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Cortex: Innovation’s New Frontier

Cortex Innovation Community | St. Louis, Missouri
200 acres / 81 hectares
2 million sq. ft. / 185,800 sq. m.
Project Facts

A little over two decades ago, a blighted 200-acre industrial district on the southern edge of Midtown St. Louis was populated with abandoned, underutilized buildings reminiscent of many distressed neighborhoods in post-industrial cities.

But then Dr. William H. Danforth, who had retired as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and founded the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, set out to establish St. Louis as a national research hub. Building on the momentum of the world-class research being done by local institutions and companies, Danforth believed plant and life sciences could be a powerful economic engine for the region. After a visit to the Boston area with civic leaders to learn more about how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had funded development of the thriving Kendall Square innovation district in Cambridge, Danforth and his friend, businessman John Dubinsky, returned with a vision for replicating that model in St. Louis.

Soon after that, in 2002, St. Louis civic, institutional and business leaders came together in an act of unprecedented collaboration to found Cortex (Center of Research Technology and Entrepreneurial Exchange). With support from the City of St. Louis, founding members were Washington University, BJC HealthCare, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Today, that 200-acre swath of neglected land that had physically divided those anchor institutions is now bringing them—and hundreds of smaller organizations—together in a vibrant, mixed-use innovation community just four miles west of the downtown core.

"We aren't just developing space. We're building an entrepreneurial community where innovation thrives." — Doug Woodruff , Senior Director, Wexford Science + Technology

Since rebranded as the Cortex Innovation Community and expanded in scope to welcome all sorts of knowledge-based startups and tech enterprises, Cortex continues to grow.

Nearly 20 years into the process, eight new buildings and three full-building renovations have been completed, one new building is under construction and several more are in various stages of development. Cortex now anchors a growing regional system of more than 400 companies and 6,000 employees across 2 million square feet of space— with near-zero vacancy.

Tenants are attracted by the participation and proximity of nationally ranked universities that are training many of Cortex’s future occupants—as well as world-class hospitals, popular residential neighborhoods, restaurants, museums, recreation opportunities, a respected arts district and easy access to the region’s highest concentration of entrepreneurial talent. The entities that have located within Cortex range from one-person startups to tech leaders like Square and the innovation arms of Fortune 100 companies like Boeing, Centene, DuPont and Microsoft are among the entities that are leveraging space at Cortex. The Brookings Institution has cited Cortex as a model for U.S. innovation districts.

When fully built out, the Cortex master plan calls for a total of $2.3 billion of construction, more than 4.5 million square feet of research, office, clinical, residential, hospitality and retail space, and 15,000 permanent jobs for the St. Louis region.

Shaping the Physical Environment at Cortex

Over the past two decades, HOK’s planning and design teams have helped transform Cortex from a technology-infused life and plant sciences district into an entrepreneurially-charged live-work-play-learn community.

In addition to our early conceptual master planning efforts and ongoing development and master plan studies, HOK has helped shape the majority of the architectural and interiors projects at Cortex, including five new construction or adaptive building reuse projects, one building under construction and two more in planning stages. We also have designed 22 office, lab, coworking, incubator, accelerator or innovation center tenant fit-out projects.

We have collaborated with Wexford Science & Technology, which is owned by real estate investment trust Ventas Inc., on three of the building projects. Together, our goal has been to create ‘econic’ (economically iconic) facilities that meet market pro formas while being clever, interesting and transformative—just like the people working at Cortex.

Cortex One | 2005

HOK’s first building commission at Cortex was for the design of a 165,000-sq.-ft flagship, multitenant building that also happened to be the nation’s first coworking wet lab model. Tenants have included Stereotaxis and digital payment processing company Square.

@4240 Duncan | 2013

The design for @4240 Duncan enabled the adaptive reuse of a 205,000-sq.-ft., 1948 telephone handset factory as a LEED Platinum workplace for 500 high-tech jobs. This project was HOK’s first with Wexford Science & Technology. Large floor plates and highly adaptable mechanical systems enable @4240 to support tenants ranging from individuals needing a hot desk to small startups and established research organizations.

The rejuvenated building includes 30,000 square feet for the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), one of the country’s leading business incubators, the Venture Café, Park Avenue Coffee, Washington University’s Office of Technology Management, and offices for Husch Blackwell, AB Mauri, Boeing HorizonX Ventures and Square.


The opening of the CIC St. Louis coworking center and CIC's Venture Café at @4240 Duncan represented a tipping point in the growth and development of Cortex.

4220 Duncan | 2018

For 4220 Duncan, Wexford Science & Technology challenged the team to design a building that would serve as a hub for workers and visitors to Cortex. The LEED Gold, multi-tenant building provides highly flexible space for entrepreneurs, researchers and tech-sector employees to work, collaborate and unwind in one central location.

Tenants include the Microsoft Technology Center, Aon, BJC HealthCare’s fitness center, Boeing HorizonX/NeXt, the Washington University/Saint Louis University COLLAB research and education suite, Maryville University’s technology center and an expansion for the CIC.


The master plan for Cortex choreographs activity in spaces between the buildings, encouraging interaction through walkable, integrated mixed-use fabric and quasi-public spaces.

4340 Duncan | 2019

This renovation of the 1930 Crescent Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and had once been a printing facility for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, created 90,000-sq.-ft. of office, lab and modular spaces.

BioSTL is the reimagined building’s anchor tenant, with others including BioGenerator Labs, Confluence Discovery Technologies, Arch Oncology and C2N Diagnostics. Large, open floor plates support biotech firms in all stages of development—from startups to large-scale organizations.

4210 Duncan | 2022

The legacy of the site—formerly occupied by a metal manufacturer—inspired HOK’s design of a linear, metal facade for this nine-story, 316,000-sq.-ft office and lab building bordering 4220 Duncan. When it opens in 2022, this will be the largest building on the Cortex campus. The flexible floor plan, designed to be tech- and lab-ready, accommodates all types and sizes of space configurations. A hospitality lobby links to the new Cortex Gateway Plaza, a dynamic outdoor space with restaurant terraces, event and work areas.


The energy around Cortex is bursting out of the neighborhood, with substantial commercial and residential development underway or planned in the city’s central corridor.

Scalable Innovation

After working on Cortex projects for so many years, HOK’s teams have discovered that the design of disruptive innovation space—places where creative people thrive—is scalable. Our design teams use lessons learned here about providing the optimal mix of amenities, work settings and community programming that encourage people to meet, connect and feed off each other’s energy to create effective workplaces of all sizes.

HOK is bringing this thinking to projects like One Discovery Square (below), part of the Mayo Clinic’s multi-million dollar Destination Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota.

Our experience designing space for the fast-moving, tech-savvy occupants of Cortex also is advancing how our teams work. Instead of showing PowerPoints or PDFs illustrating static drawings of a proposed new space, for example, design teams rely on building information modeling as well as virtual and augmented reality software. This enables future Cortex inhabitants to immerse themselves in the space long before construction starts. It’s a faster, more powerful way to make collaborative decisions about how a space should function and look.

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