Creative Business Clusters in St. Louis

Creative clusters are areas of the city that are especially dense with professional talent and expertise due to large employer networks and facilities to support them. They differ from innovation districts insofar as they have not been completely formalized by the city: you could think of creative clusters as ‘informal’ innovation districts or “emerging neighborhoods.”

Where innovation districts are built upon anchor coalitions between nonprofits, educational institutions and corporate partners, who have successfully persuaded the City government to recognize the zone, creative clusters have all the same components but are still in early discussions with the city.

In St. Louis, there are many creative clusters that represent non-”tech” industries. As these communities are still in their early formation stages, creative clusters provide even more local leadership opportunities for intrepid entrepreneurs to make an impact and recruit support from huge allied organizations.

As with all creativity, the value of creative clusters is always worth more than the sum of its parts, so expect to gain more support than you can dream of just by offering your own helping hand. Below is an adventurer’s guide to these emerging new districts of innovation in St. Louis and some brief introductions to the organizations you should connect with.

Garment District

Taking great strides to revitalize the historic Garment District, once known as “Shoe Street USA” and second only to New York City in clothing sales, Downtown STL, St. Louis Development Corporation and the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, are renovating five buildings to create four storefronts and a business incubator space for talented fashion designers to launch new clothing brands.

Oh yeah, and that historic International Shoe Building we mentioned? It’s now a gorgeous boutique hotel boasting a rooftop cocktail bar and spectacular view.

Fashion Ecosystem

Amidst all the renovation the St. Louis garment district is successfully attracting talent and investment too. So, if you’ve got the eye for it you’ll be in good company.

Alongside a wave of fashion companies like The Normal Brand, MakersValley, Allison Mitchell and Demestik, who have relocated their business here, St. Louis boasts three shark tank winners (Best Wardrobe Solutions, Myself Belts and PurseCase) who are all fashion “tech” companies.

And you don’t need to be on TV to win: Lux & Nyx successfully crowdfunded a designer backpack for working women and has seen continued traction.

And that’s not all, recently over $17M was invested in downtown incubated Direct-to-Consumer swimwear company, SummerSalt.

Gigabit Corridor

As we all know, the internet is a series of tubes. It’s not a big truck. Somehow the immortal words of United States Senator Ted Stevens somewhat accurately describe downtown St. Louis.

That’s because Tucker Boulevard, which has conveyed many big trucks to and fro across the Mississippi, also happens to have… wait for it… a lot of internet tubes running under it. No joke. Stretching from the Cardinal’s Stadium at Ball Park Village all the way down to The Globe Building are enormous fiber-optic cables that snake under the city to deliver nothing short of “crazy-fast” internet speeds.

How? When the USA was wired up for fiber, it followed the rail lines. Formerly serving as the Midwest Terminal Building for the Illinois Railroad, what was built as a distribution center for physical commodities such as hay and lumber in 1933 —the staples of a past era’s economy— is now a destination for the growing data-center industry. Datotel and Hostirian are two of the data centers currently located at the Globe Building, all anchor tenants of St. Louis’ emerging innovation district: the Gigabit Corridor.

Gaming Ecosystem

Ever heard of the original eSports leviathan League of Legends? Yep, that’s made right here by Riot Games. Ever played the indie gaming hit, Levelhead? Yep, same same: Butterscotch Shenanigans. Ever loved old Atari games like Rollercoaster Tycoon and wished you could play it on your phone? My dude; Graphite Lab.

If you just want to play something there are arcade game bars all over the city. But if you want to make games in St. Louis? Hoo Boy.

You’ll be following in the footsteps of the kickstarter legend Jamey Stegmaier from Stonemaier Games (yep, the board game designer behind Scythe and Wingspan). Or go a step further like Pixel Press and bring your board game drawings to life.

From the VR/AR Association meetings to St. Louis Game Developer Co-op supported events like PixelPop, Shenanicon or GameJam, whatever video games you’re into; whether that be indie games, eSports, virtual reality or “toys-to-life” concepts, there’s a network of creators to support you.

The winning startup ecosystem and critical mass of video game companies in St. Louis is creating an inflection point for gaming entrepreneurs. Household names in gaming are attracting new talent while raw talent is being nurtured right on your doorstep.

Creative Core

In the halcyon days of Budweiser and Anheuser Busch, St. Louis was an “old PR” town and the roots of that history still show themselves today. For example, when the Impossible Burger was first launched in McDonald’s the first city to get it in the whole of the United States was St. Louis. We don’t know why exactly, but there’s an “old PR” theory that if it works here, you can make it work anywhere.

It’s also a little known fact that the second Disney theme park was planned in St. Louis. However, it is said that Walt himself fell out with the Busch family over not serving beer and took Disney World to Florida. The story may be apocryphal but he’s not alone in envisioning a transformational and creative destination on the banks of the big muddy.

Marketing Ecosystem

PGAV Destinations, the brains behind Busch Garden’s Cheetah Hunt, some of the new attractions at SeaWorld, and now the new St. Louis Aquarium, has its headquarters downtown.

The leadership team at PGAV believes St. Louis exhibits a “Creative Core,” saying that within a 10-15 block radius of the City there is a dense cluster of over 130 creative firms specializing in advertising, PR, multimedia, digital marketing, and design.

