This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If the big question on the collective mind of the St. Louis entrepreneurial community is how to get there from here, then a co-founder of Mapquest.com would seem to be the perfect guy of whom to ask directions.
“This is where the action is going to be,” Chris Heivly told a sizable crowd of the local startup world’s best and brightest. “I think capital will be redistributed over the next few years and doing this kind of stuff from the get go [is good]. … Just keep putting gas in the car and great things are going to happen.”
That message met a receptive group packed into the lobby of the CORTEX building last night during an evening of beer-oiled networking topped off by hard-hat tours of @4240, the latest project in the nascent tech district emerging around the facility. Renovations at the new building, which will provide more than 180,000 square feet of space to future tenants, are expected to be completed by the beginning of next year.
Heivly was in town to talk business and innovation with the assembled guests and speak a little about the Triangle StartUp Factory, the prestigious North Carolina-based technology accelerator of which he is managing director.
Before speaking to a large crowd, Heivly was interviewed briefly by the Beacon on what the region might do to build a tech hub in St. Louis. He said a robust community has a number of elements, the foremost being a creative area in which ideas can grow and cross-pollinate.
“Entrepreneurship is a team sport, not a solo sport, so you have to be able to access, bounce ideas off of and hire people to collaborate really easily,” he said. “You’ve got to have a cluster space.”
Heivly said that involves reaching a certain density of professionals, which allows for a critical mass to develop.
“If there are five of us, we can accomplish something,” he said. “If there are 500 of us, we can accomplish a lot more. You create a wider diversity of interests and ideas and skills that you may need at various phases.”
However, Heivly felt that officialdom can play only a limited role in the kind of development that must take place.
“It has to come from the bottom up. It has to be organic,” he said. “I believe a really robust community is not mandated, is not government created. Governments, associations, those kinds of groups can support or facilitate but they can’t lead.”
Heivly said that while the effort must be spearheaded by entrepreneurs, it cannot be supported only on the shoulders of a few. He noted that an effective tech hub will have dozens of leaders.
Even then, however, the work isn’t done. Next, you need money, an ongoing challenge for startups the world over but one that often proves especially difficult in Midwestern locales that have trouble competing with the capital-rich coasts.
“In my community in North Carolina, we’re a tier two community compared to the (Silicon) Valley or to New York or even Boston, so there’s got to be some capital flowing – a little bit at first, hopefully more later,” he said. “If you create successful companies and you do all the right things, capital will come. But capital has to be a part of the equation.”
Heivly said St. Louis does possess its share of advantages.
“What attracts me is that there are similar attitudes, similar thinking,” he noted. “It’s some of that Midwest mentality of let’s just do hard work and let’s make it work. Those are really positive things that provide encouragement.”
However, it is not an easy climb, particularly not in an economy that remains populated with skittish recessionary investors.
“This is a community that is still building, and it is a dog-eat-dog world out there. I don’t know how many tier two or tier three communities can become a hub or a destination,” he said. “I think when you ask me this question in five years, we’ll know a lot more. It’s still in its infancy.”
He said local leaders can help by putting incentives in place to support collaboration.
“That doesn’t always have to be money,” he said. “Sometimes it can be awareness. It can be providing incentives via tax or space.”
He cited T-Rex, the Railway Exchange Building incubator, as evidence St. Louis is moving in the right direction.
He also noted cities that he said are clearly ahead of the curve.
“We look at Austin, Tex., as a nice model. We look at some of the things happening in Seattle,” he said. “Boulder (Colo.) is doing an unbelievable job for the size of its community. They are the beacon that a lot of us point toward.”
Heivly was optimistic about the Gateway City’s chances in the future marketplace – as long as it doesn’t push too hard or grow complacent.
“Just have the patience to keep adding on,” he said. “Don’t take your foot off the pedal but have the patience to let it play out.”