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Startup Missouri hosts inaugural entrepreneurial Expo

More than 200 entrepreneurs who aim to turn their ideas into successful products and businesses connected with mentors and resources at Startup Missouri’s inaugural Startup Expo Oct. 30.

The daylong event, held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel St. Louis-Chesterfield, also featured dozens of exhibitors, presentations from educators and founders of startups, and two keynote speakers. Startup Missouri organizers said they expect the Expo will be the first of many such events and that it will become a pivotal part of the state’s entrepreneurial community.

Tom Schlafly, founder of Saint Louis Brewery, kicked off the event with a breakfast keynote speech in which he detailed his “David vs. Goliath” difficulties and successes while establishing his company. At lunch, keynote speaker Gary Wilbers encouraged the group of entrepreneurs to think positively and work towards their goal by using the acronym CHARGE: create habits around real goals every day.

“The biggest thing about a Startup Expo, no matter what age you are, it allows you that opportunity to really tell yourself ‘now is the time,’” Wilbers said after his speech presentation.

From listening in on panels of successful entrepreneurs to interacting with exhibitor booths aimed at servicing young companies, Cotton Cuts founder Kimberly Moos said it’s all about connecting.

“In coming to events like this, even if it’s just one connection, one person that has the right business partner for you makes it totally worth it,” said Moos, who left her job as a biomedical engineer with Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals to launch her Chesterfield-based company — a subscription-box service for quilters.

Attendee Anika Porter has owned her own business for more than 10 years, but recently she launched a new business that she said is totally outside of her expertise. She wants to run this business differently than she did her last company, so she said she came to the Expo to “keep her weapons sharp” and learn what she could do to support her vision.

“The [entrepreneurship] panel as invaluable because it confirms basically what entrepreneurs are, and sometimes it’s a lonely place and you feel kind of crazy because you think kind of different or creatively than the general population,” Porter said during a break from educational sessions.

Her new company, Lifespiration, is based in the St. Louis region and helps corporations to inspire positive corporate culture, increase staff energy and improve overall communication through various products and services. Porter said she came to the Expo in part to find ways to communicate her company’s mission to business people in an approachable and understandable way.

“To hear their success story is totally inspiring,” Porter said of the Expo’s presenters. “. . . I love the fact that they were so realistic with their stories and not trying to dress it up, you know, or make it pretty. But I really loved the fact that they were real about their journey.”

In addition to panels and educational sessions, Startup Missouri partnered with Washington University in St. Louis’ Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship to host one of the school’s IdeaBounce contests.

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Publisher Liz Irwin (right) chats with the winners of the IdeaBounce competition

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Participants were asked to present a two-minute pitch about their invention or business proposal to a panel of judges, which included: Michael Seper, associate director of the Skandalaris Center; Chris Slinkard, Director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Missouri Division of Employment Security; and Cindi Lash, Startup Missouri editor.

A dozen people pitched their ideas for businesses and products ranging from a specially-designed towel for disabled adults to an at-home tattoo pen.

The winner of the $250 cash prize, however, was Michael Sato and his business partner, Joshua Veal-Briscoe. Sato is a public defender working in Saint Charles who is working with a team of engineers on an app call Freecog, an “application that takes advantage of AWS’s facial and voice recognition to make posting bond a more affordable experience for defendants, and a more reliable system for judges than what is currently in place.”

Contestant Larry Ashlock, of Alton, Illinois, said he came to the Expo to learn the business aspects of bringing his card game, Tic Tac Match, to market and selling it.  He has a patent pending on the game, which he describes as a modern twist on Tic Tac Toe. Ashlock said he came up with the idea for the game to avoid always having a tie at the end of a game.

“I just started the [business] process, so I was shocked at how supportive everybody is here,” Ashlock said of the Expo.

Ashlock said he was assigned several months ago to work with a SCORE mentor who encouraged him to come to the Expo. SCORE, which provides free business mentoring and education, was among the sponsors of the Expo.

“People, they want to share what they have, and they want other people to be successful, which I was a little surprised at because mostly when you think of businesses they’re out to make money and, you know . . . compete against each other. But there is definitely a spirit of cooperation,” Ashlock said.

“People are honest about what it takes to start a business, which I think is helpful because everybody wants a piece of the American dream,” he added. “But if you don’t tell people how hard it is, then it can be even more discouraging because you have no hope if you don’t really realize what you’re getting into.”

Startup Missouri anticipates the Expo will become an annual event and part of the foundation that makes the Show-Me-State’s entrepreneurial community so strong.

“I thought it was a huge success,” Startup Missouri publisher Liz Irwin said. “We were incredibly pleased by the turnout by both professionals who can assist startups as well as the number of attendees who represented the startup community. There was a wealth of enthusiasm, idea sharing, education and advice for everyone — exhibitors, professionals and entrepreneurs.”

Learn more about the inaugural Startup Missouri Expo and what’s ahead for 2020

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