T-REX evolves, expands to help grow St. Louis’ startup scene | Crain's St. Louis

T-REX evolves, expands to help grow St. Louis’ startup scene

The Lammert Building in downtown St. Louis is home to the T-REX coworking space and technology incubator. | Photo by Derek Lee/Crain's St. Louis

When the Lammert Building came to life in 1898, Nabisco, International Paper and Goodyear Tire were fledgling firms.

In the 119 years since, American entrepreneurialism has changed dramatically – and the downtown St. Louis landmark that’s now home to T-REX, one of the city’s highest-profile business incubators, is evolving to keep pace.

T-REX’s leaders are planning to build out and renovate additional space in the historic eight-story headquarters to meet the needs of current tenants and attract new firms seeking space in the St. Louis startup community. The incubator – which provides entrepreneurs affordable and flexible space, as well as programming to inspire and support those in the startup scene – began in 2011 in leased space in the Railway Exchange Building. The nonprofit purchased the Lammert Building in 2013 and moved in the following year.

“From the very beginning, we have been working on renovating the building, updating the systems, then building out additional space to make room for the startups and the companies and agencies that support them to advance the startup movement in the St. Louis area and, specifically, downtown,” said Patty Hagen, T-REX’s executive director. “There were 80 companies here when we moved from the Railway Exchange Building. Now we have over 200 and we’ve run out of space in terms of what can be utilized here.”

The nonprofit has commissioned Arcturis, an architectural design collaborative headquartered in St. Louis, to lead the project, which doesn’t yet have a tentative budget. The build-out plan currently encompasses around 9,500 square feet, but could be expanded before hammers start swinging.

For now, the work will be focused on the unrenovated third floor, which will be transformed into office space for new startups and meeting space for T-REX tenants and others in the community, said Michelle Rotherham, director for interior design at Arcturis. The firm has begun the build out by engaging T-REX users in a design charrette – a collaborative planning process to gather ideas and feedback on their hopes and vision for the space.    

“I’ve been really excited to work with this group of innovators who are really enthusiastic about the next steps for the space,” Rotherham said. “It’s really energizing when you get a lot of people who volunteer to come to a design charrette versus being volun-told to be there.”

T-REX tenants and others involved in early planning sessions have been providing feedback that helped establish guiding principles for the project. Their early involvement will give them a sense of empowerment during the process and ownership of the end result, Rotherham said. It will also give Arcturis a better idea of how to allocate funds for the project once the budget is set.

Not surprisingly, T-REX tenants emphasized a desire for flexible workspace and technology that will allow them to easily do everything from conduct videoconferences to create podcasts.

“The work the companies are doing is already innovative and groundbreaking, so the space itself has to allow them to do their best work. Making sure their environment supports them in that from a technology standpoint is important,” Rotherham said. “We just need to figure out ways to make the space work for them and instead of them working for the space.”

Given its age, some aspects of the Lammert Building weren’t the best fit for startups and the way their employees often want to work in collaborative spaces while still having access to alcoves of quiet and privacy. Although Arcturis is still working on renderings, Rotherham expects plans to showcase moveable walls, large doors or similar features that add flexibility and make the space uniquely suited to startups.

“So  I think that’s going to be a huge selling point for new companies that, not only is this space new, but it’s designed for their type of work,” she said.

Further along in the process, T-REX will appoint a design committee to review and approve aspects of the design. If everything continues to move forward on schedule, Rotherham expects the build-out to be completed by the first quarter of next year.

Current tenants and T-REX alumni alike are excited about the expansion plans. The goal is to attract even more startups downtown and keep them there, not only during infancy, but as they mature.

Entrepreneurs say factors including affordability, flexibility in leases and a staff that understands the trials and tribulations of running a startup have helped pave the way for their progress.

"T-REX and its community have made a major impact on the growth of our company here at Hatchbuck,” said Jonathan Herrick, co-founder and chief sales and marketing officer for current T-REX tenant Hatchbuck, which provides small companies with customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing software. “It's exciting to see continued investment into the St. Louis ecosystem with these latest improvements. The continued development will give more startups the resources they need to succeed."

Those resources proved critical for Less Annoying CRM, which provides software to help companies manage customer information. Less Annoying CRM moved to St. Louis from San Francisco in 2014 and leased its first-ever office space in the T-REX building.

Although the tech company “graduated” from T-REX into its own office downtown, co-founder and CEO Tyler King and others at the tech firm stayed connected to the community for a variety of reasons.

“For starters, I'm a big believer in the idea that every ecosystem needs a hub,” he said. “Downtown is the hub of St. Louis, and T-REX is the hub of downtown. I want to support that as much as I can so that the next generation of startups in St. Louis can have all of the advantages that we had. I also stay connected with them because the staff of T-REX and the events held there continue to provide value even after we left.”

St. Louis can’t take its startup success for granted, though. So such investments and improvements in the startup infrastructure are critical if the city wants to woo entrepreneurs in years to come, King said.

“We need to double down on the things that make the St. Louis startup scene truly unique, and the things that give our future entrepreneurs a competitive advantage,” he said. “T-REX is one of those things, and I think that their expansion and continued success is critical to the overall success of the St. Louis startup scene.”

July 17, 2017 - 5:37pm