Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came to St. Louis recently, visiting with entrepreneurs, local leaders and small business owners at the Cortex Innovation Community, not far from the iSelect office. He was in town to launch a new small business development initiative called Facebook Community Boost which, according to them, is going to help business owners in flyover country finally reach their digital potential.
That’s great, and the fact that St. Louis was his first stop on a planned 30-city tour was no accident.
Zuckerberg is also visiting off-the-beaten-path destinations such as Albuquerque, Des Moines and Greenville, S.C., but by coming here first he sent a strong message to the city and the Midwest as a whole: There is a real groundswell of innovation happening in St. Louis, and the world is taking notice.
But I have news for Zuckerberg (Mr. did-he-or-didn’t-he-open-the-door-to-Russian-interference). He’s late to the game on this. Years late.
I’ve been in St. Louis since 1989. I know full well just how much innovation is happening here. That’s why iSelect was created in the first place.
We’re happy to welcome newcomers to town, but this has been going on for far longer than the folks from the coasts think. Entrepreneurs have been building companies, developing products and generating investment interest in St. Louis for years. It’s just what we do here. It might not be sexy to admit on the street in Palo Alto or San Jose, but St. Louis is a hotbed of innovation activity in agtech, healthcare, software and more, and we don’t need Facebook’s help to do any of it.
In fact, investment dollars are already finding their way from the coasts to support ventures here in Missouri and beyond, which is great to see.
According to a recent report in TechCrunch, seed venture funds—which have been generally quiet through 2017, with fewer new seed-stage funds launching and fewer investment rounds being completed—are currently focusing their attention on three major themes: hot new technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality…and the Midwest.
Sorry TechCrunch, but this is nothing new. Not at all.
AOL founder Steve Case launched his first “Rise of the Rest” tour in 2014, focused on Midwestern cities and allowing entrepreneurs in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Nashville to pitch their ideas directly to Case and a panel of other successful founders. A year later, he did it again. Now he’s raising a $100 million seed fund to support entrepreneurs like these.
At iSelect, we’re supporting companies that are solving some of the world’s biggest problems, bringing new innovation to agriculture (like Benson Hill Biosystems and Agrible), healthcare (like Cofactor Genomics and Gila Therapeutics), resource efficiency (like Bractlet and Holganix) and more. We’ve been investing in early-stage companies since 2014 and have to-date made more than 30 investments in startups in Denver, Austin, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Columbus, Champaign, Memphis, Kansas City and more. (Yes, including St. Louis.)
And we aren’t alone. According to the 2017 Kauffman Index of Growth Entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial growth is no longer limited to places like Silicon Valley, Boston and New York City. In fact, the five metropolitan areas with the highest levels of entrepreneurship in 2016 were, in order: Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tenn.; and Atlanta, Ga.
And the word is out.
It was great to have Zuckerberg in town and it was great to see the media coverage that his visit generated. But we’ve been here all along, and we’re not going anywhere. “The Rest” isn’t just rising. It’s been here for years, and we’re excited to welcome the rest of the investment community to our ecosystem at last.