Friday, December 7, 2007

Encouraging St. Louis entrepreneurs

One of the best things about my job is that every day is different, and I get to meet with some interesting people all over the world that are doing cool stuff with computers. Lately, I have been spending time at home in St. Louis and enjoying not getting near any airplanes, and this past week have been at meetings with local entrepreneurs. It made me realize that sometimes you don't have to travel far to get to see some great stuff and meet fascinating people who are passionate about technology and working on innovative things.

Last night I was asked to be one of the judges in a competition hosted by Washington University's Skandalaris Center. They are an organization that promotes entrepreneurship and helps to mentor start-ups both with enterprising students and in the community. Every couple of months they host an "Idea Bounce" where budding CEOs-to-be have two minutes to pitch the idea behind the company. We as judges have just a few seconds to mark down our comments and grade the pitch on creativity, how good a presenter they are, and what kinds of resources and help they required to move their ideas forward.

Each evening has a very different collection of ideas, ranging from the mundane to the sophisticated. Five winners are selected by the judges and those five get a check from the university for $100 along with the chance to spend some time with the judges at dinner to get more feedback and advice. The best idea of the evening (at least by my vote) was something very simple and low-tech: a plastic cover for the urinal flush valve that could support a beverage cup. It is called a "beverage buddy" and already has two patents. I got to sit next to the inventor at dinner, along with another judge who is a patent lawyer – he was thrilled that the device already had been through the patenting process. There were other pitches that had merit too, including ones that involved social services, better nursing scheduling algorithms, and a wedding registry for grooms only.

The hard part about starting a new company isn't having a new idea – those are easy. It is knowing what you are good at doing, and what you lack, and how to connect with the right people, resources, and funds to realize your dream. While the Idea Bounce is just the first step in the process, it is an important one because it gives the inventor some basic direction and simple tools that they can use to flesh out their idea.

It was a fun evening, although we had a light turnout for the event because of our first light snow of the season. Anyone can attend for free – you don't have to pitch and can just be a spectator. Those of you that are local might want to put it on your calendar for 2008.

Then this morning I was off to the Missouri Venture Forum, another group devoted to helping start new businesses in the area. We got to hear from the principals at a new networking vendor that is based nearby called Global Velocity, who will be in production sometime early next year with a new networking product. The CEO proudly mentioned how most of his talent was home-grown, and they are planning on doing the fabrication right here in St. Louis.

So while we are a long way off from Silicon Valley, it is nice to see that we have such a rich incubation culture and plenty of resources to draw on here in St. Louis.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.