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When entrepreneurs Andrew Glantz and Jacob Mohrman entered the 12-week Capital Innovators accelerator program in February, they didn’t have a partnership with a major regional restaurant chain to implement their food donation app, they were not happy with their company’s name (FoodShare), and they were both college students. At the conclusion of the program, they announced a new contract with Applebee’s, their company had become GiftAMeal, and Mohrman graduated from Washington University (Glantz will be a senior in the fall). That’s a lot in 12 weeks, even in the startup community.
The Capital Innovators accelerator, ranked nationally among the top 10 accelerators for the past three years, offers selected tech startup companies $50,000 of seed money, project-based mentorship, networking opportunities and follow-up funding opportunities over the course of 12 weeks. The program concludes with a Demo Day, with this cohort’s taking place on May 17 at The Pageant. Hundreds of attendees, including potential investors and consumers, came out to see companies demonstrate their progress. The most recent cohort also benefited from a ground-breaking collaboration between Capital Innovators and Maritz, the 122-year-old St. Louis-based sales and marketing firm.
Judy Sindecuse, CEO and managing partner of Capital Innovators, said that this collaboration was the next logical step, “(We’re) doing a pretty good job in moving these companies along, and the St. Louis ecosystem around startups is really becoming very robust. I feel like the next step is for the major corporations in town to get behind these startups. As I was out trying to make that happen, I met Tracie and we started discussing what Maritz’s goals were, and what they were trying to do and then what I was trying to make happen in the start-up ecosystem. It just seemed like a really good fit so we started talking about how we could work together.”
Tracie Gildehaus, senior director of insights and innovation for The Maritz Institute, Maritz’s research and development organization, said that working with the St. Louis entrepreneurship ecosystem came up as an opportunity in the course of planning Maritz’s annual internal innovation event two years ago, one theme of which was “innovation acceleration.”
“We were looking at innovation ecosystems globally, nationally and then specifically to St. Louis and when we looked at St. Louis we felt like we had just discovered something amazing in our backyard,” Gildehaus said. “We reached out to Judy and invited her to speak at our event and we also invited a sampling of some of the companies in her alumni portfolio. Over time, we’ve really nurtured a very strong relationship. The Capital Innovators accelerator is very serendipitous to our portfolio as we are a B2B marketing services company, and she’s very focused on emerging tech.”
Tracie was also a mentor to this spring’s cohort company Alpha Channel, a SaaS platform helping brands find and select the right agency for their marketing projects founded by Max Adler.
By February of this year, Maritz was ready to offer their resources to assist with the acceleration of the next cohort of companies. After interviewing each of the six companies in the cohort to determine what their needs were, Gildehaus said, “We aligned their need back to one of our strengths.” Some of Maritz’s strengths—such as people-centered-design, product market fit, messaging design—extend out of Maritz’s expertise as an innovative marketing company. Some, however, are simply the result of being a large corporation: an extensive network of resources and skill sets including such basic corporate needs as accounting and human resources. All were available to the entrepreneurs in the program as part of the collaboration.
Grant Weber, founder and CEO of Riley’s Organics, a line of human grade USDA-certified organic dog treats, attributes his participation in this spring’s cohort to his ability to launch from the grocery channel to the specialty pet food channel, meeting Brad Allen, founder of The Greenies Company, and added a shopping cart to his website.
“Maritz has great expertise in publicity, PR and loyalty, so they definitely got our organization thinking along those lines,” he says. “When you’re going to do a loyalty program, you’ve got to have it all planned out in advance. So they [were] helping us do the early thinking and planning about how we’re going to do that the right way. We also brought PR in-house with new interns, and we’re got coaching from Maritz on how to use them.”
Quantimodo, a company in the most recent cohort, works to integrate and analyze data from life-tracking apps and wearable devices to reveal hidden causes of and new treatments for chronic illnesses.
“Maritz was dramatically helpful in identifying ways to improve the application in order to increase usability,” says Mike Sinn, founder and CEO of Quantimodo. “They provided User Experience people and feedback which enabled me to make improvements, as well as providing a lot of guidance on how to generate sustainable revenues.” Sinn worked with Maritz accounting resources to determine a sustainable path.
Dave Ramish, co-founder of Semantix, a company that uses innovative techniques in artificial intelligence to understand and organize human knowledge, worked with mentor Sern Anderson, sales incentive executive at Maritz.
“Our lead mentor, Sern, collected feedback from design and content experts across Maritz to help us improve our marketing materials like our 1-pager, our pitch deck, our website, the banner for our booth, etc.,” he says. “He also coached me on presentation style and improving the demo day presentation itself. He listened to me give the pitch a number of times and gave targeted feedback.”
Ramish says Anderson provided a forum for critical strategic discussions as they relate to prioritizing customer types and raising funds, leveraging the skills of Laura Dryer, human resources director at Maritz, to assist with recruiting.
“At one point we had seven Maritz people sitting around the table. They helped us with our rebrand from FoodShare to GiftaMeal,” says Glantz. “They helped us with the messaging and strategy with the rebrand to make sure it went smoothly. They also helped us out with preparing some of our marketing materials and Facebook ads we’re going to be launching soon. They provided feedback on design, suggestions for content and strategies.”
Jessica Edgar, marketing manager at The Maritz Institute, was a mentor for GiftaMeal and Riley’s Organics. She said the collaboration, although great for the startup companies, was equally great for Maritz.
“As mentors from Maritz we learned how to think quickly, be agile and think like a startup—since we’re in this corporate mindset,” she says. “It was a really great exchange of ideas and best practices.”
Looking to the Future
The knowledge gained by Maritz mentors, who will continue to be the primary corporate mentoring organization for Capital Innovators, is shared internally through a communication plan that includes that knowledge sharing back to the organization. In addition, new mentors will be recruited in the fall from Maritz.
This spring’s cohort was an informal start to what will be a more formal collaboration. In the fall, the program will be modeled after the proven structure of Capital Innovators’ typical mentorship program.
“We have lead mentors and a whole slew of subject matter area experts, and that is a very efficient way for us to run our mentorship program,” says Sindecuse. “Instead of ad hoc meetings here and there it’s very structured and project-based.”
The Capital Innovators team looks to expand on the services they can over as they continue the partnership.
“We were very entrepreneur-like with this new program. We wanted to understand what these companies needed,” says Gildehaus. “We really identified some of the services that are gaps for a lot of these entrepreneurs. We’re looking at aligning dedicated resources so that from a consistency perspective we are right there at the very onset of the program. We’re looking at that model of having an actual point of contact centered with each company and also use the proximity network internally so we can pull in additional subject matter experts as needed.”
Beyond the next cohort, both Sindecuse and Gildehaus hope the collaboration of Capital Innovators and Maritz inspires other corporations to get involved in the St. Louis startup community.
“I’m very appreciative that Maritz is picking up the slack and leading this charge and showing the companies in St. Louis that this is at least one example of how you can get involved and be supportive of startups.”says Sindecuse.
Gildehaus agrees. “This mentorship program really makes the case for corporations and startups to partner in new, meaningful ways to co-create, leverage unique skill sets and create new businesses. I definitely encourage other corporations in St. Louis to work with these entrepreneurs and support them in a meaningful way that is very serendipitous to what those companies stand for.”