St. Louis is beginning to build a name for itself as a center for entrepreneurship. Last year, funding for tech startups in the region almost doubled, bringing in nearly $30 million in investments. The T-Rex campus downtown - founded two years ago explicitly to foster entrepreneurship in St. Louis - is currently home to more than 70 startups. And ITEN, a branch of Innovate St. Louis, is currently working with around 220 ventures.
Some have even begun calling St. Louis the next Silicon Valley. But that shouldn't be the goal, said Cliff Holekamp, director of the Entrepreneur Platform at Washington University's Olin School of Business.
"We don't need to be the next Silicon Valley," said Holekamp. "We just need to focus on being the best St. Louis."
In addition to founding and directing the entrepreneurship program at Washington University in St. Louis, Holekamp is also on the board of several St. Louis startups. He says that for many of his students, starting their own company is more attractive than getting a job at an established company.
"Even though a lot of Wash. U students do have the option to work for large corporations and investment banks and consulting firms...it’s not as attractive as it used to be," said Holekamp. "Young people see what happened to their parents, seeing how people get laid off and the difficulties and the cutbacks, and I think it’s more attractive to take control of your own destiny and create your own opportunities in life."
Andrew Brimer and Haley O'Brien are part of that cohort of young entrepreneurs looking to make their own way in St. Louis.
O'Brien is a graduate architecture student at Washington University with a proposal to put the Magic Chef factory complex on the Hill to new use as a hydroponic or aquaponic farm. She envisions a self-sustained model of rainwater collection, natural light through existing skylights, and supplemental artificial light generated via solar panels on the roof to grow tomatoes and other produce in water.
"After doing some calculation, I figured that I could generate eight and a half million worth of revenue in the first year, growing just cherry tomatoes," said O'Brien. Her main obstacle at the moment is finding investors. She says the big scale of her project can be intimidating, especially in this economy.
Brimer is a May 2013 graduate of Washington University and the co-founder of med-tech startup Sparo Labs. He and co-founder Abby Cohen came up with the idea to develop a tool to to help manage respiratory diseases two years ago. Since then, they have generated funding for their project through several cash prizes, and begun beta testing their tool, which provides a cheaper alternative to machine that measures breath capacity.
Brimer and Cohen explain their idea for a more affordable way to track the lung capacity of asthma patients.
"You have to build a sustainable business...you have responsibilities to investors and everyone else, but on the social side, the room for impact is just so huge," said Brimer. "And that's really empowering for us, just knowing that what we're doing is actually going to be changing people's lives."
Advice for Others
According to Holekamp, belief, passion and networking are vital to a successful startup.
"The biggest challenge is just believing that you can do it," said Holekamp. "People think it’s getting capital, but it’s really not."
Once you have an idea, the next step is to get involved with the startup community in St. Louis. Holekamp suggested meeting other entrepreneurs at One Million Cups, finding a mentor with Innovate VMS and going to events like the Startup Connection or Startup Weekend.
"Come on out," said Holekamp. "There's activities and events happening on almost a weekly basis. And I think we can all be proud of St. Louis. There's an absolute explosion of entrepreneurship and innovation happening in our city."