The startup spirit of St. Louis: Socially conscious and creative

Innovation can happen anywhere.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor
With its famous arch in the background, St Louis celebrates 250 years in 2014.

I recently returned from four days in St. Louis, meeting the local startup community and contributing to a new conference, Startup Voodoo, organized by local tech news site Techli and Elasticity, an innovative digital marketing agency.

These next few posts offer a whirlwind introduction to some of the events,  people and companies of St Louis. I was impressed with the quality of the tech community.

I was more than impressed with the strong sense of social responsibility everyone seemed to have — from young business students, entrepreneurs, to philanthropists. Even newly transplanted residents with just a few months' residency talked about St. Louis as "we" and exhibited a strong loyalty to their new community.

It is worth remembering that Silicon Valley used to have a strong sense of social responsibility, too. It once was very important in recruiting software engineers; they cared about it more than free lunches and free haircuts.

When Google registered for its IPO in 2004, the first pages of its SEC filing was a letter from the founders, in which they spelled out their goal of building an enterprise for greater good:

Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served-as shareholders and in all other ways-by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains...

We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place... We are in the process of establishing the Google Foundation. We intend to contribute significant resources to the foundation, including employee time and approximately 1% of Google's equity and profits in some form.

We hope someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world's problems. 

Here are some of my St. Louis startup stories:

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Bud Albers, angel investor and CEO of Click With Me Now.

My first meeting in St. Louis also turned out to be one of my favorite interviews, with Bud Albers, a veteran of many large corporations and mentor to many local startups.

Albers was CTO at Walt Disney and was responsible for many innovative implementations of technologies across nearly all of Disney's brands, pioneering online, mobile and gaming applications. He also held senior positions at Drugstore.com and Getty Images.

We spoke about the challenges that large organizations face, mostly internal obstacles, to implementing the latest technologies and automating complex business processes. 

Albers has spent several years advising local startups and making investments. He recently took on the CEO role at Click With Me Now, and helped raise $2.25m from private investors. The startup has a unique technology that allows users to share a web session with others. It has many enterprise uses, such as in service call centers, healthcare, and more. 

"I couldn't resist the opportunity to build another company. Click Me Now has a great technology and I know how to make it successful." 

Click With Me Now, Inc. | The Easiest & Safest Way to Share the Web!

NEXT: Pixel Press - Draw your own video game


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Robin Rath Co-founder of Pixel Press demonstrates the iPad app.

Pixel Press is a local star startup because it's raised $750,000 and has a very cool technology that converts simple drawings into video games simply by using square-lined drawing paper. It has a joint project with Cartoon Network.

The nine-person team is expanding and it is working with large brands on unique projects.

Robin Rath, co-founder Pixel Press, says he has spent 12 years working in St. Louis and the location is important because of the talent available and the creative culture.

Our Technology - Pixel Press | Draw your own video game.

NEXT: Arch Grants offers $50K to entrepreneurs to relocate


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Ginger Imster, Executive Director of Arch Grants

Ginger Imster (above) is Executive Director of Arch Grants, funded by four St. Louis philanthropists with the aim of encouraging innovative ventures that boost the diversity of tech jobs and the diversity of the population in the St. Louis metro area. 

An annual competition selects winners and in 2014, 20 startups received $50,000 each and did not have to give up any equity. But they do have to meet rules that at least one founder relocates to St. Louis for at least one year. Arch has succeeded in relocating two startups from abroad, helping them with visas.

"St. Louis has a long history of community service and that's what the funders of Arch Grants are trying to do, to ensure the city has a healthy future. We need diversity in jobs and people. We need immigrants because the city recognizes that a lack of diversity is holding back our economy," said Imster. 

Arch has rented the entire fourth floor of a large co-working space in downtown called T.Rex that houses more than 100 startups and 35 alumni companies and offers incubator services. Both organizations are very focused on building a self-sustaining tech community that won't brain-drain away. And building that community in an urban setting is very important because it also helps instill a philanthropic spirit of St. Louis that is very community oriented and very loyal.

She says that $50,000 is not a lot of money but it's enough to relocate a couple of founders and support their living costs in St. Louis for a year. Winning the Arch Grants startup competition often brings additional benefits. Several startups told me that they had managed to raise large seed rounds because of the backing from Arch. Plus, there's no equity to give up.

Edward Domain, CEO of the Techli news site for St. Louis startups, said he relocated from the Bay Area after winning an Arch Grant two years ago. 

So far so good: Arch has granted more than $3.5 million since 2011 to 55 companies, and those companies have raised nearly $18m in funding, with nearly $7 million in revenues, and created about 200 jobs. As 2014 grows to a close and Arch totals up the year's success stories, those numbers will undoubtably improve.

