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St. Louis' first Startup Weekend is hard wired for innovation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 15, 2012 - Robert Hedges has been involved in businesses from the ground up before. He just needs to run across someone with the right idea.

Fortunately, he knows where he might look.

"It's a chance to possibly get in on something from the beginning and in more general terms get back into the energy and mindset of startups and see what's going on in St. Louis," said the 46-year-old electrical engineer.

Hedges will get that opportunity later this month when he and dozens of other potential innovators gather Jan. 27-29 for St. Louis' first Startup Weekend, a 54-hour entrepreneurial odyssey that will allow those with nascent ideas for a possible business to network with others eager to participate in the next big thing.

Geared largely toward the information technology (IT), internet and high-tech end of the spectrum, the concept was pioneered in Colorado in 2007. Today, powered largely by a 2010 grant from the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the idea is run out of Seattle by a nonprofit that boasts 25,000 alumni and uses 60 facilitators to spread the program all over the world. Identical events will take place in Connecticut, France, Mexico, California and Norway the same weekend as St. Louis.

Teaming up

At its heart, Startup Weekend is about team creation. Those with ideas for a new company present them in a brief "pitchfest" and those that survive an initial vote then form groups to help flesh out their plan.

"They typically have a developer, someone who can write code, someone who can do marketing and a CEO who drives the direction of the company. They might also have a designer that helps create the front end on the website," said Matt Menietti, a program associate at Capital Innovators, an area group that provides seed funding and resources for tech startups. "All these different components will be represented in each of the teams. And for the rest of the process, they'll be continuing to build their websites and products while we'll bring in mentors to help in a particular subject area."

Menietti is among those organizing the local event. He said the key is to demystify the process of starting up. After all, even for those ideas that don't get off the ground, the links among innovators may result in others that do.

"We'll help connect people so that they continue these relationships beyond Startup Weekend," he said.

They'll also be connected with T-REX, an IT-friendly business incubation space on the 12th floor of the Railway Exchange Building downtown, where the event will be held. Run by three nonprofit economic development organizations, the spot is anything but a dinosaur. Instead, it aims to provide low-cost leasing options to the area's cutting-edge tech startups.

As director of the Information Technology Entrepreneur Network (ITEN), Jim Brasunas is more than familiar with T-REX and thinks it will provide a solid environment for the weekend. He recalls being involved in a similar "Innovation Camp" program at UMSL a year and a half ago.

"One of the things that happens at these events, I think, is that people hear about it and come together because they are interested in an idea or exploring what entrepreneurship is all about. All of the sudden they are in a room with 40, 50, 80 people that have very similar ideas," said Brasunas, who is also helping to organize the event. "That seems to be very supportive and energizing for folks who, up until that point, felt pretty isolated in terms of what they were trying to do."

May the best idea win

Organizer Jay DeLong, vice president for new ventures and capital formation at the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, said concepts like Startup Weekend work well in the IT sector since the rules in an increasingly wired -- and wireless -- world aren't the same as they used to be. The inventor of the latest mobile app doesn't have to be working in Silicon Valley any more or even any where near the folks with the money.

"Proximity used to be huge with venture investors," he said. "It's still pretty huge, but to create a good idea for a company with social networking now, you don't need venture capital. You can get pretty far just on friends and family."

DeLong said a Startup Weekend event in Columbia, Mo., held in October, met with strong results. A dozen of the 16 teams that formed were still working together three months later with two or three on the verge of getting funding, DeLong said he was told.

Startup Weekend isn't designed to attract grizzled veterans or hardened executives. Instead, it aims to be accessible to those still learning the ropes.

"I'd consider it a success if 50 people left the weekend realizing that they can be entrepreneurs," he said. "Even if it's not the idea they came to or left the weekend with, just the fact that they know they can do it is a huge success. We're trying to build entrepreneurial leaders, not necessarily trying to make a particular idea work."

Meanwhile, DeLong said business programs at UMSL, as well as St. Louis and Washington universities, are all involved in the event. So are big-name speakers and mentors such as Jim McKelvey and Bob Lozano. The former is a co-founder of Square, a mobile payment company worth over $1 billion, while the latter is a serial entrepreneur and founder of Appistry, which develops cloud application platform software.

DeLong expects a number of small groups to pull together from the event, which will be limited to about 100 people to keep it manageable. He said they have about 25 so far.

"This is oriented toward those people who say 'Hey, I've got an idea,'" he said. "'Let's do a mock up, let's do a prototype in three to four weeks and see if we can attract enough capital to make a full-blown business out of it.'"

That thought certainly appeals to Alexander Arron, who expects to be the youngest participant in this month's event. At age 18, the high school senior will drive from Kansas City to visit for the weekend.

"I came across the website about a week ago and went and told my parents I was interested in going," he said.

Arron even has an idea to pitch, an interactive recruitment website. His goal for the event is clear.

"Definitely, I want to work hard, play hard and get the job done," he said.

David Baugher is a freelance journalist in St. Louis. 

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

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