Startups are an important part of any community, but they’re especially important for a city that’s adding population, but shedding jobs in sectors like manufacturing. Businesses that are being built now could be the badly needed employers of the future.
Columbia's entrepreneurial scene is strong and growing. It's sometimes hard to see all the little companies that are popping up all over town, but once a year a lot of them gather for their community's main event, Startup Weekend.
About 150 people congregated at a co-working space in South Columbia this Friday for a chance to win a $2,000 prize and the opportunity to pitch a business idea to Centennial Investors.
Walking the floor with a Mountain Dew and a bright orange Google Glass on his head was Mike Knoop, founder of Zapier, a company that connects different web services together in automated ways. “We started two years ago," he said. "So this is kind of our reunion dance. It's always great to come back to see the roots.”
Knoop and his friends Wade Foster and Bryan Helmig won the top prize at Columbia's very first Startup Weekend in 2011. Now, they've mostly relocated to San Francisco, where they've raised $1.2 million dollars in seed funding.
The event is hosted by Museao, a sprawling co-working space owned by Brent Beshore. This place, and Beshore’s company AdVentures, is the center of a lot of the most promising entrepreneurial activity in Columbia.
“It’s a central point for the startup community to coalesce around," Beshore said. "I don’t think you’re going to find another event--I’m going to argue in Missouri, let alone Columbia--that has the diversity, the energy, and just the execution that this has.”
At its core, Startup Weekend is a kind of tournament, and its sport is pitches. Competitors build teams of marketers, designers and developers, forming an ad-hoc tech company in just 54 hours.
A lot of people came to pitch software ideas, but most are just trying to solve a real problem in their own lives. There was Christi Kasmann who missed meeting new friends through sports. So she pitched an intramural sports network. Jamie Crockett hated that her home, East St. Louis, gets a bad rap in the media. So she pitched an organization that would highlight the positive stories in her hometown.
And then there’s Aaron Gray, an MU family physician who just wanted to spend less time on paperwork, and more time with his patients
"Our idea is Smart Visit," he said. "This is something where the patient, before they see the doctor, they fill out this form and answer specific questions about their problem. We have computers in most of our rooms. When people are talking I’m trying to type out what they’re saying. It’s hard to type out what they’re saying and listen to someone. And if I don't, then I have 15 minutes of paperwork that I’ve got to do instead of seeing the next patient.”
In the end, Dr. Gray’s idea received an honorable mention. The top prize, and a $2000 gift card went to Nudge, a drag and drop interface for email marketing. Second place and $1250 went to Gauntlet Initiative, a 3-D printing business that builds custom prosthetics.
The two teams will get the chance to pitch to real investors next week who could help launch their companies to the next level.