038: Dennis Lower (Cortex Innovation Community)

Dennis Lower on Innovation City

“It’s all about developing horizontal relationships and creating an innovation community. The buildings will come if you create the community of innovators.” — Dennis Lower

Welcome to Innovation City—powered by Venture Cafe—where Tyler Kelley and Michael Johnson, Co-Founders of SLAM! Agency, interview innovators, creators, and disruptors to discover how business is changing in the modern world.

Created and produced by SLAM! Agency in conjunction with Venture Cafe St. Louis and Venture Cafe Miami, Innovation City gives you an inside look at how rapidly business and culture are changing thanks to increasing diversity and inclusion, heightened creativity, and a stronger and better-connected business community.

Today’s guest is Dennis Lower, President & CEO of the Cortex Innovation Community. Dennis has been involved in technology-based economic development since 1995, planning and developing university-sponsored urban innovation districts in Louisiana and New Jersey before coming to the Cortex. Dennis sits down with Tyler and Michael to talk about what makes a good innovation district, how they get built, and how to incorporate a variety of different environments to design a dynamic, porous, vibrant community that sparks ideas and allows entrepreneurs to thrive.

The Cortex Innovation Community is the Midwest’s premier hub for research and innovation in the fields of bioscience and technology. It is also the home of Venture Cafe St. Louis, the largest gathering of entrepreneurs and innovators anywhere in the world. Venture Cafe meets every Thursday from 3-8pm on the 2nd floor of 4240 Duncan Ave., St. Louis, MO 63110.

They discuss:

  • How Venture Cafe St. Louis brings in 500+ people every week
  • Dennis’ background developing two other innovation districts; in Louisiana and New Jersey
  • Why The Cortex has most potential of the three innovation districts he has worked on
  • Connecting people in a manner that allows for creative collisions
  • Getting people to the table who wouldn’t normally be there
  • Being the Chief Mythologizer of the Innovation Movement
  • Joining The Cortex at a time when it was struggling to find traction
  • The difference between innovation districts and business parks, and why The Cortex Innovation Community couldn’t succeed while thinking of itself as the latter
  • The importance of building an innovation community before building the buildings
  • The power of programming; bocce, yoga, chess tournaments, conferences on IP, marketing, SEO, social media and more
  • The over 350 companies currently at The Cortex
  • Full development of the district will see over 600 businesses
  • Filling the four buckets: Live. Work. Play. Learn.
  • Bringing in the Cambridge Innovation Center for their first expansion outside of Kendall Square
  • Investing in Labs, bringing in Accelerators
  • Creating a sense of place, both on the inside and on the outside
  • Creating collision points
  • Creating diversity in the environment to provide a sense of excitement, then giving people the space they need to create and innovate
  • The story of Dennis’ path to joining The Cortex
  • Looking at what the St. Louis region had to offer before moving here
  • Dennis’ challenge: connecting all the amazing opportunities that St. Louis has to offer that were living in isolated silos when he arrived
  • Orchestrating a vision that helped bring companies to the table
  • St. Louis’ strong civic sensibility
  • The importance of getting people to believe in something
  • Being as entrepreneurial as they ask client companies to be
  • Listening to their clients (resident businesses) and trying to engineer innovative solutions
  • Dennis’ 10-year vision for innovation in St. Louis
  • The Brookings Institution’s praise for The Cortex Innovation Community
  • Serving as the platform for other entrepreneurs
  • Why St. Louis is not another Silicon Valley, but rather a unique innovation location with it’s own unique challenges and opportunities
  • St. Louis’ Fortune 500 companies
  • Having all the elements you need to keep feeding the fire
  • Becoming globally-recognized as an innovation hot spot
  • Helping businesses step up carefully and responsibly
  • Creating a more porous community with better access, more opportunity, and better racial equity
  • Innovation Hall, part of the 4220 Building, opening November 9th, offers other organizations the opportunity to hold meetings in the district, allowing for greater collisions between people and ideas
  • The Chocolate Pig, a restaurant/caterer from Bissinger’s Chocolate
  • Having Microsoft as an anchor tenant
  • How quickly office space in The Cortex fills up, and the joys and struggles of managing growing demand for more