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Balsa Foundation Offering Free Assistance To First-Time Entrepreneurs

Maxim Schillebeeckx and Brett Maricque, back row far left, stand with the Balsa Foundation's Entry Program Finalists: Patrice Hill, JaNay Holmes, Talah Alem, Chico Weber, Andrew Yee, Bernard Mallala, Tom Spudich and Brad Postier.
J.R. Johnson
Courtesy of the Balsa Foundation
Maxim Schillebeeckx and Brett Maricque, back row far left, stand with the Balsa Foundation's Entry Program Finalists: Patrice Hill, JaNay Holmes, Talah Alem, Chico Weber, Andrew Yee, Bernard Mallala, Tom Spudich and Brad Postier.

Do you have a business idea? A student-led nonprofit wants to help, and is offering free advice for St. Louis entrepreneurs.

The Balsa Group is led by Washington University graduate student volunteers who help advise St. Louis biotech and life-science companies at a discounted rate.

“St. Louis is sort of a hub for entrepreneurship right now,” Balsa Group president Brett Maricque told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday. “There’s really a vast number of companies in the area who are trying to get their businesses off the ground, using limited funds and limited resources. So the Balsa Group is really working to provide a support system for entrepreneurs in the community who need strategic advising — who need a little bit of consulting work.”

There are benefits for the students too, Maricque said.

“In our training as Ph.D. students or as post-doctoral trainees, we really focus on an academic track,” he said. “Transitioning into a career that’s not behind the bench is often difficult. The Balsa Group serves to give people the opportunity to gain some of the soft skills that you might need to transition into a career in business or the business of science.”

While the students volunteer their time, the Balsa Group does charge for its services. In 2014, it took that money and started the Balsa Foundation to help first-time entrepreneurs.  

“As (Balsa Group) members, we just work for the experience. But to insure that incentives are aligned, we are charging that nominal fee. We see it as a way to further our development of the members,” said Maxim Schillebeeckx, executive director of the Balsa Foundation. “About a year ago, some of the members came together, looking for ways that we can leverage this revenue generated from these clients to better support the community here in St. Louis, and really help those individuals that may not directly have access to the types of services that Balsa and other great organizations in St. Louis provide. That really is what inspired the formation of the Balsa Foundation.”

Over the past four years, the Balsa Group has worked with about 75 companies on more than 100 projects and earned about $100,000, Maricque said. “A lot of that money is left to do things like support the Balsa Foundation.”

The Balsa Foundation is turning some of those funds into grants. Jewelry-maker Patrice Hill received one of those grants last year. “With that, I’m going to be able to get a little bit of help with marketing of my brand and myself,” Hill said. She’s also working on creating her own website for Inali Jewelry.

“Entrepreneurs that are just starting out, like Patrice, provide a small one-page application that describes their passion, their idea and their plan — really, just to tell their story,” Schillebeeckx said. “Within a couple weeks, we have three or four Balsa members that provide this hands-on advice on all aspects, from just working on the application, per se, to things they need to consider for their business idea.”

Without assistance from the Balsa Foundation, Hill said she would still be trying to get her name out. She said her advisers helped her identify what makes her business and work unique.

Out of 35 applications, the Balsa Foundation worked with 27 St. Louis entrepreneurs last fall. This spring, Schillebeeckx expects they’ll work with even more.

“The only real requirement is that you have not raised $2,000 or more for your idea,” Schillebeeckx said.

“At the very least, you’re getting three or four individuals who are motivated and interested in helping — giving you feedback on your idea,” Maricque said.

Since the organizations are student-run, leadership changes every year.

“It gives people an opportunity to get involved with a group, and then potentially to take on a leadership role, Maricque said. “It’s not just running a student organization. We’re really running a company here where revenue is something that’s important to us. Maintaining good client relationships is really something that we put a lot of effort into.”

But as students graduate, there’s also the problem of “brain drain.”

“The majority of the individuals that provide support to the entrepreneurs, that are working with the foundation, are not in St. Louis anymore,” Schillebeeckx said. “As you might expect, students graduate from Wash U and SLU and UMSL, many of whom move away from St. Louis. With the Balsa Group, I would say close to 50 percent of its members are no longer in St. Louis. That’s at a cost to St. Louis as a city.”

Maricque said there’s now a greater focus on keeping Balsa alums tied to the St. Louis community.

The Balsa Foundation provides a step-by-step guide on its website for those interested in starting a company.

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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