By Amelia Gandara | EnterpriseCorp

Amelia Gandara
Amelia Gandara

This is the third article in a series. Read the first one here and the second one here.

As fast follow to EnterpriseCorp’s recent journeys to Cincinnati, Raleigh/Durham and Nashville, we finished 2015 by visiting St. Louis and Kansas City as part of a grant from Chase philanthropy.

Our goals through these trips are two-fold. First, that they inspire our entrepreneurial community to look outside of itself as our fellow Middle American cities are actively tackling similar issues of density, mentorship and funding. Secondly, we hope the relationships EnterpriseCorp is forming will enhance our network of resources for funding, customer discovery and first customers for the entrepreneurs we serve.

In St. Louis, we focused on two main areas of entrepreneurial density — the first being the Cortex District in the Central West End, a 200-acre innovation hub focused on bioscience and technology. The district, hosting 150 companies of various sizes, is managed by Cortex, a non-profit comprised of the combined capital of Washington University in St. Louis, BJC Healthcare, University of Missouri – St. Louis, St. Louis University, and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

This is reminiscent of the University of Louisville’s J.D. Nichols Campus for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (formerly the Nucleus Downtown Innovation Park). However, Cortex created an organic checks and balances system by unifying multiple institutions around a common goal of innovation and through the strategic hiring of Dennis Lower as president of Cortex, an out-of-state recruit with over 15 years of experience in niche research and industrial parks comprised of multiple institutional partners.

The second area of density is less than 10 minutes from Cortex, in downtown. St. Louis’s T-Rex building hosts 110 startups over 5 floors. The facility is managed as a not-for-profit enterprise that co-locates accelerators, small venture funds, a SBA-funded resource center; a tech-specific mentoring organization, and co-working space for incubator and venture-backed companies. While there is certainly some friendly competition between Cortex and T-Rex, both sites had clear densities with comment areas filled with lively engagement.

The overwhelming takeaway from St. Louis we heard over and over: collaboration was key. In the Cortex District and at T-Rex, both dense areas of the startup ecosystem were created out of the partnerships of multiple institutions, accelerators, funds and/or corporate partners. We see glimmers of this in areas of Louisville such as Shelby Park’s appropriately named the Park, which boasts co-working and co-location of Village Capital’s Agtech accelerator and Access Ventures.

Kansas City was particularly interesting as it exists as a bi-state region, similar to Louisville and Southern Indiana, and because in 2011 the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce made becoming “America’s most entrepreneurial city” one of its top 5 goals. When pressed for metrics, it was difficult to identify exactly how to know they’ve met their goal, but a notable first step was the 2013 development of Digital Sandbox, a proof-of-concept fund with an average investment size of $20,000. An impressive annual report with details on job creation, follow-on funding and exits can be found here.

Other notable Kansas City organizations included Kauffman Foundation, one of the most respected thought leaders and grant funders for entrepreneurship, KCSourcelink, a physical and digital small business and entrepreneurial ecosystem mapping tool that has expanded to cities such as Dallas. CEED was the most entrepreneur-led organization that managed a co-working space called StartupVillage, the digital publication StartLand News, KC’s StartupGrind and educational programming for high school and college students serving (hopefully) as a long-term form of sustainable income.

While the St. Louis and Kansas City chambers and economic development organizations support two cities through board seats and as founding partners, it’s Missouri Technology Corp (MTC) that was mentioned nearly everywhere. Similar to Kentucky’s Science and Technology Corp (KSTC), MTC funds regional entrepreneurial efforts across the state and makes investment in startups directly.

MTC funds seed and venture capital stage startups through two match programs, similar to Kentucky’s former VenCap program, as well as funding 10 innovation centers around the state. Where MTC really shines is through seed funding for programs, like Arch Grants, through MOBEC, Missouri Building Entrepreneurial Capacity program, considered a cornerstone of MTC’s investment strategy.

These two cities were our final visits of 2015. In the coming weeks, look out for a summary of our findings on how we can continue to apply the best practices of other startup ecosystems for transformational entrepreneurial growth in Louisville.

Amelia Gandara is the Director of Commercialization and Engagement for GLI’s EnterpriseCorp, where she and her colleagues seek to create a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for early and second-stage fast-growth firms. Previously, Gandara was the Community Builder for GE’s FirstBuild and holds a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville. You can reach her at [email protected].