Amid pandemic shocks, St. Louis startup stakeholders find hopeful signs

Pressing concerns intersected with encouraging new developments and hopeful historical examples as the St. Louis Regional Chamber hosted a webinar Thursday to discuss the outlook for entrepreneurship in the region after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matt Menietti from the chamber moderated the discussion, which included Dan Lauer, the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; Mary Louise Helbig, executive director of ITEN, the St. Louis IT entrepreneur network; and Alfred Jackson, entrepreneur support manager at Arch Grants, the startup grant competition and accelerator program.

The panelists discussed their efforts to support entrepreneurs during the pandemic and economic downturn. In multiple cases, the virtual work they are doing now may be useful even after the pandemic is over. Lauer said the University of Missouri System moved a student pitch competition online and was able to bring in judges from all over the world since they weren’t limited by physical location. ITEN has been able to reach more people by going digital, Helbig said, which can benefit the organization in the future, though some things are still best in person.

“It’s forcing us to, as we go through this, look at our programs and kind of see what programs might need to be changed or evolved generally,” Helbig said. “But then also, I think what we really need to be paying attention to, as we come out of this, is which ones can stay in that virtual environment, and which ones do we need to transition back?”

Not all the panelists’ organizations have decided to continue with their regular programs through the pandemic. Arch Grants has decided to postpone its Global Startup Competition, Jackson said, and is instead talking with entrepreneurs to understand how to support them more immediately. This includes the Arch Grants Founders Fund, a relief fund established to help past grant recipients stay in business through the pandemic.

“A lot of our companies, a lot of companies in general, aren’t going to be able to get that funding,” Jackson said of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program funding. “So how can we just kind of be a helping hand and make sure that we provide the capital to weather the storm?”

Jackson said the organization has distributed over $140,000 to at least 16 companies, with grants ranging from $4,000 to $10,000. He cited potential uses for the funds ranging from retaining personnel to “keeping operations afloat.”

Panelists addressed the idea that entrepreneurs and the startups they are building now could be key to helping the region rebound from the economic damage inflicted by COVID-19.

“Entrepreneurs can lead out of the crisis,” Lauer said. “But we have to be guarded.”

He added that, instead of focusing on hiring people, new businesses should be focused on their product, and on how to make it useful in this age.

Jackson added that startups have an opportunity to start hiring employees laid off by larger tech companies, and that this crisis could actually give rise to a strong crop of startups in the area.

“I recall most of our St. Louis ecosystem, our entrepreneur ecosystem, was the result of the 2008 recession,” Jackson said. “So this (current) round (of startups) was the result of hard times, and it will come again after this.”

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