Universities in St. Louis Are More Engaged Than Ever In the Startup Ecosystem

Universities in St. Louis are becoming startup incubators themselves.

At their recent event, Merge Summit, Emily Lohse-Busch, Executive Director of Arch Grants, discussed the role of solid research and support of entrepreneurship from local universities.

While business and academia haven’t always gone hand in hand, local universities really see the value of these nascent startups and provide support for both student and faculty ventures. From incubator programs to specialized education, schools are investing significant resources into building entrepreneurial communities on campus.

“When schools like Wash U, SLU, UMSL and others offer entrepreneurship resources to students and faculty members in their communities who show promising translational research, St. Louis as a city reaps the benefits of their talent and energy,” Lohse-Busch told EQ, “not just the universities themselves.”

EQ spoke with two Arch Grant Recipients who shared the ways in which their schools have transformed their faculty’s research into companies.

Promoting a Culture of Creativity

Nancy Tye-Murray is an otolaryngology professor-turned-entrepreneur at the Washington University School of Medicine.

In St. Louis, Washington University has played a major role in developing the city’s startup scene. The Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies was formed in 2001 as part of the Olin Business School and became an independent, interdisciplinary center in 2003. In 2014 the center took its current name, the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

WashU was recently listed among the top 25 schools for both graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship by Entrepreneur and the Princeton Review. Over the last ten years alone, WashU graduates have started 178 companies and collectively raised over $354 million in funding.

Nancy Tye-Murray, an otolaryngology professor-turned-entrepreneur at the Washington University School of Medicine, received plenty of help and support from the school when she opted to turn her research into a business.

“If you have hearing loss, you need training to maximize your residual hearing. My research in audiovisual speech perception evolved into clEAR, which uses fun training games to rehabilitate hearing, especially for patients who have trouble with speech recognition or hearing in noisy settings,” explains Tye-Murray.

After winning a Bear Cub grant from WashU’s Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Tye-Murray was able to build a more sophisticated version of her product, which attracted WashU’s attention.

“WashU became interested in entrepreneurship right around when I started thinking about starting a company,” Tye-Murray says. “At the end of 2016, we approached them about making an investment in the business. Soon after, we hung out our shingle and started.”

After a year growing the business, Tye-Murray is investing money and time into improving the design and functionality of the games, as well as starting marketing efforts. WashU, she believes, has been instrumental throughout the whole process.

“WashU’s making a concerted effort to become a launching pad for businesses,” says Tye-Murray. “Resources like the Skandalaris Center have been invaluable for early-stage student and faculty startups.”

Support from Every Corner

Another entrepreneur and Arch Grant Recipient to benefit from a university’s resources is Jenna Gorlewicz, an assistant professor of engineering at St. Louis University (SLU) and founder of Vibratory Applications for Touchscreen Learning, or ViTAL.

“ViTAL is an outgrowth of my PhD work at Vanderbilt University,” says Gorlewicz. “I became very interested in the challenges faced by blind and visually impaired students when it comes to subjects like math or science, which have highly visual components. Our software uses vibration to create graphics that anyone can see, hear, or feel on a tablet.”

Though her work began at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), Gorlewicz accepted a teaching position at SLU in 2015. She believes that both universities have been instrumental in getting ViTAL off the ground.

“At SIUE, I tapped into the pre-existing small business development network, as well as participated in our local NSF I-Corps chapter. SLU has been instrumental in helping us submit all three of our Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. They have the pre-existing relationships, and also helped us do a number of feasibility studies on our technology.”

On a higher level, Gorlewicz is pleased to see the amount of work that universities like SIUE and SLU are doing to encourage entrepreneurship on campus, as well as to put resources in place for “translational research” – applying basic scientific principles to improve human health and well-being.

“SLU in particular is pushing entrepreneurship from every corner of campus. My department – the engineering department – plays a big part in this, but the School of Business has been just as valuable of a resource. All these efforts are coordinated by the Office of Research, which is working to make entrepreneurship a campus-wide initiative,” says Gorlewicz.

SLU isn’t stopping there; the university has just announced the winners of its Big Ideas Challenge, which offers increasing levels of investment for projects that align with university-wide research initiatives. Three winners received $50,000 to plan and grow their projects, while five groups received smaller grants to continue to nurture their ideas.

“As a university, we understand the importance of innovation and fostering the talent of our faculty and students,” said Ken Olliff, Vice President for Research at SLU, in the university’s press release. “The Big Ideas Challenge rewards forward thinking research ideas that will help create a better future for not only SLU, but the city of St. Louis and beyond.”