A pitch for the future: UMSL Accelerate’s impact grows alongside new space

Nameera Fatima presents at UMSL Accelerate

UMSL graduate student Nameera Fatima shares her story during a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator event. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The phrase “dense spontaneous collisions” comes up a lot when Dan Lauer talks about entrepreneurship.

It’s all about creating opportunities for impromptu meeting between creative, ambitious individuals. There’s no way to predict exactly what will happen.

“You’ve just got to create an environment for them,” he says.

That’s exactly what Lauer, founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and founder and creator of Waterbabies, intends to do with the new UMSL Accelerate facility.

UMSL Accelerate moved its operations to the former Gallery 210 space during the fall semester. Moving forward, Lauer envisions the facility being a hub for numerous UMSL-led accelerators and a gathering place for collaboration among startup founders and the UMSL community.

It will also serve as a recruitment tool for the university and an economic development engine for the St. Louis region. In December, the university selected a design from local firms CI Select and St. Louis Design Alliance and began fundraising to bring the concept to life.

“Our mission is to be a first choice for entrepreneur-minded students,” Lauer says. “We want to be known in the region, and then the country, as one of the great places to learn.”

Like most entrepreneurs, Lauer was excited by a blank slate.

That’s what he saw when he and former College of Business Administration Dean Charles Hoffman conceived and eventually founded UMSL Accelerate in 2016.

The idea was to provide classroom and internship experiences that would effectively serve modern students in the age of startups and side hustles. They founded the project on three pillars: educate, innovate and collaborate.

UMSL Accelerate facility

A rendering of the proposed renovations. (Courtesy of St. Louis Design Alliance)

In the classroom, faculty employ cutting-edge business pedagogy, and students have the option to take classes or earn a degree in entrepreneurship. Clubs, clinics and programs provide students the freedom to innovate. Meanwhile, UMSL-led accelerators foster community collaboration by providing business connections, funding and mentorship to local entrepreneurs.

“I want a tremendous student experience,” Lauer says. “If you’ve got robust teaching on how to start a business, finance, marketing, all the business tools, if you’ve got groups where you’re learning from your peers and companies where a student can get paid to learn, maybe UMSL will become the top choice for students interested in entrepreneurship.”

Lauer and COBA Dean Joan Phillips view the new facility as a fundamental resource to enhance coursework and accelerator programming. Ideally, it will be a hive of activity where students can connect with each other and leaders in the business community.

The bold vision for the nearly 10,000 square-foot space promises to bring that to fruition. Like a good pitch, the facility will be designed to make a striking first impression – starting with the entrance.

There will be an eye-catching entrance plaza, and the foyer will be opened up to reveal a lounge awash in natural light, a free coffee bar, digital walls and a staircase leading to a second-floor outdoor terrace.

The auditorium is now “The Shark Tank,” and Lauer sees it serving as an arena for classes, pitch competitions and TED-style talks. A large portion of the facility will be dedicated to work spaces replete with white boards and private rooms perfect for brainstorming meetings as well as ping pong tables and a pool table for breaks. Another portion will be dedicated to a casual faculty lounge, where Lauer feels students will be more comfortable coming to office hours.

In the back corner, a maker space will include a 3D printer, the focal point of a new class on product development. An outdoor patio will furnish students with an area to relax away from the buzzing interior.

Tony Davis

College of Business Administration alumnus Tony Davis founded Pop Pop Hurray!, a premium gourmet popcorn company, and is part of the second UMSL Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator cohort. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Finally, the exterior grounds will flow into the footprint of the neighboring Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

The proposed renovations are estimated at $3 million, and Lauer also wants to create a $10 million endowment for UMSL Accelerate to benefit future generations. He’s already found support from one prominent UMSL alumnus.

Joe Stieven, a two-time COBA graduate and CEO of Stieven Capital Advisors, donated $1 million to the building fund and $1 million to the endowment. Stieven has stayed connected to UMSL over the years and is especially interested in supporting UMSL Accelerate because of the potential impact on economic development.

“The driving force of the economy is small businesses,” Stieven says. “It’s not the mega companies. The beauty of UMSL is that many of our graduates stay here in St. Louis. If we can help foster successful startups who then end up employing St. Louisans, it’s like a double or triple win for St. Louis.”

Lauer and Phillips want to build on the DEI Accelerator’s successes. There are plans for a creative arts accelerator led by Brian Owens, E. Desmond Lee Community Music Artist in Residence, and Lauer can see adding a financial technology accelerator or veterans accelerator.

It’s not only an investment in the university but also in the economic ecosystem of St. Louis.

“The vision of UMSL Accelerate is something that’s exciting for the whole university,” Phillips says, “that we can rally around to prepare the next generation of leaders to be innovative.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2022 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

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