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‘Shark Tank’ type competition is ‘watershed moment’ for St. Louis startups

For many out-of-state visitors driving to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch is their first glimpse of Missouri.
File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

An area nonprofit and a prominent private investment firm are launching a partnership to boost the startup climate in St. Louis.

A new pitch competition — think of the TV show ‘Shark Tank’ with a strong St. Louis flavor — will have early stage companies battling for an investment of up to $1 million from the Chaifetz Group.

“This is a watershed moment for Arch Grants and for the St. Louis ecosystem in general,” said attorney and Arch Grants co-founder Jerry Schlichter.

It’s the next part of the founding vision of the St. Louis nonprofit that supports startup companies with $50,000 grants and free entrepreneur support.

“We are not going to attract Fortune 500 companies here. It’s that simple,” said Schlichter, who regards the partnership as vital in making sure St. Louis-startups can stay here and grow.

“That's what we're trying to do. Not only to have successful startups but to have those startups become the next Centene or the next Express Scripts or the next World Wide Technology."

The competition is open to businesses that have received Arch Grants in the past and still have ties to St. Louis. The finalists will make their pitches in a public forum in January at Chaifetz Arena. The arena is named for Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, a Saint Louis University alumnus who is also the founder of the Chaifetz Group.

More than one finalist could be awarded $1 million.

It’s crucial funding for many startups wanting to take the next steps but have been unable to secure much-needed capital.

“There was a valley of death, shall we say,” said Tallyfy CEO Amit Kothari.

He was referring to a gap between very early stage investment of around $50,000 and the next phase, which often involves multi-million dollars.

“Companies need that to make it through that kind of sound barrier. That barrier which is going to be make or break,” he said.

The next level of funding could help with essential needs like hiring more workers.

Kothari’s company started in London but moved to St. Louis after receiving an Arch Grant in 2014. The business helps companies execute processes, like onboarding workers and has about one dozen employees and some contract workers.

The startup has received funding from some Silicon Valley technology heavyweights including the head of engineering at Facebook and the chief scientist at Oracle.

Winning the competition could help with possibly expanding the workforce, keeping up with the demands of a growing list of international customers while maintaining commitment to the city.

“St. Louis companies are not just built for St. Louis,” said Kothari. “And I think the world should know that.”

Follow Wayne Pratt on Twitter: @WayneRadio

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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