The location of a headquarters is rarely arbitrary, but for a building that will specialize in geospatial innovation and serve as a hub for the GEOINT industry, location is even more meaningful. Next NGA West will be located in St. Louis, Missouri, a city known for a shrinking urban core, challenges of segregation and the brain drain common to many cities not situated on the coasts.
But at the Geospatial Gateway Forum, USGIF convened a group of industry experts who are putting their faith in the Gateway to the West. Leaders from Booz Allen, RGi, Maxar, and Capital Innovators spoke with moderator Mark Munsell, chief technology officer for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) about the potential they see in St. Louis and the state of Missouri, and how they think about attracting and retaining geospatial technology talent in the region.
Munsell began the discussion by asking Booz Allen Hamilton Data Science & Artificial Intelligence Principal Eric Druker to discuss how his firm is facilitating the creation of a geospatial technology ecosystem in the city. NGA awarded Booz Allen two contracts in 2018, one for MOJAVE general support services and one for scientific research assistance. Druker explained how his team is making inroads to the local talent pool by reconsidering the way they talk about their work.
“What we think about is how we open the tent to empower those who are part of this community—who are not necessarily directly involved in geospatial but are in those related fields—to be able to provide value,” Druker said.
The solution Booz Allen is pursuing is to translate the geospatial lexicon into terminology more familiar to math and computer science majors graduating out of surrounding institutions.
“Analytic modeling looks at relationships between key intelligence questions and the evidence and indicators that can help answer them. In math, that touches graph theory. In computer science, it touches semantic web analysis,” Druker said. “We pull them in and help them see the common challenge. The more we can reach a common lexicon, the more we’re going to be able to expand this talent and innovation community beyond even the geospatial labs.”
RGi CEO Stephen Gillotte, who serves with Druker on the advisory committee for the Geospatial Innovation Center at T-REX technology entrepreneur center in St. Louis, added that the rehabbing of the Globe Building will be a boon for attracting more businesses like his that need on-demand SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility) space. While remote work has become the norm in many industries, especially during the pandemic, Gillotte said he hopes to counteract that trend by making St. Louis a dream job destination for talent and a cost-effective hub for GEOINT employers.
“We’re trying to create a snowball that really turns into an avalanche,” he said. “I say T-REX is more than just a hip workplace. It’s about providing the coaching and the collaboration to get entrepreneurs to create jobs in St. Louis.”
With those jobs, Gillotte said, hopefully internships will follow, giving young talent an entry point into the industry in the backyard. “Hopefully [students] create some roots here in the community, so they don’t have that temptation to move to a city an hour away from the ski slopes,” he said, referencing the West Coast’s digital hubs.
For a decade, Capital Innovators has had a footprint in St. Louis, where it has been providing accelerator services to tech start-ups. Its founder, Judy Sindecuse, was optimistic that St. Louis would be an excellent host to the new campus and GEOINT ecosystem for three reasons: pragmatism, support, and loyalty.
“The way we approach tech innovation in the Midwest is very much in a pragmatic, what-are-the-ROIs-that-we-can-get-out-of-the-technology-that-we’re-building way,” Sindecuse said. “I heard Brad Feld, one of the founders of TechStars in Boulder, Colorado, say, ‘Boulder would rather see another tearoom come in than support our accelerator.’ So St. Louis is really supportive of this, and I don’t think you find that in other cities as much.”
To illustrate the loyalty of the St. Louis market, Sindecuse told a story of an early start-up her accelerator invested in that caught the attention of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist (VC). The VC wanted to move the company to the West Coast and proposed moving the management team out West and making new hires in the Silicon Valley office. “Over the course of the next 18 months, they had a complete turnover—not once, but twice—of everybody they had hired in Silicon Valley,” she said. “Meanwhile, in St. Louis, not one employee had left the firm. So they realized the people in St. Louis were very loyal to the company and felt like they were a part of what they were building.”
Maxar Senior Director of Global Strategic Growth Dr. Kumar Navulur echoed Gillotte’s point about the advantages of the SCIF space and highlighted some of the capabilities Maxar hopes to recruit from local talent. Maxar, which has won a variety of NGA contracts, became a tenant of the Globe Building earlier this year. “We need people to not only get all this data but quickly process it,” Navulur said. “We’re looking for data scientists, we are looking for people who can actually dial up [artificial intelligence markup language] models. We are also looking for people who can create synthetic datasets.”
Munsell closed the panel with a couple of questions, one of which was for the panelists to articulate the biggest challenges to getting the tech talent necessary to achieve their collective vision for a GEOINT ecosystem in St. Louis. Druker and Gillotte reiterated that getting candidates on location so they can experience what St. Louis has to offer will be key in changing perceptions and drumming up excitement for this new hub of geospatial tech innovation.