When it comes to building startup ecosystems, the coasts tend to get all the credit. However, in the suburbs of St. Louis, one organization is building a thriving innovation district that has grown to house more than 60 startups, including one that was purchased by a Fortune 500 company weeks after the executive team formed the company. 

OPO Startups, based in St. Charles, Missouri, opened its doors in 2015 and will celebrate its third anniversary this month. The co-working space has grown to occupy 7 buildings, hosts an annual demo day that awards $50,000 to local area startups, and was recognized by President Donald Trump in a November speech as an example of Main Street innovation. The organization is using that success to build an entire innovation district along a stretch of the Missouri River.

How does something like that happen?

1. A local entrepreneur focused on making his hometown better.

OPO founder Randy Schilling began his career as a successful entrepreneur when he founded Quilogy, an IT consulting firm that would grow to employ hundreds of workers across the United States. In the early 1990s, Mr. Schilling started Quilogy in the basement of the building next to OPO Startups as a one-man consulting firm. After the sale of that company in 2010, Schilling founded another startup, BoardPaq, and began reinvesting in the city's Main Street.

The result of that hometown focus is the OPO Innovation District.

2. Recognizing that the suburbs are home to entrepreneurs, too.

Thanks in part to Mark Zuckerberg, the public has an image of the startup founder as a 22-year-old college dropout who hasn't met t-shirt that he won't wear to an important meeting.

The reality is very different.

According to research from the Kauffman Foundation, the average age of a founder with a startup with more than $1 million in revenue is 38. In the United States, the average age of a first-time father is 30, and the average age of a first-time mother is roughly 26. When you add all that up, it means that there are a lot of entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs living in the suburbs. While it is certainly important to have urban cores with thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems, it is also important to tap the potential for entrepreneurship that exists within the suburbs.

In one community, OPO Startups and the OPO Innovation District have done that, giving the growing number of millennials moving to the suburbs a chance to launch their startups without having to commute.

3. Offering real opportunities for alternative funding.

No matter where you are, capital is hard to come by--and it's really hard to come by in the suburbs of a mid-sized metropolitan area like St. Louis. That's why OPO Startups has created two opportunities for non-traditional funding. The first is an annual Demo Day, which awards $50,000 in cash and services to winning startups. The second is less conventional, with Mr. Schilling's current startup BoardPaq engaging some of the facility's startups and entrepreneurs as service providers.

"BoardPaq was an important and early customer of ours," said Zach Tucker, founder and CEO of Good Meets World. "His decision to work with us is a form of investment, and that investment is about more than just money. It shows that customers have faith in our product."

Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem or innovation district is a huge undertaking, and something a growing number of cities are focusing on as a part of their economic development strategy. In the wake of Amazon's HQ2 search, it's become clear that trying to grow the next big tech company is a whole lot cheaper and more effective than trying to attract it.

And one Missouri community is doing just that.

Published on: May 2, 2018