UMSL alumni grow the St. Louis startup scene

Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the dot-com business, is known as the place for startups. Recently, though, St. Louis is gaining momentum.

St. Louis is the number one startup city in the United States, according to Popular Mechanics. The publication identified 14 locales among “the next wave of cities building an ecosystem to turn innovators into entrepreneurs.”

UMSL alumnus Jan Christian Andersen

UMSL alumnus Jan Christian Andersen sits in Lab1500, the business incubator he co-founded. (Photo by August Jennewein)

University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus Jan Christian Andersen agrees with that assessment.

Andersen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication in 1998, says St. Louis is the perfect landscape for startups. That’s why he’s chosen the city as the home base for his companies.

“I think there are multiple reasons why St. Louis is a great place for startups,” he says. “Number one, it’s a very close-knit community. People are extremely supportive of each other. We have a very open relationship with other founders; there isn’t the same competitive edge to it that you may find in other markets. Here, I think everyone understands the situation we are in as a very fast-growing community – that if one company does well, it’s going to open up a lot of doors for another company.

“The other thing is that we have some great organizations in place to help support startup businesses. There are a number of successful entrepreneurs that have come back to St. Louis and are putting both their time and money where their mouth is, to support this still relatively young, although fast-growing, ecosystem. Throw on top of that the universities in the area supporting entrepreneurship, and you see why St. Louis is doing so well.”

Since graduating from UMSL, Andersen has had his hand in a number of startups, either as an early employee or as a founder. After helping to successfully build Wind Capital Group, a large utility-scale wind energy developer, he and long-time friend Dan Lohman created their own companies.

The pair started by forming Ignition Tank, a small incubator, which is a company that offers support services to other new companies.

With that in mind, they started looking for space in downtown St. Louis. They found a 120-year- old, two-story brick structure at 1500 Washington Ave., and from there, Lab1500 was born.

“We thought what was missing at the time was a location for people with very early-stage ideas,” Andersen says. “Someone who may otherwise stay at home and work from their couch or sit at a Starbucks all day, really had nowhere to go to work or to find people to share their ideas with, bounce things off of, attend workshops and network. We created Lab1500 out of that.”

Through Lab1500, the partners met Yomi Toba and ventured into their next startup.

Pushup Social is an easy-to-implement social network that can live within an organization’s existing website. The company launched in the fall of 2014 and is in the growing stage.

“I’ve always been attracted to either early-stage or startup companies,” Andersen says. “I like the idea that you get to be creative and wear several different hats. And I certainly like the flexibility of lifestyle that comes with that. You tend to put in probably more hours than most people do in a workweek, but you also have other freedoms that come with that. It’s a little less structure I suppose, which certainly fits my personality well.”

UMSL alumna Sheila Burkett decided to try the world of entrepreneurship after ending a successful career with Edward Jones. Burkett, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UMSL in 1989, is president of Tuxedo Park Leasing, a property redevelopment company, and founder and managing partner of Spry Digital, LLC. She is also one of the founders of Women Entrepreneurs of St. Louis.


UMSL alumna Sheila Burkett is the managing partner of the digital solutions firm Spry Digital. (Photo by August Jennewein)

In 2008, she purchased a building at 2710 Lafayette Ave. and started her own consulting firm, providing technology consulting to small business owners and nonprofit organizations.

By 2009, she partnered with Ken Moire and Julia Koelsch to begin Spry Digital, which offers digital solutions for organizations in the form of web design, development, branding, graphic design, illustration and digital marketing. That successfully launched in 2010. In February 2015, the team founded OpenDonorCRM for nonprofit and community organizations to collect donations and manage events and memberships.

“I believe that St. Louis has the right combination of educational institutions, support systems and cost of living to make it a place for people to create and innovate,” Burkett says. “If you look at the fact that St. Louis is home to several large financial service companies, the money is here, too. It is just a matter of showing the people with the money the benefit of investing in these startup companies.” But she also thinks there’s still room for improvement with the city.

“Funding for startups, small-business owners and entrepreneurs must improve, especially for women and minority business owners,” she says. “On the flip side, we must educate and encourage business owners to be open to investors and growing their businesses. Creating an environment where risk-taking and possible failure is OK will enable people to take the chance on becoming the next big innovator.”

As Andersen puts it, support is the only thing standing in the way of St. Louis becoming a startup powerhouse instead of “the cute little startup city that could.”

“Technology really allows that to happen,” he says. “All you need is a laptop and a good idea.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of UMSL Magazine.

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