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Going for gold at Invest Midwest's 13th annual venture capital forum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2012 - Christine Walsh has often seen entrepreneurs display twin streaks of creativity and drive in her role as executive director of Invest Midwest. She recalls an evening when she found an entrepreneur who was preparing a presentation for investors to be given the following day. He was standing not behind, but atop a podium which he had turned on its side and labeled to look like a bar of Dial soap.

“It’s inspiring how much passion they bring to their business,” she laughed, “how much energy and tenacity they bring to what they do every day.”

For the record, Walsh said she doesn’t necessarily encourage that passion and energy be directed into presentations quite so disruptive. But at Invest Midwest, where she serves as executive director, they do like folks with good concepts and the wherewithal to present their companies to potential funders. That’s exactly what the upcoming organization’s annual venture capital forum is all about. Set to kick off the afternoon of April 4 at the Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark, the two-day event is designed to provide a way for entrepreneurs to sell someone in the expected audience of 300 or so on their brainstorms.

Now in its 13th year, the idea, sponsored by the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association and supported by the Kauffman Foundation, will play host to 44 companies from across the region, representing three tracks that comprise areas such as life sciences, clean energy, sustainability, IT and general business.

The application process began in October. Walsh said the enterprises sought can be in a research phase, pre-revenue or already to market but they do have to exist in some form.

“These are more than ideas. These are people with companies that are up and running,” she said. “But the kind of growth they want to do is going to require outside funding.

She said many entrepreneurs can bootstrap themselves but not all have that luxury.

“These are companies where their technology or idea is going to require intensive research or they want to go national right now because it’s about being the first to market with an idea,” she said.

The key thing is that the enterprises be high-growth opportunities, she said. Presenters must be looking to find at least a million dollars in funding from attendees, who mostly represent venture capital but also include angel investors, and project a $20 million revenue stream in five year’s time.

That much money means the event itself is only the beginning.

“It’s not a single occurrence that’s for sure. People aren’t writing checks that day,” Walsh said. “After they make the connection there is a lot of due diligence and it might take several months or a year for anything to even happen.”

The forum is not just an opportunity to hobnob. The presentation is also a bit of real-world training that allows idea folks to learn something about how to speak in a language that money understands.  Coaching and review sessions are also available.

“Oftentimes entrepreneurs know their technology, love their technology and all they want to talk about is their technology,” she said. “What we help them to see is that investors do want to know about their technology, but even more so (they) want to know about the business opportunity. How is this going to make money? How is this going to grow?”

The annual forum, which alternates between Kansas City and St. Louis, seems to be paying off. Starting with 20 companies across Missouri and Kansas at its inception, it has since expanded to more than twice that number helping to make connections that brought about an estimated $850 million in funding or acquisitions. Companies represented this year cover 10 states.

“Our name was always Invest Midwest,” Walsh said. “We just grew into it.”

Even those who aren’t successful in digging for dollars at a single event sometimes return.

“We have entrepreneurs who have presented more than one year,” Walsh said. “If they have made significant progress and are still seeking funding, they apply again and oftentimes they are selected.”

This year’s event will feature speakers James Bullard, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and Jim McKelvey, a Washington University graduate who co-founded Square, a device that allows mobile phones and other equipment to accept credit cards. The luncheon program will be moderated by Charles Jaco of Fox 2 News.