Not only does the concentration of thriving creative firms like FleishmanHillard, CannonDesign, Toky, Mooslyvania, and successful startups like Vidzu, Elasticity and GenieCast, offer a powerful lure to top creatives, but these professional networks are mobilizing a deep talent pool to re-imagine city spaces both physically and virtually.

From renovating entire neighborhoods and turning antique gas stations into hipster offices, to beaming in motivational speakers (and even political activists) to deliver leadership talks via hologram, if transforming a city sounds like a dream you can get on-board with, come meet your allies… at the MDMC, the largest digital marketing conference in the midwest.

Foodpreneur Ecosystem

The St. Louis restaurant scene frequently makes the nation’s “Ten Best” rankings in major newspapers like USA Today. Foodpreneurs will find the region to be incredibly supportive of their food startups as St. Louis is home to top chefs such as Gerard Craft, food-chain investors like Michael Staenberg (Lion’s Choice), and publications such as Feast, Sauce and St. Louis Magazine.

Food trucks can thrive from increasing inner-city green spaces, such as Cortex Commons, as a result of the pedestrianization of innovation districts. Now with shared kitchen spaces such as STL Foodworks and a thriving gig economy to handle deliveries, St. Louis food startup ecosystem is set to expand with “ghost kitchens” and “virtual restaurants.”

And it’s not all BBQ in these parts. With a long history of welcoming and rehoming refugees, from Bosnia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan and a prestigious university network St. Louis’ culinary tastes are truly global. You’ll find amazing Italian food in The Hill, delicious Lebanese cuisine in Central West End and mind-blowing Chinese and Taiwanese at the borders of U-City and Creve Coeur.

But goshdarnit the BBQ is good. Join the pitmasters every year, at Q In the Lou in Downtown St. Louis to attack 18,000 pounds of meat.

Delmar Maker District

A maker district is a network of maker spaces concentrated in one area. In these wildly creative climates you can expect to find a festival of artists, breweries, bakeries and farmer’s markets. Anchored by Third Degree Glass Factory, MADE STL, The Magic House @ MADE, and Craft Alliance, Delmar Maker District aims to centralize a community of Makers, Artists, Designers, and Entrepreneurs.

Maker Ecosystem

St. Louis’s maker ecosystem is a hidden gem that spans the entire city. Driven by a highly engaged community, the makerspaces that support them are on a mission to democratize access to the tools of innovation.

A linchpin of the maker community is Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, who legend has it, developed the first prototype to Square in a community workshop. His story is proof that tinkering is not a hobby reserved for a garden shed, but an active process of analysis that can lead to wildly successful outcomes.

For makers with products to sell, Venture Cafe frequently hosts maker fairs at Cortex Commons and We The People and The OC offer space to sell your wares. The opportunities and spaces available keep expanding with new developments like the Delmar Maker District.

North City

Starved of investment due to institutional and political inertia North City has been blighted by decades of neglect. However, following the announcement that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is relocating its headquarters to St. Louis, momentum is gathering to invest in the area. Although the Equity Ecosystem in St. Louis operates across the entire city, these organizations are leading the charge in having North City recognized as a new innovation district.

Equity Ecosystem

While St. Louis’s startup ecosystem predates the “Fergusion unrest” of 2014, it would be remiss not to recognize how much this landmark event galvanized the St. Louis business community at large to not only start acknowledging the systemic factors that contributed to the unrest (yes, institutionalized racism, poverty and prejudice), but actually do something about it.

Systemic change is inevitably slow and difficult but St. Louis’ community leaders from business, nonprofit and institutional sectors, have worked tirelessly to erode the barriers to entrepreneurship that people of color face.

Emerging out of BioSTL’s Inclusion Initiative the Vision Conference has become a regular annual event that can boast itself to be “the region’s largest and ONLY Inclusion Innovation Conference that celebrates, educates, and supports women, people of color, and immigrant emerging entrepreneurs and existing business owners building STEM-focused ventures.”

Similarly, BioSTL’s efforts to form the St. Louis Equity In Entrepreneurship Collective, a coalition of twelve regional nonprofit and governmental organizations led the city to win the nation’s first Kauffman Inclusion Challenge and almost $1M in funding to “ensure that St. Louis’ high-tech, high-growth entrepreneurial pathways are open for all to participate and benefit.”

Venture Cafe has consistently played an important role too, maintaining regular free business education programming every week. And recently the city has seen the formation of the Diverse Business Accelerator from the St. Louis Regional Chamber and WEPOWER’s Elevate/Elevar accelerator program to support Black and Latinx business owners.

The Counties

Women-led Ecosystem

It’s a little known fact, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs (ASE) data that St. Louis leads the nation in the number of female-founded startups. And by a much larger margin than other cities in the United States too: St. Louis boasts over 45% of startups led by women, which is more than 10% more than the second-highest city ranked.

That’s a testament to the foundational work that Cultivation Capital and Prosper Women Entrepreneurs started some moons ago. Although St. Louis’ two flagship female founder networks, Prosper and Brazen, are no longer operating the women-owned business community continues to thrive through other long-standing communities based in the counties, such as Black Dress Circle, Rise Collaborative Workspace and Gateway to Dreams.