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Genius that begins small

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2012 - Soda and beer may have been the beverages of choice, and neither the spartan décor nor the disposable trays of fruit and cheese bespoke luxury, but the amenities weren’t the point. Tuesday afternoon’s Start-up Connection was all about genius that begins small.

“It’s pretty low-budget but it gives all the start-up companies an opportunity to share with the rest of the community what they are doing,” said Jim Brasunas, executive director of the Information Technology Entrepreneur Network (ITEN). “It’s for the community to see what the hot new start-ups are and talk with the founders and CEOs.”

The idea for the event was forged in the heat of the economic crisis in late 2008 and early 2009, when Brasunas and a contractor with RCGA, who had been hired to deal with the growing number of displaced workers, came up with the concept. Brasunas was pulling ITEN together at the time and found himself thinking of a connection.

“One of the things early-stage companies need is additional senior management people who know business and have experience,” he said. “So we were thinking maybe there’s an opportunity here for some of these displaced workers to land with some of these start-up companies and bring senior leadership to them, or at least experience with building organizations.”

Though initially a networking event, the biannual get-together now serves as a sort of tradeshow for early-stage businesses as well. This year the event showcases 39 local start-ups with about 300 participants and more than a dozen funding or support groups. Tables lined the halls and conference room in T-REx, an IT incubator on the 12th floor of the Railway Exchange Building. Entrepreneurs showed their wares and tried to connect with both investors and potential employees.

The field was dominated by IT ventures but other sectors like clean tech and life sciences have a growing presence.

“Most of the feedback said people want more networking and less programming,” said Brasunas. “Everybody wants to get together, talk and find out what’s going on from each other, rather than coming and sitting through a presentation.”

“We’re still going to have a presentation,” he added quickly with a chuckle, “but we’re going to keep it kind of short.”

Part of that presentation was to thank an array of 13 sponsoring entities from the RCGA to Innovate St. Louis. Speakers from BioGenerator, the Helix Fund, Capital Innovators, Arch Grants and other organizations were also on hand for brief presentations. ITEN used the occasion to announce additions to its educational programming for startups.

Showcase participants were enthusiastic about the event.

“In the technology space, speed to market is very important, so this sort of critical mass isn’t only personally energizing and exciting,” said Chris Dornfeld, president of Off Campus Media, “it really creates a framework to start troubleshooting and solving a lot problems or connecting with new clients and new business opportunities.”

It was Dornfeld’s first time at the event as a presenter although he has attended in the past. He was there to introduce the company’s signature product Bonfyre, a location-based social media app for college students. Nearby, Ray Gobberg, the Washington University graduate who helped found the enterprise in 2006 before leaving for a stint in the Air Force, said Start-Up Connection was an important part of promoting the community.

“I’ve been back in the tech space for only about a month or so and I think it’s really exciting to see the partnerships that exist from company to company,” he said. “It seems like everybody is working together for the St. Louis tech community in a way that makes it an exciting environment and fun to work in.”

A few tables away, Paul Hermanson of Musicality, a free music label that helps support independent musicians stood in front of his table with Kevin Kendle, his chief technology officer. The pair was attracting attention wearing logoed T-shirts that actually lit up.

“I’m not sure what the lighting technology is but it’s pretty nifty,” Hermanson said, his shirt flashing as brightly as his grin. “It’s even washable.”

He said his enterprise was hunting for both talent and investment at the event and they’ve made solid connections so far.

“Every single person that we’ve met, there’s something about them or something they’ve done that is mutually beneficial,” he said. “There’s something we can do for them and something they can do for us.”

Keith Homco of Passerby, a crowdfunding platform for moviemakers, said his website was about as new as they come.

“We just launched last night at 3 a.m.,” he noted. “We wanted to be live for this event so we could demo the site for potential investors.”

Homco said it was a good way to make contact with folks who might be interested in the nascent venture.

“It gives us an opportunity to put some more eyes in front of our product and maybe see what we can find to help us move forward,” he said.

Investors were certainly on hand. Israel Vicars, an associate partner at Cultivation Capital, an early-stage venture fund, said he felt Start-Up Connection was providing a valuable service.

“The companies that are being supported at the idea stage today are going to be the viable fundraising entrepreneurs of the future,” he said. “It’s important for there to be recognition early on so these companies know there is a future for them here in St. Louis.”

Of course, there is another reason as well.

“This stuff is fun,” said Vicars. “Entrepreneurs need more than money. They need other entrepreneurs.”

The next Start-Up Connection event will be held this fall at the St. Louis Science Center.

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