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This $50,000 demo day shows how communities can support startups

If you’ve ever moved, you know how awful moving really is. Five years ago, my wife and I and our three kids moved from Arizona to Florida to Missouri in the span of six months.

The fact that a beta fish was the only living thing we lost track of still amazes me. The fact that my wife didn’t kill someone—probably me, but really anyone—during those six months also amazes me.

Still, as much as our moves sucked, we were only five people.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to relocate a whole company.

Apparently, I am not alone.

Corporate relocations happen, but not often. Moving an entire company (or even a large division) is expensive, a significant disruption to business, and often results in a loss of talented employees who are unwilling or unable to move. Sure, it does happen—just like some families move multiple times across the country in six months—but most rational decision makers try to avoid it.

That said, employer relocation is a significant focus of local economic development.

But in St. Charles County, Missouri, economic developers have expanded their focus beyond more typical programs like employer relocation and small-business financing to include supporting early-stage startups.

(For readers who don’t know where St. Charles County is, it’s located just west of the Missouri River in the St. Louis Metropolitan area.)

For the third year in a row, the St. Charles County EDC Business and Community Partners and OPO Startups will host the St. Charles County Demo Day, where $50,000 in cash and additional in-kind prizes will be handed out to high-potential startups.

Winning any serious startup competition—even a local one—can be a momentum generator for new companies. It certainly was for last year’s first-place Demo Day winner, breast pump manufacturer Babyation. The company has been featured in Wired, The New York Times, and Forbes. More importantly, Babyation is currently finalizing a significant Series A investment.

Babyation wasn’t the only winner. Second-place prize winner DSquared International has effectively doubled its workforce and revenue since last year’s Demo Day. ConextVR founder Mark Neville, winner of the first Demo Day, successfully exited his company and currently serves as CTO for TechCrunch-bound Astral AR, an advanced drone-system maker.

“Personally, I believe the founders participating in Demo Day have the skill and ability to build companies that, with time, will eventually create a significant number of high-paying, high-skilled jobs,” said St. Charles EDC CEO Greg Prestemon. “As economic developers, one of our goals is to have a community where talented residents don’t have to leave to get a good job. One of the best ways to do that is by helping early-stage startups succeed.”

Demo Day isn’t just supported by economic developers. Entrepreneurs within the community have jumped in to support the idea that startups are critically important to strong local economies.

Bryan Bowles, President and founder of Worth Clark Realty, will serve as a judge for Demo Day. His company is also a sponsor of the event. Worth Clark is just five years old and was listed on the Inc. 500 in 2016 and 2017. Still, even though Worth Clark Realty is relatively new, supporting Demo Day aligns with the company’s long-term strategy.

“Programs like St. Charles County Demo Day play a key role in building a foundation of talent in a specific geographic area,” said Bowles. “With talent and high-achieving startups come funding and other resources. We look at that concentration of talent and those resources as crucial to our growth strategy. Plus, it’s one thing for a community to say it supports entrepreneurs and quite another for it to back up those words with actual money. I’m proud that in our community we’re doing that.”

The success of Demo Day participants shows why startups hold so much potential.

Fifty thousand dollars in tax incentives wouldn’t go very far in enticing companies to relocate.

However, the same amount of money given to high-potential early-stage startups can give them a boost of momentum (along with needed cash) and build a bond between the company and the community that supports it.

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Dustin McKissen is a consultant based in St. Charles, Missouri. He’s a two-time LinkedIn Top Voice and a columnist for Inc. and CNBC.