This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Framed in front of the handsome brick incubator facility at 315 Lemay Ferry Road, Beth Noonan expresses the hopes of a lot of folks in county economic development.
“We believe that our incubators will be a place where people connect and things happen, a place where entrepreneurs can share ideas and solve problems together,” Noonan told several dozen gathered in the chilly shade of a white tent. “We look forward to working together to drive the success of our client companies and of the region.”
The St. Louis County Economic Council thinks that it has taken a step to do just that with the christening of STLVentureWorks, the newly rebranded system of incubators that regional leaders believe will help drive entrepreneurial activity in the area. Noonan will head up the just created Innovation and Entrepreneurship Division of the SLCEC, which will oversee the incubators as well as other efforts to encourage nascent enterprises such as the annual business plan competition and the new Accelerate St. Louis website.
Noonan was formerly in charge of the Helix Center, one of five incubators run by SLCEC and the only one with a specific biotech focus. Helix opened last summer and is now more than one-third occupied, a figure that organizers say puts it a bit ahead of expectations. Meanwhile, the decade-old South County facility, where this morning’s action unfolded, underwent a revamp just last year.
“What’s going to be different besides the name and the logo is that we really want to reenergize our incubator program,” said Noonan in an interview with the Beacon before the presentation. “It’s different in that we really want to be engaged with our client companies even more than we have in the past and really up the ante in terms of bringing resources to our centers and making them a hub for entrepreneurial activity.”
She said the new division would bring focus and enriched programming to bear on the area’s startup efforts.
“Business incubation is all about making connections with people and in the last year the resources that have cropped up throughout the community and throughout the St. Louis region have really gelled and are working together really well,” she said. “Part of that is just connecting people more effectively and actually working with folks to identify milestones and move people forward to help them find success.”
Assistant vice president Travis Sheridan got the biggest applause line of the morning when he noted that he’d moved here from California because of the three “E’s” – economic conditions, energy and entrepreneurial passion.
Interviewed beforehand, he said that the council’s reshuffle would result in increased startup activity.
“When entrepreneurs engage, we have their graduation in mind from day one,” he said. “When they come in, we start talking about what it is going to take to launch them out of the incubator system. That could be a certain level of revenue, a certain head count of employees, maybe certain patents being filed. Really shoring up the business so it can be sustainable outside the comfort level of an incubator.”
Denny Coleman, president and CEO of SLCEC, says that STLVentureWorks represents a comprehensive look at the way the county serves entrepreneurs.
“One year ago, the county executive and mayor challenged the entire region to think through how we can go from being really good to being one of the best in the country,” he said. “This is one component piece of an even larger regional initiative over how we can enhance services to entrepreneurs.”
Coleman noted that the idea drew on a number of sources.
“We did look at what other regions are doing, but we also did a lot of our own research as to what the entrepreneurship community here was looking for,” he said. “It was a combination of looking outside but more importantly understanding what the entrepreneurs in the St. Louis region want.”
County Executive Charlie Dooley agreed.
“Now, there is truly a focus on entrepreneurship,” Dooley said before delivering remarks to the crowd. “It’s a division created to support small businesses.”
Attendee Dan Reus, founder of Openly Disruptive, lauded the increase in regional cooperation between city and county and felt the reorganization was a meaningful one.
“It shows that they are really paying attention to the entrepreneurs and not just checking a box off,” he said.
STLVentureWorks board member Marc Braun said that the county’s incubator system already has plenty of space. Now it just needs to create more programming resources.
He said the effort isn’t meant as competition.
“It’s not to try to take a prospective startup away from CET or T-Rex or Nidus,” said Braun, who has been involved in the local entrepreneurial scene since the early 1990s. “There’s more than enough need in St. Louis for all of us. It’s a regional concept, a regional effort.”
Braun looked up at the newly unveiled sign and seemed to approve of it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about being on the board than right now because of everything this means,” he said. “It’s for everything we’ve accomplished and what we can accomplish going forward.”