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‘A critical mass of companies’

Geospatial

From left: Elango Thevar, founder of NEER; Stratodyne co-founders Ed Ge, Victoria Lofland, Bryce Edmondson; and Whitney McClendon-Gregory of Eemerg.

Since launching Stratodyne in July 2020, Ed Ge and his co-founders have focused on what farmers would be interested to see from the vantage points of their startup’s autonomous balloons.

But Ge, a junior at the University of Missouri in Columbia, is also thinking about how the technology could be useful for gathering information on things other than soil quality and crop disease.

“There is a huge need for real-time geospatial analytics, real-time data, in the defense and national security space. So essentially, we could go from predicting and analyzing plant growth to doing the same thing with infrastructure and strategic assets,” said Ge, 21.

That sort of aspiration is what leaders of the St. Louis-based startup competition Arch Grants had in mind when the organization decided in 2019 to begin awarding at least five of its grants to geospatial companies each year.

The nonprofit organization provides $50,000 grants to startups that agree to keep their headquarters in St. Louis for at least one year. It zeroed in on that sector because the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is building its western headquarters — a $1.75 billion project — in north St. Louis.

“Our whole mission at Arch Grants is to spur the local economy by way of entrepreneurs and innovative startups, so we look for complementary sectors and growing assets in a region and try to target specific companies that can leverage those assets in their growth,” said Gabe Angieri, Arch Grants director of development and operations.

“Making sure that we have a critical mass of companies in the geospatial sector became a high priority for us,” Angieri said.

The 2020 Arch Grants cohort, announced in October, consists of 19 companies, five of which operate in the geospatial tech sector. Along with Stratodyne, those companies are:

  • Eemerg, a membership-free roadside assistance service
  • Hum Industrial Technology, which has developed a wireless-sensor system for freight railcars
  • Kwema, which sells wearables to companies to try to improve employee safety
  • NEER, which provides artificial intelligence for water systems.

The other 2020 Arch Grants recipients are:

  • 3D Gloop!, which creates adhesives and coatings for manufacturing and 3D printing
  • ATR Thrive, which offers supplements to assist complete digestion of milk products
  • Bloom, which creates customizable beauty products
  • Bold Xchange, a platform to buy products from Black-owned businesses online
  • Disruptel, an artificial intelligence-technology provider
  • Flipstik, an accessory that allows you to stick your phone to virtually any flat surface
  • Inclusively, an employment platform for people with disabilities
  • Labsland, which connects schools and universities with laboratories around the world
  • Mission Control, a software platform that enables organizations to build community through recreational e-sports
  • Mosaic, which aggregates electronic medical record data
  • Native Pet, which offers organic supplements for dogs (See “My Biggest Mistake”)
  • Rebundle, which sells eco-friendly synthetic braiding hair
  • ServiceTarget, a self-service application developer
  • Well Principled, an artificial intelligence consultant that optimizes marketing and supply chain strategy for major consumer packaged-goods brands and retailers.

Geospatial technology refers to the monitoring of activity around the planet using satellites, balloons, drones, remote sensors and other machines. The field also relies on geographic information systems for capturing and displaying data from the Earth’s surface, and in the United States, on software connected to the Global Positioning System, a network of satellites operated by the Department of Defense, which also oversees the NGA.

The federal agency’s new 97-acre campus, labeled Next NGA West, will feature an office building with more than 700,000 square feet of space, parking garages, a visitor’s center and areas for collaboration with the academic and business sectors. The complex is scheduled to be operating by 2025.

“The new campus will be a secure, flexible, cutting-edge intelligence facility that will put NGA in the heart of St. Louis’ growing geospatial ecosystem and help NGA take advantage of its biggest strengths, its people and partners,” NGA Director Vice Admiral Robert Sharp said in a statement when the agency broke ground for the campus in November 2019.

“NGA’s new campus will be built with spaces that will facilitate information-sharing and collaboration among NGA’s and St. Louis’ talented innovators,” Sharp said. “Working together, we can better achieve NGA’s mission of providing world-class geospatial intelligence to U.S. service members and leaders to keep our nation secure.”

