This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2008 - For would-be entrepreneurs who think they might want to establish their business in St. Louis, Jerry Schlichter's new organization might be able to provide up to 50,000 reasons to lure them here.
The attorney who has worked for a long time in economic development and historic preservation downtown is spearheading a new program known as Arch Grants, designed to offer incentives to budding business executives. It would make available to up to 30 potential startups as much as $50,000 as well as assistance such as mentors, access to investors and discounted services.
The new nonprofit, which plans to begin actively soliciting applications early next year, also envisions a second round of competition where two winners could qualify for grants of up to $100,000.
Schlichter said the program is designed to boost a local business development situation that seems stuck in neutral.
"We have continued to see depressing headlines about job loss and stagnation, and population stagnation as well," he told the Beacon. "We feel there is a need for changing the game and trying to do something that will be positive for St. Louis and help to develop a much more robust entrepreneurial infrastructure."
On its website, the program states its mission this way:
"To create a strong entrepreneurial economy and image of St. Louis and its core by attracting and retaining entrepreneurs through a national competition for grants to startup businesses."
And beyond the direct payments to entrepreneurs, Arch Grants hopes to enhance the local business climate in general, saying it will "significantly enhance angel investment in St. Louis because of the much larger pool of high quality opportunities for investors, thereby enhancing the overall entrepreneurial opportunity and culture in St. Louis."
It would be able to do so by taking advantage of the natural pluses that the city already has, such as inexpensive office and living space, low-cost electrical capacity, quality research universities within easy reach, the availability of large older buildings and the state historic tax credit and a wide range of existing industries, from plant and life sciences to information technology.
The site also touts some recent findings that should make young professionals looking for a place to live and to grow their business happy to choose St. Louis, including top rankings for a fast rate of growth of college-educated young adults and high marks for its ratio of salaries to the local cost of living.
Such attributes are too often overlooked, Schlichter says.
"The overall image of St. Louis is not one that is noted for particular entrepreneurial success," he said, "and it is often perceived as an area in decline. We want to keep and attract young people, those who have options to leave to go to other cities."
He emphasized that the money from Arch Grants would be unencumbered, to be used as the business owner wants. Ideally, he said, it would be a foundation to help startups leverage the grants into investment from others.
The three-stage competition is modeled after the Washington University Olin Cup Competition at its Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. In the first round, open to the public, entrants will submit a 1,000-word executive summary of their plan. The next round, open to no less than 70 entrepreneurs, would require a full business plan, 20 pages or less, to winnow the field down to 40 finalists.
They will make live presentations to a panel of judges, with a maximum of 10 minutes followed by up to 10 more minutes of questions and answers. Up to 30 entrepreneurs will be selected to get the grants.
Schlichter said the program is focusing on downtown primarily because of the availability of cheap space and the synergies available when entrepreneurs are concentrated in one particular area, but the program overall is regionwide.