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St. Louis focus on innovation has an eye on equity

February 15, 2024
By: Michele Hujber

Editor’s note: SSTI is committed to helping its members create economies that are equitable and inclusive. The following article is part of a series highlighting how different organizations ensure all people within their communities can benefit from today’s economy and lessons learned in their work.

There is a thriving biosciences industry in the St. Louis area: Pfizer produces its Covid-19 vaccine here; Bayer Cropscience, one of the world’s largest seed companies, has a research center here; and the McDonnell Genome Institute, where the largest share of the human genome project took place, is located here. Despite these assets, St. Louis is an older industrial economy that, noted Justin Raymundo, director of regional workforce strategy at BioSTL “has a really dark and difficult history around racial segregation and racial inequity and also a huge de-population of our urban core.”

Early in the 21st Century, when economic development planners were considering ways to rebuild the city’s economy, they wanted to ensure that everyone would be included in enjoying the benefits that would follow. They generated a 2030 jobs plan that placed inclusiveness front and center.

BioSTL, an independent nonprofit, is a public-private partnership that is the backbone of the bioscience innovation ecosystem that spearheaded the region's tech-based economic development strategies, said Raymundo. “Our goal is to build a world-class, globally connected and wholly inclusive innovation ecosystem to ensure that Saint Louis as a community thrives."

In a recent interview with SSTI, Raymundo shared how BioSTL approaches building equity into its work to revitalize the biosciences economy in St. Louis. He noted that he was speaking on behalf of BioSTL and the St. Louis metro bioscience ecosystem. Many of the strategies, which were developed through the guidance and in collaboration with intermediaries that represent historically excluded communities, may be relevant to other organizations nationwide that are working to rebuild an economy that includes diverse segments of the community.

Build governance structure for equitable impact

Planners should consider the governance structure of their own group, looking at who is at the table when they are making decisions. There should be a backbone organization that ensures equity and inclusion. This organization, Raymundo noted, could be a nonprofit like BioSTL, an economic development organization, or a research organization.

Other questions to ask within the planning group are whether you have the right teams, capabilities, and service providers to deliver equitable impact. Shoring up these aspects of the group is critical for building capacity for equitable impact.

Besides looking inward, planners should also look at the organizations within the community that are led by historically excluded groups or on behalf of those communities. They should consider whether these community organizations have the resources they need to sustain their work into their own communities and if not, find ways to get resources to them.

Ensure that excluded communities derive benefits from innovations

"Because all of this is about innovation, [your investment] is only as valuable as the ability to accrue benefits from the innovation," Raymundo said. "And if those benefits aren't distributed equitably, then you're going to erode the impact of that investment. And if you're intentionally or unintentionally investing in a space that creates structural barriers for people to access the benefits of that innovation community, then your framework should be able to identify mechanisms to address that."

Raymundo points out gaps in access to innovations, most notably in the healthcare and AgTech industries. These gaps exist in communities where people are experiencing the disadvantages of low-quality healthcare or antiquated, climate-change-impacted agricultural practices at a higher rate than wealthier communities. These communities are often in persistent poverty and marginalized along racial lines.

Mix programmatic funding with flexible dollars and resources

Raymundo warns that some funders only want to see metrics like the number of program participants and lose sight of the context in which the programs operate. When a target population needs a deeper level of support to become engaged in a training opportunity, a funder’s focus on participation metrics alone may limit an organization’s ability to design equitable programs.

"If somebody doesn't have a car or doesn't have access to childcare to get to that program, then they won't go through the program. … This [situation] leads, as we saw through COVID and even before, to structural inequities. That creates a ceiling for certain people," Raymundo said.

Raymundo suggests mixing programmatic investments and long-term capital to address shortfalls in programmatic funding. "We've gotten funding from the Department of Labor or EDA to stand up a program, and then we use some of that more patient, flexible, fungible capital to fund some of the wraparound support so I can stand up a great training program that might have 100% placement rate."

Enable equitable participation in the innovation ecosystem

This strategy is mainly applied through working on equitable and inclusive workforce development. Achieving this goal involves getting more people of color from target communities with persistent poverty to access quality jobs.

Think through where the organization is investing its capital.

Funders can choose to invest in organizations that will support startups that women or people of color lead. Also, by investing selectively, funders can ensure that organizations have the resources to support underrepresented people in the community. Thus, underrepresented people will have more opportunities to participate in the innovation ecosystem.


This article was prepared by SSTI using Federal funds under award ED22HDQ3070129 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.


equity, economic development