By Kat Riddler, Editor-in-Chief
Ameren President and CEO Warner Baxter, a University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus, spoke to a packed room at Cortex on March 31 at 11:30 a.m. about a new collaboration project: Ameren Accelerator.
The Ameren Accelerator is a unique partnership between public and private institutions and is one of the first of its kind in the United States and the first in the St. Louis region to focus on energy technologies. The partnership with the University of Missouri System, UMSL Accelerate, and Capital Innovators that will assess, mentor, and invest in energy technology startup companies.
Baxter said, “Ameren Accelerator is an important new component of our focus on innovative technologies. It’s ultimately to make the energy grid smarter, more reliable, more resilient, and secure while transforming how our customer’s manage and use energy to power their lives—not just today, but for the future.”
Five to seven startup companies are expected to be chosen, and each will receive $100,000 in seed capital to participate in the Ameren Accelerator program each program year. The program is located in St. Louis’ innovation and technology district of Cortex at the CIC@4240 Building.
Beginning today through May 12, applications will be accepted from interested entrepreneurs and energy technology companies. Information and requirements can be found at amerenaccelerator.com. In July, the selected startup companies will receive seed funding and hands-on support throughout the 12-week program. Senior-level executives from a variety of companies will provide mentorship. At the conclusion of the program, participants will be invited to showcase their efforts to both the mentoring teams and potential third-party investors during Accelerator Demo Day in October. Ameren may select the most promising projects for ongoing mentoring and engagement beyond the program.
UM System President Mun Choi said, “These are exactly the types of programs we want to launch in the State of Missouri for economic development.”
Choi cited the 2016 Bloomberg Index of State Innovation and noted that Missouri is 32nd in the nation for economic devel. Choi said, “We need to embrace our flagship system mission which says let’s use those elements—research, education, and outreach—to have breakthroughs in sustainability, in resilience, in conservation. But just as importantly, we need to imbue in our educational programs the innovator, the experiential learning opportunities for our students to become the next generation of innovators regardless of where they go.”
UMSL Accelerate is a campus-wide initiative that focuses on fostering entrepreneurism and innovative thinking inside and outside the classroom. The program is housed in the College of Business. It has specialized classes and offers an undergraduate interdisciplinary certificate that provides the tools and knowledge for success for not only the entrepreneurial world but also for any field.
UMSL Chancellor Thomas George said, “We’re proud to be a primary partner in this project and look forward to engaging our strong contingent of faculty, student, staff, and alumni with connections to make it a success.”
Capital Innovators is one of the leaders in the country of accelerator programs. Capital Innovators have invested in and started over 70 companies and created hundreds of jobs, 90 percent of which are in St. Louis. CEO of Capital Innovators Judy Sindecuse said, “Capital Innovators is excited to lead the movement through this partnership for the next level of accelerator programs to focus on the world’s most pressing issues, such as energy. … It’s really going to be an amazing, new accelerator model that we hope will stand up as a torch to lead accelerators across the world so we can really make a difference.”
Cortex President and CEO Dennis Lower, who created a space for innovation and entrepreneurships, credited UMSL for their initiative in the establishment of emerging technologies in the mid-1990s. After the first building in the Cortex development was constructed in 1998, companies grew and needed new space, so UMSL and the other partners collaborated to form Cortex in 2002. Lower continued to connect the growth of the accelerator program with the new growth of the Cortex community. Lower said, “Currently, Cortex is home to 320 companies. … These companies, small and large, interact with each other on a regular basis. It is often unexpected and in serendipitous ways that leads to the collaborative launch of yet a new startup company.”
Lower continued, “We have no doubt that this accelerator will create new technologies and management tools that will contribute to the needed energy solutions that we have not just here in St. Louis but nationally and globally.”
Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt was the last to speak at the press conference. Schmitt said, “St. Louis has always been a place where innovation has met or opportunity has met people stepping up to the challenge. Whether it was us participating sending people to the moon, or it was a group of business people who believed that we could have an airplane that could make a trans-Atlantic flight, this place has always been a place where we have embraced that.”
Schmitt concluded, “I’m very honored to be here today to celebrate another shining example that Missouri is open for business.”
Entrepreneurship and UMSL
The Ameren Accelerator program has been in the making for a couple years and has taken several people working together. Lower said, “It does take a village to build a village.” College of Business Dean Charles Hoffman explained that the efforts of those in the “village” made the press conference possible.
When Dean Hoffman assumed his current position in August 2013, he was asked about entrepreneurship programs. The program did not exist at UMSL. Hoffman decided to host a “Day of Entrepreneurship and Innovation” in the Cortex district as an experiment to test startup interest in St. Louis. To his surprise, 60 students signed up for the Saturday event, and many were not business students. Chris Miller, a teaching professor at Washington University, ran the program. UMSL Business then began the UM System’s Entrepreneurial Scholars Internship Program, which offered students from each of the four campuses a $4,000 stipend for a startup idea, mentorship, and a focused internship. They have continued this program and have selected their third cohort. Dean Hoffman had met alumnus and entrepreneur Dan Lauer during this time and hired him as a contractor to make a more formal program at UMSL.
Hoffman, Miller, and Lauer worked to make the program a university-wide effort, asking for input from the UMSL academic deans. Dean Hoffman said, “The first step we conducted was an asset mapping exercise to determine just what is happening in the entrepreneurship/innovation area across campus. To our surprise, there were some 200 separate, uncoordinated activities.”
A curriculum committee was formed and began as a single class taught by Miller that expanded to five courses. Hoffman said, “Recently the faculty senate approved an 18-hour certificate program designed by the committee, which has representatives from Business, Arts and Sciences, and Education.”
Miller was hired by UMSL as a College of Business professor and continued to work with Hoffman and Lauer to develop the theme of UMSL Accelerate: Educate, Innovate, and Collaborate. Collaboration was critical to their success as they redirected a large gift from Express Scripts to fund the effort. Lauer had developed a relationship with Capital Innovators, a top ten accelerator, and developed the idea for the university to partner with a corporate sponsor to solve business problems. Hoffman said, “We targeted some of our closest corporate partners. Ameren showed the most interest early on; the roughly six months of negotiations led to today’s announcement.”
As the executive director of UMSL Accelerate, Lauer is now an employee of the College of Business and works with Ala Al-Lozi, assistant director. Hoffman said, “At each step of the way, this new idea has created things that UMSL and UM System had never done before. We needed a great deal of help from legal, procurement, the CFO, and the Chancellor to make this happen. Interim Provost Spilling has been an important and impactful supporter.”
Hoffman explained that some of the Accelerate programs also interact with the St. Louis community. Hoffman said, “Along the way, we also founded Gateway Accelerate, which is bringing in international entrepreneurs to St. Louis with UMSL’s assistance. That program is also progressing along nicely with financial assistance from Civic Progress.”