The Heartland Innovation Road Trip continued to make its way through the Midwest on Thursday with a stop in St. Louis for tours of T-REX and CIC St. Louis, and a roundtable discussion at Venture Cafe STL.
T‐REX is located in downtown St. Louis and provides startups and entrepreneurs with low cost, flexible enterprise spaces while serving the region with quality programming and inspiring community. The center opened in 2012 as part of a plan to revitalize St. Louis’ downtown business district after the crumbling of a portion of the city’s corporate businesses.
President and Executive Director T-REX, Patricia Hagen, Ph.D., said the belief of the developers was that St. Louis’ next economy would be built on the backs of small business.
“There are a lot of people who are interested in ensuring that downtown has long-term sustainability,” said Hagen. “There was a dearth of attention being paid to technology startups, so it was really thought to be an opportunity for St. Louis that had been unaddressed. […]People came together around it. [There was] a realization on the part of St. Louis that this could really be something.”
A tax deal was put together to support the downtown growth plans. What resulted was not only a boost in the area’s business development but the emergence of a community.
“There are still people who believe downtown or the city can’t be salvaged,” said Hagen. “We’re going to prove them wrong, we already are. We moved in here in 2014, and since T-REX started, direct and indirect job creation is at over 3,500 jobs.”
The changes to entrepreneurial engagement are also having a positive impact on St. Louis’ history of a divided city.
“We’ve had a racial divide in our city that hopefully, we’re addressing better,” said Hagen. “This is a very inclusive and progressive community here at T-REX, and we think that carries through and can help provide a model for our city.”
CIC St. Louis and the Venture Cafe STL are also leading the city’s entrepreneurs and startups. Venture Cafe was started by Tim Rowe, CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center in Boston/Cambridge, which is one of the country’s original coworking spaces.
“He realized that you needed more than just the building and the companies in the space, you also needed community, so he launched Venture Cafe,” said Tyler Matthews, Executive Director of Venture Cafe STL.
There are currently five Venture Cafe’s worldwide, St. Louis being the first launched outside of Boston, and now the largest. Venture Cafe holds 10 to 15 weekly innovation gatherings attended by over 500 people. They meet on Thursday afternoons for networking, drinks and programming.
Matthews said Venture Cafe STL is helping early-stage entrepreneurs and beyond build a community, and that the events bring people together to make things happen.
“We’ve seen startups get a lead investor at one of our events,” said Matthews. “They’ll land a big client, or meet their co-founder, or just come and learn.”
As a whole, the startup community and Venture Cafe STL promote inclusion of the corporate community and solo-entrepreneurs and makers, as well. They community follow a “rising tide floats all boats” mentality.
Rich Claussen, Ambassador for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Prosper Lincoln, attended the Venture Cafe STL roundtable discussion co-hosted by EQ STL and said that that the energy of the center was different than other places the road trip crew has visited in other communities.
“I felt more comfortable and felt like I took away more insights and ways that we can work together better in our market,” said Claussen. “We’re no threat to them [in Nebraska] which allows them to help us, and we’ll help them.”
“The community seemed collaborative and open to figuring out ways we can work together and bring our networks together to better both of our communities,” added Christina Oldfather, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development.
Christine McGuigan, Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News with on-location reporting by Brian Lee, Managing Director of Silicon Prairie News