Q&A: Missouri Innovation Center VP Messbarger on accelerators, startup trends

Quinten Messbarger has worked with hundreds of Missouri entrepreneurs in more than 21 years as vice president of the Missouri Innovation Center, a Columbia nonprofit that provides support for high-growth startups.

Now, Messbarger and the Missouri Innovation Center will assist entrepreneurs in a new way with the launch of the center’s first accelerator fund. The fund is targeting technology companies for seed investment with the goal of helping selected companies create a working prototype or initial product.

Missouri Business Alert visited with Messbarger about the accelerator, other goings-on at the Missouri Innovation Center and his experiences as an entrepreneur.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: What’s going on here at the Missouri Innovation Center?

Quinten Messbarger: You have a partnership that is intended to help entrepreneurs who are commercializing technologies and trying to launch high-growth ventures. That’s true whether it is a technology that comes out of the university or whether it’s a group that’s come from some other place in the country to do business here or even a different country, which we do quite a bit of.

Our focus has always been on trying to eliminate the roadblocks that keep these high-growth entrepreneurs from succeeding and try to do everything we can to increase their chance for success. … One of the fun and really exciting things that we do is look at the community, the university, our ecosystem and figure out, “Where can we make a difference? What can we do to change, to fix, to modify things?”

MBA: What do entrepreneurs today need to succeed?

QM: Our focus is on high-growth ventures, so we’re talking about companies that might have $10 million to $20 million of sales in three to five years. It’s a niche group of entrepreneurs.

All businesses need support and coaching and counseling and mentoring and guidance from folks that have been there and done that. So they don’t have to go make the mistakes that some of us have made time and time again.

Beyond that, most of the companies here have a major challenge in raising capital. A high-growth company generally needs a lot more money than you can get from family and friends. … To get investors to give them money, they need to come up with management team members who can fill the business gaps.

So those are probably the two big challenges right now: access to capital and finding management team members.

The University of Missouri's Life Sciences Business Incubator is located on Providence. The building houses the Missouri Innovation Center and entrepreneurs starting high-growth ventures. | Lauren Wrigley/Missouri Business Alert
The University of Missouri’s Life Sciences Business Incubator houses the Missouri Innovation Center and entrepreneurs starting high-growth ventures. | Lauren Wrigley/Missouri Business Alert

MBA: What’s new at the Missouri Innovation Center?

QM: The newest thing is we are launching a new tech accelerator, which is going to be a combination of two things. There’s the accelerator, which is where tech companies apply, and when they get accepted they receive investment.

We’re combining the accelerator model with the incubator model. So that if a company does move forward and raise funds, then they will move into our incubator, where we will continue to work with them until they become a viable company.

MBA: And if they don’t succeed?

QM: There wouldn’t be any place for them if they don’t succeed. That’s one of the challenges that we always face. … There are a lot of reasons why things can fail even though no one really does anything wrong. It’s just the nature of our high-tech world these days. Things move so fast. Things change. Regulations change. There’s just a million reasons why you can do everything right, and still things not work out. You have to be half crazy to be an entrepreneur. It’s definitely risky, but fun!

MBA: What is your personal experience in entrepreneurship?

QM: I was born and raised on a farm, so I was an entrepreneur probably from the time I was in fourth grade on. Back then, as a kid, you would walk beans, and put up hay and do different farm things to earn money.

Later on, I opened up a restaurant in downtown Columbia, which is at Ninth and Cherry. I think Kaldi’s Coffee is there now. That was a lot of fun. It was a lot of work, 100 and some hours a week.

MBA: So why did you stop?

QM: My job was to start it…but I didn’t own it.

It did really well…and I think (the owners) decided it would be easier, now that all the hard work was done and they were making a lot of money, to get rid of me.

So I learned a good entrepreneurial lesson back then. If you’re going to work that hard for someone else’s benefit, make sure you have some ownership.

MBA: What are some trends you’re observing in entrepreneurship?

QM: Some people are getting funded now through crowdsourcing. … For a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s a new way to raise capital that never was available before.

There are certainly a growing number of accelerators, including ours. So the accelerator model is taking off and seems to be a lasting trend.

Here locally…I’ve noticed just a lot more young people being interested in entrepreneurship. … The university wants to hold more entrepreneurial classes. I think that’s good. I would have loved those opportunities when I was going to school.

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