Arch Grants 

2014 Startups « Arch Grants 

Next: Startup Voodoo - The black magic of building a tech business

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Fang Cheng, a remarkable serial entrepreneur.

The central goal of my St. Louis trip was to help with Startup Voodoo, the launch of a new conference focused on helping to grow the local startup community by bringing together investors, mentors, and startups to share their lessons and encourage each other to succeed.

Startup Voodoo was founded by Ed Domain of tech news site Techli.com and Aaron Perlut of digital marketing firm Elasticity. 

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My job was to ask questions following the speaker sessions,  Delon Dotson of Delotek, (above) was one of my favorites. The former Netscape executive and had recently suffered a small stroke, which is why he is in a wheelchair, but his enthusiasm for helping startups find funding couldn't keep him away. 

He had some great advice about securing millions of dollars of capital from European and Dubai-based investors who take no equity. The trick is to know how much is available, for example, Dubai investors have $5m packages and they look for a $6m repayment with no equity demanded. 

My favorite part of the conference was the closing session in which I interviewed on stage Fang Cheng, (above) a remarkable serial entrepreneur.

She arrived in New York more than ten years ago from China to finish her Ph.D in Bioinformatics from New York University before joining a brokerage where she was the only female among 300 male brokers. She quickly rose to the top of the pack and then co-founded Touchco, which was sold to Amazon in 2010. She now heads Silicon Valley startup Linc.

She is a very successful female entrepreneur. She was asked how she managed in a man's world, as in the brokerage. She said she never thought about herself as being female and disadvantaged in any way.

I loved her story about her first day in New York, someone came up to her and asked for directions. She said she felt instantly that she belonged.

Next: St. Louis bucks tech campus trend with urban research park

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Dennis Lower, President of the Cortex Innovation District among blueprints and maps.

Dennis Lower has spent nearly three decades building research parks around the US and he's at the peak of his talents and at the forefront of a very important trend: building research parks in urban settings. The goal is to build resilient communities that generate jobs from a highly skilled workforce and the spinoffs of startups.

He's responsible for the Cortex Innovation District founded in 2002, a huge area most of which is a building site with half-finished and nearly finished buildings sprouting up between buildings already staffed with researchers.

Urban districts are incredibly inventive and creative — it's a result of the cross-pollination of experiences and cultures found in areas with high population densities.

Integration versus segregation...

The move into urban communities by research parks is in stark contrast to that of US tech giants such as Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. They prefer to keep the majority of their engineers isolated rather than integrated into any other communities.  

Their engineers are bussed to remote business parks far from urban districts, entrapped all day with free gourmet food, gyms, haircuts, dentists and massage therapists. There's no need for anyone to leave the company campus which is probably why many tech companies are having trouble coming up with original ideas — because their engineers lack original experiences.

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A factory from 1942 refurbished as a work space for research groups from large corporations such as Boeing.

The many building projects bear testament that Cortex has developed great momentum and is firmly into its next big expansion phase attracting some heavy hitters such as Boeing and Dupont, which is attracting attention from others.

It's not just research labs and offices, Lower is also responsible for building houses and apartments, shops, bars and restaurants, public gathering spaces, and a large park. All connected up to a fast moving public transportation system of buses and light railway by the end of next year — all in the middle of St Louis near its fabulous zoo.  I'd love to live in or near such a community. 

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Researchers need high speed pipes.
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Dupont's research facility.

 Next: Social Media Club panel and competing with Silicon Valley

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On my first day in St, Louis I was part of a panel at a meeting of the local chapter of the Social Media Club at The Wheelhouse: "The Integration of Social Technology and the Startup Mindset."

Aaron Perlut (above) from Elasticity introduced the panel, which included Maheesh Jain, Founder and CMO of CafePress, a St Louis success story; Brendan Lewis, PR and Communications Director at Swarm/Foursquare; and Jason Falls,  well known speaker and local personality, who recently joined Elasticity.

It was a lively discussion and I agreed with a lot of my fellow panelists about the opportunities for startups.

A question that came up that evening and continued to come up at other events  during my trip was along the lines of "Can St. Louis rival Silicon Valley in the future?"

My answer was "No" but I made the point that there is no need to feel in competition with Silicon Valley because Silicon Valley's success doesn't take away anything from the success of innovation centers around the world. We live in an "and" world, Silicon Valley and New York, Silicon Valley and St Louis. 

With the new direct flights to San Francisco by Southwest, Silicon Valley is just four hours away, you can fly over for a meeting and be back by dinner time the same day. St Louis startups can use Silicon Valley as a resource.

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