdowns were ordered statewide in early 2020. Rather than cancel the meeting, participants pivoted.
“We did a bricks and mortar program, helping people in the tech community connect to people in the restaurant community, especially early on in the pandemic when their services went online,” he said. “It was all on a volunteer-basis.”
Tolbert added, “The need for tech investment and innovation investment in this community is even bigger now as we try to navigate the changing business landscape.”
“We’ve made some really good progress,” said Michael Webster, a second vice president of digital technology and customer experience with Securian Financial. He pointed to a partnership between Securian, Allianz Insurance and Gener8tor to create the “OnRamp Insurance Accelerator,” a leg-up for startups and innovators related to the insurance industry. “It’s anybody who thinks they have a great idea to help improve the customer experience and run our businesses.”
Last September, Bio-Techne opened a $50 million, 60,000-square-foot facility on Empire Drive, where lab-grown recombinant proteins, or GMP proteins, are produced for sale to manufacturers and life-science companies conducting clinical trials.
Last October, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it would allocate $87.5 million to launch BioMADE, a non-medical bio-industrial manufacturing institute housed at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Science’s Cargill Building in St. Paul. The initiative includes new lab space that is expected to break ground on the St. Paul campus this year.
Also in recent years, the Osborn370 building on Wabasha Street, the former Ecolab headquarters downtown, has become something of a startup hub for new tech and media businesses. Best Buy opened a teen tech center inside the St. Paul offices of the social services agency CLUES on East Seventh Street, and in downtown at Fourth and Cedar streets. The Coven — a co-working space that caters to women, trans and non-binary clients — opened on Western Avenue.
Securian has dedicated space within a floor of its downtown headquarters as a “prototype of a workplace of the future,” said Webster, with collaboration rooms, pods and reservation-only private areas.
Near the St. Paul border with Minneapolis, University Enterprise Labs added 19,000 square feet in 2019, bringing its total size to 144,000 square feet. It’s home to some 45 startup ventures, many of them lab-based business spin-offs that grew out of University of Minnesota faculty research. “It’s completely full,” Rucker said. “If we had more space, we’d have more startups that we could work with.”