Tech Town

By Aaron Perlut
In Culture, Feature

The St. Louis tech startup scene is booming.

 

Here in St. Louis, we have a lot of big companies—some of America’s most successful ones, in fact, from Anheuser-Busch InBev to Enterprise Rent-A-Car to Purina and Energizer.

The thing is, our town has never been perceived as, well, progressive. We’re seen as a nice, conservative Midwest town, possibly waiting for a rebirth of the industrial revolution, with really bad native pizza (provel = crime against nature).

But just like Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a-changin,'” as over the past two-plus years, the region’s ecosystem for tech startups has absolutely “done blowed up” (as the young people would say).

“St. Louis is seeing an incredible amount of early-stage tech activity right now, which is leading to a strong funnel of great deals,” says Gabe Lozano, CEO of LockerDome, whose sports social networking company recently closed a $6 million financing round. “Without question, we will be globally recognized as a top 10 city in technology within 10 years.”

Check this list: There’s the charitable giving platform Givver.com from Pi Pizzeria‘s Chris Sommers that helps people use Twitter to donate to charity; there’s Appistry, a pioneer in the very hot big data space; Lozano’s LockerDome is kicking tail and taking names; tech sites like CrowdSource.com and Answers.com are raking in funds from noted venture capital outfits; and some pretty solid bioscience and ag-tech incubators are flourishing at Cortex in the Central West End and BRDG Park at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur. And this doesn’t even take into account the palpable excitement that’s overtaken the former Railway Exchange building Downtown at what’s now known as the T-REx incubator. Indeed, while the building itself is a bit drab, it’s bustling with startup activity ranging from Allison Carmen’s Material Mix to Andrew Mayhall’s Evtron.

“The energy and momentum surrounding innovation and entrepreneurship in St. Louis right now is pretty palpable,” says Chad Stiening, whose earlystage life sciences company Kypha has raised more than $3 million in private capital since moving to St. Louis in 2011. “We’re seeing the human, intellectual, physical and financial capital all reaching critical mass, and it’s creating an ecosystem that’s essential to be competitive in the marketplace.”

For proof, just visit Dice.com—kind of the Monster.com for tech. The number of St. Louis-based technology jobs posted jumped 25 percent over the past year, with average salaries rising 13 percent—besting the likes of Austin, TX, Charlotte, NC, and Phoenix. And that was before Boeing announced that it’s moving 600 tech jobs to St. Louis over the next three years.

Even better, since we’re within 500 miles of 90 percent of the US corn crop, it only makes sense that there are now more Ph.D. plant scientists in the greater St. Louis area than anywhere else in the world, according to the Danforth Center.

Much of the brilliance has flowed from the enviable workforces at Monsanto, Danforth, Wash U Medical and others. But it’s really about the money trail, which is helping breed more innovation across the region than ever before.

“Entrepreneurs follow opportunity,” says St. Louis native and Square founder Jim McKelvey in explaining why so many companies with St. Louis DNA have left town in the past. “We now see that trend reversing. Entrepreneurs are moving here—and well they should. I know two successful firms that would be dead now if they hadn’t come to St. Louis.”

Venture capital and angel investment activity, of course, are essential components, and they’re quickly growing in St. Louis. There are organizations like Cultivation Capital, where McKelvey is a partner, Arch Angels, Billiken Angels and the upstart iSelect Fund. Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC) is also helping lure out-of-state startups, and there are incredibly unique incubator programs like Arch Grants and Capital Innovators. (Cue Dylan…change is here in a big way.)

There’s no easy answer as to why, but the progressive meter is heading in the right direction due to a number of factors: a new generation of leaders with a collective vision for the region; young smart minds producing fresh ideas that are now more readily accepted; and an increase in local funding resources,
among others.

Whatever the case might be, the region’s clear progress in the tech startup space indicates better days ahead for St. Louis. We done blown all up in here!

 

4040_1370.jpgIllustration by Sarah Quatrano

4041_1370.jpg

 

Photo credit: Illustration by Sarah Quatrano

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