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Entrepreneurial spirit of St. Louis: Arch Grants hopes seed money leads to next big idea

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2012 - Where will the next multimillion dollar idea come from? One newly formed area organization is hoping it’s the Gateway City.

And it's putting its money where its mouth is.

“We asked both how can we retain and how can we attract entrepreneurs to St. Louis at the same time as we shift the perception of the region,” said Sarah Spear, executive director of Arch Grants, which opened its doors early this year.

The nonprofit’s answer aims to promote a favorable startup climate in the area by giving away some 12-15 grants of $50,000 each to winners culled from a pool of 420 applicants.

The organization has been wading through a sea of three-page executive summaries picking out the most workable ideas since the contest deadline passed in early March.

“That just gave us a glimpse into these companies. We were looking for companies that are for-profit that would be willing to be based in St. Louis for the year they were awarded the grant,” Spear said.

The next step is to winnow the applications down to a list of semi-finalists and – eventually – 30 finalists. Applicants can be at any stage of development from concept to an already formed company. Finalists will be chosen April 13 followed by in-person presentations with awardees to be announced in May.

The thought is to grow enterprises in St. Louis, but also to find operations that can develop satellite locations in other cities after putting down roots in town. Nearly four-fifths of applicants are local, but other regions of the country are generating hopefuls as well, and a few even come from abroad.

“We’re looking for companies that can be based here but can expand beyond the region so that people outside the area know about these companies and recognize that St. Louis is open for business,” Spear said. “As we attract people from the outside, we are demonstrating that St. Louis has the kind of entrepreneurial ecosystem that draws people in because we have what it takes to support businesses in this community.”

Spear is actually one of those folks from the outside. She moved here in October. Her last gig was as a co-founder of a startup in India.

“When I was running around raising funds all over the world, I never saw the amount of support that St. Louis offers to entrepreneurs,” she said. “I wish we’d had that level of support for my startup.”

About 71 percent of the applicants are in some sort of technology field, but the rest run the gamut from apparel to consumer products to leisure.

The dollar figure may not be overwhelming for some tech startups, but others could find the money a lifeline.

“We did a lot of reach into student populations because if you are somebody just coming out of school you are typically adjusted to living pretty frugally,” said Spear. “Fifty thousand dollars can mean a lot to them.”

Spear said the group of applicants is also very representative.

“Looking at the demographics of our finalists, we have people across the age spectrum and people who have multiple ethnic backgrounds, male/female, so many different industries,” she said. “Diversity is one of our values. We want to make sure that the entrepreneurs that we award grants to represent the diversity that entrepreneurship really thrives on.”

Originally created by a small group of St. Louisans who wanted to improve the climate for startups in the area, Arch Grants is now bankrolled bya mix of public and private sources. Donors include prominent companies like Emerson, Husch Blackwell, Peabody Energy, Advantage Capital Partners and U.S. Bank.