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Startups flood Science Center with tidal wave of innovative ideas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2013: Even the pull of a Cardinals playoff game and Blues home opener couldn’t keep folks away from yesterday’s StartUp Connection at the St. Louis Science Center.

“We’re obviously getting a crowd that’s passionate about what’s going on here and they can watch baseball and hockey another time,” laughed Phyllis Ellison, managing director of the event, which ran concurrently with the major sporting contests.

Participants were well-rewarded for coming. The fifth annual startup showcase attracted a crowd estimated at nearly 1,000, a significant increase over last year’s 600. Those in attendance were treated to information tables from 60 nascent enterprises and 55 support organizations. Participating startups earned a shot at dozens of prizes totaling $160,000.

The entrants, which were spread across seven industry sectors from manufacturing to consumer products, each were allowed a single 90-second “elevator pitch” on stage. The presentations derive their name from the idea of selling an investor on your company in a very brief period of time, such as the duration of an elevator ride.

“It’s a great way to see the entrepreneur in action,” said Ellison, who heads Innovate Venture Mentoring Service. “An idea is good but you really want to see the person behind it.”

Ellison said investors came from as far afield as Denver and Chicago to attend the event.

“This is not just attracting attention locally, but it’s attracting attention regionally as well,” she said.

It’s also not just investors who hobnob at such events.

“It’s also a great opportunity for the business advisors in the community and the entrepreneurs to connect,” Ellison said. “Every single one of these companies is going to need legal work, accounting work, marketing work. Getting them connected to companies that know how to work with startups is key.”

Entrepreneurs can also meet each other and find new ways to partner or simply trade war stories.

Despite the wide array of businesses on hand, StartUp Connection still retains traces of its roots, which originally focused on the tech community. Biotech and IT make up about half of the enterprises in the showcase. However, the event has expanded to include a broader swath of startups.

Ellison said that selection is still evolving. Last year, “energy, green and clean tech” were popular enough to merit inclusion as a category. This time around, that section was disbanded for lack of entrants. However, the education category found new life with a burst of interest.

Overall, the 60 participants outstripped last year’s 45 and only space constraints prevented a larger showing.

“We probably had another 20 or 30 that applied that were very close in quality so we really had a tough time in the selection process to narrow it down,” Ellison said.

Among the companies on display were six finalists in the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership’s Startup Challenge business plan competition, which would split $100,000 among three winners.

“We always love giving money to startups,” said Travis Sheridan, assistant vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship, “It’s a good thing.”

Sheridan believes that StartUp Connection gives a good overview of the area’s business milieu.

“Events like this bring everything together,” he said. “I think a lot of people see things in small parts and this is a nice collective effort where people can really see the breadth and depth of the startup community.”

Jerome Katz, Coleman professor of entrepreneurship at Saint Louis University, said he called off his undergraduate advanced business planning class to be on hand.

“(My students) are ordered to be here tonight because as good as I’d like to think I am, I know my students will learn more running around here meeting people and seeing stuff than anything I can do in two-and-a-half hours,” he said.

Katz, who also heads up the Billiken Angel Network, said that Startup Connection provides an opportunity for everyone to interact.

“Look at what’s going on around here,” he said, scanning the crowd. “People are literally bouncing off of one another. They’re seeing new ideas. They’re meeting new people. You never know who in this room is going to be the contact who takes you over the top. It may be your next source of funding. It may be your next customer.”

Entrepreneur Steve Young said it was his first year at the event.

“I like how they have each grouping sectioned off so you get to learn the segments of how entrepreneurship is evolving in St. Louis,” said Young who is finishing up a prototype for a unique kitchen appliance that dispenses premium beer out of lightweight disposable cartridges.

He said St. Louis was a natural fit for his invention.

“I grew up here. We used to be known as the beer capital of the world until about a decade ago and that slipped away from us,” he said. “I think you are starting to see St. Louis revive with the craft beer scene. I just want to create something that will put St. Louis back on the map as being a leader in craft beer.”

Meanwhile, Young, one of the six entrants in the competition, was waiting to hear how his product, Sinek Systems, fared in the contest.

“I look around the tables and see who I’m up against and I would be very pleased if we won first, but we’ve made so much progress and that’s what we really focus on,” he said. “How much progress can we make month-to-month?”

Young eventually won second place raking in $30,000.

Entrepreneur Jake Simon said his elevator pitch went well enough.

“Although I practiced it, the presentation had a couple little stumbles, but I think that’s just me being critical,” he said with a smile. “My wife said I did great.”

Simon is creator of Project IDWIL, an online video gallery that helps people decide on a career that aligns with their values and passions.

“This event helps me because it gives me a lot of exposure that I wouldn’t necessarily get going door-to-door,” he said. “To be able to get up there on stage and be able to explain what I do and get in front of people and talk about the great thing that it is, it’s incomparable.”

Brian Matthews, general partner of Cultivation Capital’s tech fund, said he was looking forward to a number of the pitches.

“Cultivation Capital believes this is a great opportunity for these companies to share their wares to the community and to excite the community about what is going on,” he said.

Rob Rose, creator of DealieDo, a software system that delivers electronic coupons to mobile devices, said he liked pitching to the investors.

“That’s what entrepreneurship is all about, taking a risk,” he said. “Put it out there and take a risk.”

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.