A Look Inside the Quietly Growing St. Louis Startup Scene

January 16, 2014

2:14 pm

When you think of the St. Louis startup scene, you can’t only think of Jim McKelvey anymore. He’s still very active, but there is more than just one Atlas bearing the weight of the world in St. Louis these days.

Clifford Holekamp is one such titan, and he has been instrumental in fashioning the city into a collaborative circle where all the involved entities feed one another. He got his start after graduating from Washington University (Wash U) with an MBA in entrepreneurship.

Foot Healers was his first company, a podiatry store paired with a doctor’s office, which he sold in 2007. The unexpectedly early buyout brought with it the opportunity of a lifetime: the freedom to take risks.

When Wash U then re-entered his life and asked if he would be interested in teaching classes, he jumped at the opportunity. And his one class trial session soon blossomed into the Entrepreneurship Platform at Wash U where he currently acts as director.

Over the last four years he has co-founded collaboration between his Entrepreneurship Platform and the Brown School of social work, established a study abroad course in Budapest, and cross-listed an exchange program with the IDC in Herzliya, Israel.

“Often business schools take the wrong approach to social entrepreneurship. They say they’re going to teach students how to run a charity like a business,” says Holekamp. “But it’s really about creating social capital and value.”

He took his opportunity and extended it to as many students as he could. And not wanting the city of St. Louis to be left out, he founded the CELect course which is partnered with T-Rex. Every semester a couple dozen students get sent there for local, hands-on experience.

“This all helps the students cross the threshold,” says Holekamp. “There’s typically a veil of mystery with startups.”

And T-Rex is more than happy to be a part of the program because they end up hiring a lot of the students full-time. The downtown incubator even relocated to an eight-story building to better accommodate the 80 companies that use their offices and to prepare for future additions.

Cultivation Capital – the VC firm that Holekamp co-founded alongside McKelvey, Brian Matthews, Peter Esparrago, and Rick Holton Jr. – even calls T-Rex home now too. The crew can live and breathe with their portfolio companies; it brings in an element of closeness and familiarity.

That, in turn, breeds a sense of connectedness that Holekamp believes is a critical component for superior guidance and mentorship. And superior guidance and mentorship is what Holekamp, McKelvey, Matthews, Esparrago, Holton, T-Rex, Wash U, and Cultivation Capital are all after.

It’s one of the founding pillars at Cultivation Capital, it factored into the founding of SixThirty, and it’s also the reason places like Capital Innovators have been so valuable for the St. Louis ecosystem. All of the parties and entities involved seem to share a unified vision of the entire startup scene as one organism; it’s a true celebration of collaboration, community, and connectedness.

“We celebrate the startups here in St. Louis like we celebrate the Cardinals, and everybody is rooting for them to succeed,” says Holekamp. “I think that’s the theme I see growing: the sense of the community rallying around our entrepreneurs and realizing we’re an innovation city. We really have been a hub for innovation and we’re getting less modest about it.”









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Will is a Senior Writer with Tech.Co, based out of America's Finest City: San Diego. He covers all territory West of the Mississippi river, digging deep for awesome local entrepreneurs, companies, and ideas. He's the resident Android junkie and will be happy to tell you why you should switch to the OS. When he's off the clock, Will focuses his literary talent on the art of creative writing...or you might find him surfing in Ocean Beach. Follow Will on Twitter @WJS1988

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