As a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University, Tom Cohen realized he had a slim shot at landing a tenure-track job. But in the business world, his expertise offered lots of opportunities.
That’s why he joined the Biotechnology and Life Science Advising Group, founded by Wash U students and called BALSA for short.
It allows Ph.D.s and postdocs from universities in the area to gain industry experience while businesses commissioning projects get the work done for a fraction of the cost.
The money raised by the group is funneled into the BALSA Foundation, which Cohen co-founded. This week, the foundation turns 5 years old.
In that time, it’s given nearly 100 first-time entrepreneurs more than $100,000 total to get their businesses off the ground.
“We’ve really focused on companies or entrepreneurs that are in the most need of our services, and by funding them we’re going to help accomplish that mission of increasing social equity and prosperity in St. Louis,” Cohen said.
Each year, the foundation awards 20 grants of $1,000 and two grants of $5,000.
Cohen said more than 80% of the money has been awarded to women, and about 70% has gone to minority entrepreneurs.
The BALSA Group is made up of more than 50 researchers, most of whom study medical research. But Cohen said the foundation focuses more on startups in the retail and food space.
“We know the size of the grants we’re giving aren’t going to be that impactful for a biotech entrepreneur, but someone creating a clothing or retail brand, $1,000 to $5,000 can be transformational,” he said.
Bryon Pierson, CEO of EduRain, won a $1,000 grant this summer.
He said the mentorship aspect of winning the grant has been a huge help to his small business, which has two full-time employees.
“Investors are literally taking meetings with me now and letting me pitch,” he said. “And I’ve gotten a couple of deal offers.”
Pierson’s business helps college students find financial aid and scholarships to pay for school.
Many other recipients of the BALSA Foundation grants are food-related.
That includes Core and Rind, which now sells its cashew-based cheesy sauce in Whole Foods stores across the Midwest, and Filipino barbeque company the Fattened Caf.
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