Written by Amanda Maher
At first glance, St. Louis might not appear to have much in common with technology and product development centers like Silicon Valley, Austin, New York City, Boston and Toronto. But in the shadows of these innovation hubs, St. Louis is making strides to develop its own innovation economy.
Last month’s ProductCamp St. Louis further illustrates this trend. Hosted by the private nonprofit organization St. Louis Makes, ProductCamp St. Louis is considered the premier annual event for any St. Louis company that builds, designs, markets or manages a product or service. Unlike a traditional industry event, ProductCamp has no set agenda. As participants show up for the free event, they vote on any number of 40+ potential workshops. The “unconference”’s user-driven format ensures that attendees get the most out of the day by learning from industry experts and connecting with their peers.
The growing innovation economy in St. Louis still has ties to the aforementioned cities. After all, ProductCamp was first launched in Silicon Valley, and this year it was held at CIC St. Louis. CIC, as some may know, stands for the Cambridge Innovation Center – a Kendall Square-based mecca for Boston-area startup companies. But the fact that CIC opened a St. Louis office is also representative of local growth. What differentiates St. Louis from the other cities touting their high-tech talent, however, is that St. Louis’s strong manufacturing infrastructure makes it an ideal place for production.
Long considered a business-friendly state, Missouri is home to manufacturing juggernauts such as GM, Kawasaki and Honeywell. Recently, Boeing announced plans to expand its St. Louis facilities with a new design and manufacturing center expected to create 700 jobs. Meanwhile, companies like Emerson Electric and SunEdison are paving the way for advances in electromechanical and silicon products, respectively.
Yet in many ways, St. Louis sees the writing on the wall: the U.S. manufacturing can be volatile; some cities have seen their industrial bases shrivel dramatically. In an attempt to prevent the same fate, St. Louis is proactively integrating its emerging innovation economy with its already robust manufacturing economy.
Many of these efforts are spearheaded by St. Louis Makes, the host of ProductCamp.
St. Louis Makes is a volunteer-based organization that brings together the St. Louis entrepreneurial, manufacturing and leadership communities to provide a range of services for the manufacturing community, including product management, new product innovation and business development. Albeit an important one, ProductCamp is just one of the many events and programs that St. Louis Makes has to offer. St. Louis Makes has partnered with firms like Hedgehog (web development), Contegix (IT Hosting), The Mission Center (Accounting) and GoBrandGo! (Marketing) to offer the production community a range of services to help their companies grow and thrive. The nonprofit is also considering a workforce development component that would help train local residents to ensure that St. Louis area manufacturing companies have access to a talented pool of employees.
According to BLS data, while the U.S. manufacturing economy grew by 1.9% from January 2014 to January 2015, the St. Louis metro area experienced nearly double that growth, clocking in at 4.2%. These are well-paying jobs; even during periods of economic recession, St. Louis’s manufacturing employees have experienced real wage gains, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
While other cities seem focused on developing the latest, most revolutionary technologies, St. Louis has positioned itself not only as a place ripe for creativity, but also a place where innovative products can then be developed. This multi-faceted approach helps to create a complimentary mix of employment and job opportunities for residents of many skill- and income-levels.