Angieri predicts startups in the region will benefit from the new campus, which is projected to open in 2025, because more investors will come to St. Louis to look for geospatial business opportunities. The startups also could partner with the federal agency or larger companies such as Esri, a mapping-software company that in 2019 announced it would expand its office in St. Charles and add 40 jobs.

The new NGA project “is a great way to help build another industry cluster in St. Louis” alongside such sectors as agricultural technology, which already has a significant local presence, Angieri said.

Ge founded Stratodyne along with two fellow Mizzou undergraduates and a University of Michigan student. He spent the summer of 2018 working on a farm in Nebraska, and he realized that amidst the thousands of acres of arable land, “it’s almost impossible for a farmer to know what’s going on all the time,” he said.

“It’s really common for stuff to happen and for the farmer to lose hundreds of crops by the time he figures it out,” he said.

Using Stratodyne’s autonomous balloons, farms can monitor application of fertilizer and the chlorophyl index of plants, among other metrics.

Stratodyne also has applied to participate in the NGA’s inaugural St. Louis Geospatial Technology Accelerator, which provides a $100,000 grant, coworking space and investor connections. That’s part of the company’s pivot into the defense and surveillance space.

“We are working to reduce the timing between imaging from weeks to minutes . . . Not a lot can change on the farm between one day and the next, but a lot can change on the battlefield or in a conflict zone every single hour,” Ge said.

Akin to farmers with their crops, municipalities have difficulties in monitoring pipes and other parts of water systems, said civil engineer Elango Thevar. He founded NEER, a platform that uses machine-learning technology to predict where and when the next failure could occur.

As an Arch Grants recipient, Thevar was able to move his company from Kansas City to the new Geospatial Innovation Center at the T-REX building in downtown St. Louis. The five geospatial startups receive one year of complementary office space as part of their Arch Grants awards.

Thevar said he believes local public and private officials’ emphasis on the geospatial industry “definitely helps to attract the talent that we want to hire.”

He is discussing a pilot program with the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, and he sees a bevy of local mentoring and financial resources for companies in the industry “to help us scale in St. Louis at a tremendous value,” he said.

The ripple effects of the new NGA headquarters also have reached Saint Louis University, which in 2019 launched the Geospatial Institute, a center that provides research tools to spur innovation in the industry.

Whitney McClendon-Gregory, the founder of the Eemerg roadside assistance startup, has attended meetings organized by the institute to learn about the latest developments in geospatial technology, such as the ability to geolocate people infected with COVID-19 and identify hotspots.

“It’s just really informative to know how this technology is benefiting us — how it can help us,” said McClendon-Gregory, whose parents work in roadside assistance and whose uncle owns an auto body shop.

Her startup created an app that uses geolocation to pinpoint a driver who is stuck on the side of a road. That person can then view a marketplace of roadside assistance options and “pick the one that works best for your budget,” she said. Eemerg then dispatches a tow truck to help.

McClendon-Gregory and most of her family needed a different kind of assistance after they contracted COVID-19 following a Thanksgiving gathering. Two family members landed in the hospital, but they have since returned home.

“It was horrible, but now everyone is on the mend,” said McClendon-Gregory, who runs Eemerg with her husband, Dandre, the chief technology officer.

The pandemic not only threw a wrench into McClendon-Gregory’s life but also into the operations of other startups and to those of Arch Grants, given that many people are now working from home rather than interacting with other entrepreneurs and business leaders.

“The biggest challenge is not being able to host those in-person events and meetings,” Angieri said. “When you meet somebody and are able to engage on a one-on-one level, I think you develop stronger relationships.”

Still, as Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have become a routine part of daily life, Arch Grants has been able to engage successful entrepreneurs who otherwise wouldn’t have physically attended programs for professional development with its startup founders, Angieri said.

That’s not to say that the Arch Grants leaders hope this is the new normal for its recipients, who in pre-pandemic times would have been forging valuable professional and personal connections in the city while developing their companies.

“It’s really unfortunate that they can’t go out to the fantastic restaurants in St. Louis, that they can’t participate in the cultural experiences to the same degree that they were able to before the pandemic,” Angieri said.

“But we are hopeful that by the end of this year, the restrictions will loosen and our companies will be able to take full advantage of the resources in our area, and that in the meantime, we are able to demonstrate the value that Arch Grants is able to provide those companies and continue to make those valuable connections in St. Louis.”

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