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As of March 1, Ginger Imster, previously Executive Director of Arch Grants, took on the role of Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the St. Louis Economic Partnership (SLEDP). It’s a big job. The region is experiencing explosive growth in startups in tech, agriculture and the biosciences.
Imster has been tasked with promoting our region to startups in the US and around the world, monitoring the organization’s investments through the Helix Fund, and managing STLVentureWorks, a network of five incubators located throughout St. Louis City and St. Louis County that serve new and growing businesses.
Sheila Sweeney, CEO of SLEDP described the addition of Imster to her team as a strategic coup for the region. She says, “Our startup scene is one of the best in America and I wanted a visionary to lead our innovation efforts. I identified Ginger as someone who can look at the entire innovation space and see what we need and where we can build on our strengths. This is a strategic hire that will increase the St. Louis brand on a global stage.”
Imster’s decision to accept the position of Vice President of Innovation at SLEDP was not made lightly. “It was a very big decision to change,” Imster says. “It was made in partnership with both Arch Grants and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, and was a very intentional choice. Being a part of the SLEDP team gives me an opportunity to work inside an organization with specialized expertise in business development and financing to help businesses, whether large or small, grow in St. Louis.”
We sat down with Imster to catch up on her current and forthcoming projects at SLEDP.
What impact do you hope to have in your new role?
I have an opportunity to be a conduit between those looking to build upon an existing industry or innovation cluster, and those looking to support that work. For example, BioSTL’s international outreach efforts through GlobalSTL, the immigrant advocacy efforts of the Mosaic Project, the inclusion efforts of Arch Grants, T-REX, BioSTL, Venture Café and the Promise Zone, and the engagement of women entrepreneurs through Brazen, Rise, and Grace Hill, and the Foreign Direct Investment efforts within the World Trade Center are just a few of the initiatives essential to advancing innovation and entrepreneurship throughout St. Louis.
Public policy will also continue to be a focus. Cortex recently hosted the US Conference of Mayors, which provided an opportunity to talk about the role of government and institutions in driving innovation growth in partnership with St. Louis Development Corporation, Missouri Technology Corporation, and BioSTL.
What is one of the most critical issues facing our region’s ability to grow?
The economics of equity is an especially timely discussion in St. Louis. Currently, the gap between job growth in our region as compared to the US has finally closed, but we continue to see St. Louis depicted as a place lacking equity because of our wealth and racial disparities.
In April, Cortex hosted the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth listening tour and facilitated a panel on which I participated entitled “On the Frontlines of Inclusive Growth.” St. Louis was included among the cities to host MasterCard’s national listening tour to promote understanding of what is required to ensure economic growth in the US is inclusive.
Economists, business leaders, and elected officials throughout our region increasingly recognize that inclusion and equity are drivers of robust economic growth. Within the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Division of SLEDP, I have the opportunity to work with the private and public sectors to support an equitable growth agenda that creates good jobs, increases human capabilities, and expands opportunities for everyone to participate and prosper. Think about the economic benefits if St. Louis was successful in rebranding itself the most welcoming community for women, minority, and immigrant entrepreneurs/talent.
St. Louis has an opportunity to lead by example.
To further this goal, County Executive Steve Stenger asked us to locate a diversity and inclusion manager. John Gaskin has been hired as the Diversity and Inclusion Outreach Manager and is just getting to work building a dynamic network of community contacts and regional partners to promote SLEDP’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. John is the perfect person to lead these efforts, and also sits on the national board of the NAACP.
What role does diversity play in the continued development of our region’s economy?
Many employers say that they cannot find enough qualified employees. Tech jobs are growing at a rate three times faster than colleges and universities are producing computer science graduates. Employers unable to find enough employees in specific fields is really a tremendous opportunity to attach more people to the job market. This is especially true for technology companies, because it’s estimated that women and people of color account for less than 20% of the tech workforce. Inclusion of women, minorities and immigrants is in the best economic and civic interests of St. Louis. We have to advance every kind of diversity, and it is exciting to work inside an organization that is looking at workforce development and inclusion so deliberately.
What is the significance of SLEDP’s Helix Fund?
The Helix Fund was established in 2010 to provide much needed seed capital at a time when it didn’t exist in St. Louis the way it does now. St. Louis has gone from two or three accelerators to more than 12 in five years. As a result, we’re working to ensure the Helix Fund evolves with the needs of the market, and it is evolving into more of a bridge fund with a maximum allowable investment of $250,000. Previously, the maximum was $100,000.
Our Helix Fund has invested nearly $3 million into local startups. With the growth in seed-capital comes the need for bridge funding that can help companies that are scaling, but are not yet qualified for Series A investment.
All Helix Fund investments have a matching requirement, are equity-based, and follow investment by others. Nearly $2.7M has been deployed over six years, and a majority of those dollars are in companies that remain active. There has been one exit, and several investments are poised for a significant return to the Fund to provide cash for future investments. A variety of industry verticals are included and receiving companies must have a significant presence in St. Louis County.
What should be done to attract more high-growth startups to the region?
Our Midwestern hospitality may be part of our charm, but our modesty is not a realistic strategy when competing for talent.
For investors, scientists and entrepreneurs, Missouri is proving to be a preferred destination for Bio-Sciences, Fin-Tech, Cyber-Security, Advanced Manufacturing, Logistics, Agriculture, Animal Health and AgTech businesses. We need to amplify our strengths and demonstrate that Missouri is not flyover country.
In my role, I also have the opportunity to bring attention to major development initiatives like 39 North in Creve Coeur. It’s exciting to be a part of projects that support the continued scale of innovation clusters like AgTech and bioscience in partnership with established anchors like Cortex, Danforth Plant Science Center, BRDG Park and the Helix Center.
Agriculture is a cornerstone of our regional economy, but St. Louis is also ranked among the top three financial tech hubs in the country keeping company with New York and Boston. Cybersecurity is another strength which is more and more recognized in the context of the much anticipated expansion of the NGA campus north of Downtown.
This year, several underwriters came together to collectively fund the inclusion of St. Louis in the 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem Report. The publication of the Global Startup Ecosystem Report immediately followed the 32-page feature on St. Louis in the March 2017 issue of American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines. These global features are key placements to share and celebrate the breadth and depth of industry expertise and cultural amenities in St. Louis that make our region a great place to live, work, and play.
What are your plans regarding STLVentureWorks, the network of innovation centers spread across the region?
Each of our incubators has its own personality. At the Wellston Center, a renovation is underway and we are also looking at the area around the center to leverage additional assets to support the Wellston community. At the South County Center at Lemay, we have retail entrepreneurs. Our West County Center helped Chesterfield Valley recover from the flood of 1993 that decimated the area. Helix Center has a predisposition to life science and AgTech, and will see a lot of activity with BRDG Park and 39 North. Grand Center attracts food and beverage entrepreneurs.
We need businesses both large and small to propel our economy forward, and we need both small business owners and tech entrepreneurs to create the dynamism St. Louis must have to attract and retain talent. The STLVentureWorks incubators are an important resource for our local contractors and service professionals excited to build their businesses in St. Louis.
Going into summer, what else is a focus for you?
It’s a heavy analytical time, looking at the programmatic support for entrepreneurs–evaluating what we’re providing, what they need, and the alignment between the two. I am also identifying programmatic partners in the community. These are all exciting conversations that don’t really end, and lead to continuous evaluation and evolution.