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Start-Up Challenge Offers $20,000 To Spur Business Growth In The Metro East

Andrew Mueth tends to a head of lettuce in VAST Produce's greenhouse in Waterloo on June 26. VAST won the 2018 Metro East Start-Up Challenge.
Eric Schmid | St. Louis Public Radio
Andrew Mueth tends to a head of lettuce in VAST Produce's greenhouse in Waterloo on June 26. VAST won the 2018 Metro East Start-Up Challenge.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's Small Business Development Center wants to grow Metro East startups focused on information technology, health care, manufacturing or sustainable food. Part of their plan includes the Metro East Start-Up Challenge, which is entering its sixth year and now accepting applications.

“Entrepreneurial businesses are a lifeblood of the Metro East,” said Ronda Sauget, executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois. The council is a not-for-profit, member-based economic development corporation in the Metro East and one of the cornerstone sponsors of the Start-Up Challenge.

The top three businesses at the end of the challenge split $20,000; $10,000 for first place, $6,000 for second and $4,000 for third. The competition is facilitated by the SIUE School of Business and the Illinois Metro East Small Business Development Center housed at SIUE.

Jo Ann Di Maggio May, the director of the business development center, said a few thousand dollars can have a big impact in helping new companies off the ground. 

“They’re able to register their business, maybe do some marketing, web design, equipment, signage,” May said. “It just alleviates some of the borrowing and debt that they may have to incur.”

VAST Produce won last year’s competition with the idea to grow fresh lettuce all year round using aquaponics. That’s a process in which plants and fish are grown in a connected system, where the wastewater from the fish is used to provide nutrients for the plants. 

The Start-Up Challenge helped the six brothers who founded the company develop a strategy for success.

“We had to submit a business plan for it,” said Andrew Mueth, co-owner of VAST Produce. “That helped us develop our whole plan going forward, not just building our system.”

The challenge also offers ample opportunity to network and engage with established business leaders and local regional officials. May said the small business center invites lawyers, accountants and other mentors to help all of the competing businesses.  

“The goal is to help them through the competition and beyond,” May said. 

Mueth said he and his brothers found the networking opportunities far more valuable than the cash prize.

“We presented in front of a group of business owners in the Metro East area, and afterwards a lot of them came up and talked to us,” Mueth said. “We got several business cards.”

These interactions gave the brothers confidence in their new venture. “It helped reinforce our belief that this is something the St. Louis area needs,” Mueth said.

Nearly a year since starting, VAST is thriving. It produces and sells hundreds of heads of lettuce a week at regional farmers markets.

And that’s what Metro East business leaders want to see. 

“Many in the banking community and other folks are very interested in helping these companies grow and prosper,” Sauget said. 

Applications for this year’s competition are open until Aug. 5, and winners will be announced in November. A full schedule can be found here

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.