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Start me up: Startup Weekend's second time out is hit with innovators

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2012 - Ed Reggi exudes energy and enthusiasm while speaking about the team with which he’s been working.

“We were actually here until around midnight, not much later,” said Reggi, 41, a digital strategist who also works for the Nine Network. “We kind of broke early and figured to start early today.”

To most, midnight may not seem early. However, this weekend Reggi, like everyone else scattered across several sparsely furnished conference rooms on the 12th floor of the Railway Exchange Building, seemed to be racing the clock. T-shirts and comfortable shoes were standard apparel for those plying the hallways while plastic cutlery and haphazard stacks of neon-hued Post-It notes scattered near a spread of fruit bars, Goldfish and chocolate crème cookies bespoke an aura of improvisational creative energy.

Reggi was one of 61 participants hoping to build something that lasts from this milieu of temporality, which defines Startup Weekend. It's a fast-paced, vaguely quirky entrepreneurial planning session that aims to generate new ideas for business ventures. Popular in the IT and tech fields, the Kauffman Foundation event has caught on across the planet with hundreds of annual get-togethers worldwide. In addition to St. Louis, this weekend saw dozens of similar conferences from Tulsa to Tehran.

It’s the second time for the local version of the confab, which made its debut here in January. This weekend’s agenda followed a similar format as last time, opening with networking and a pitch session in which about 40 participants tossed their ideas out for discussion. Voting followed and teams formed around the eight most promising concepts.

“We had one team that was here until four in the morning last night,” said Matt Menietti who also organized the event last year. “People are pretty passionate about their teams and their ideas right now.”

Menietti, director of operations for Capital Innovators, said that the session, which was timed to coincide with Global Entrepreneurship Week, can help individuals with a desire to strike out on their own but may not have an immediate direction in which to move.

“The community is ready,” he said. “There are people all the time that are involved in the startup scene and without something to really help that process, it can be, ‘How do I get started? I don’t really want to quit my job.’ This becomes a great alternative for them to really get their feet wet.”

Friday night featured a talk by entrepreneur Ron Roy of Wines That Rock. After a lengthy work session on Saturday, ideas were set to be judged on Sunday with various prizes such as gift certificates and energy drinks for the winners.

Last year’s victor was Juristat, a unique big data operation that uses past cases to create projection models for the behavior of judges, juries, attorneys and parties in litigation.

“Just like Nate Silver can predict 50 out of 50 states in the election, we can predict how a lawsuit is going to end up before it starts, before it’s even filed,” said Drew Winship, a co-creator of the enterprise, referring to the political statistics guru who accurately called the 2012 presidential contest.

Winship was back at Startup Weekend this time but not as a participant. He just hoped to soak up the culture and provide the occasional tidbit of advice.

“The energy at stuff like this is infectious so I just wanted to come, do some work on our company and see what everyone else is doing and if there are some diamond-in-the-rough programmers that we can maybe bring in and employ,” said Winship, whose venture was named a finalist for the Olin Cup this week. “St. Louis is doing some amazing things with startups right now.”

He said participants have asked him more than a few questions so far.

“People have come up to me and said ‘Hey, how fleshed out does this really have to be by Sunday? What was your pitch? What did you focus on?’” he said. “Everyone wants a narrative. My advice is ‘Come up with your story, show the financials and show as much market traction as you can quickly.’”

Michael Orlando, a 2008 creator of IDC Projects, a maker of video games for cellular phones, was at the event as a mentor for budding entrepreneurs.

“What I’ve done so far is meet with each team, go through and try to listen to what they are working on and see if I can essentially guide them to some sort of success,” he said. “What that success is, is different for every team.”

Orlando’s startup eventually became an Arch Grants recipient causing it to relocate to town from Rolla after which it became a part of Capital Innovator’s accelerator program. He said it was more important to create questions for nascent entrepreneurs than to answer them.

“I’ve actually given them lots of questions to think of on their own,” he said. “Everyone here I’ve talked to so far, they’re going a million miles an hour so they already know the questions that they need to ask and they are not really questions for me. They are questions for potential customers or potential clients.”

Reggi, part of an eight-member team working on a system that would allow for restaurant curbside service orders from mobile devices, said he didn’t pitch an idea but just hoped to find someone else who might be hooked into the next big thing.

“A lot of people are consolidating ideas. I think that’s even happening with us right now,” he said. “There was another group this morning that was down to maybe three people and they came in about an hour ago with something unrelated to ours but there were elements they liked about it.”

Joe Fischer came from Washington, Mo., to attend. The 31-year-old said he was already in the process of creating a different startup but hoped to pitch a social media idea at this weekend’s event. Ultimately, he joined a team trying to create an application to help those with dietary restrictions shop for groceries.

“It’s been a lot of ideation so far,” he said. “But I think we’re right now at the point where we are breaking off and doing [the work]. We’re going to go out to talk to customers at Culinaria to see what they are into and do the research.”

Amy Lambert, 43, traveled from Peoria, Ill., to participate in Startup Weekend. She ended up on a four-person team brainstorming over an idea for the medical industry.

“I’ve been involved in startups and the startup community and this weekend has been eye opening in terms of the facilitation and the mentoring,” she said. “I’m very impressed with the level of knowledge of the mentors and the experience and the expertise that they are bringing.”

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