FOUNDED BY ENTREPRENEURS
- FERTILE FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP
St. Louis Ripe for Inventors of Ice-Cream Cones, Shoes, Biomed
Devices, Just to Name a Few
By Bill Beggs Jr.
Today in St. Louis you can get there from here via Lindbergh
Boulevard and Chouteau Avenue, perhaps to party on Laclede’s
Landing near the Eads Bridge.
A few tomorrows from now, our region’s highways, byways and
places of note could include the Nathan Lakey National Laboratories,
Joe Edwards Expressway and the Maxine Clark Memorial Mississippi
River Bridge & Entertainment Complex.
In the previous paragraphs we dropped the names of seven men
and women who, to a greater or lesser degree, have been responsible
for shaping the unique region in which we live, work and play.
That doesn’t include our town’s namesake King Louis IX, who
arguably didn’t pull himself up by his own bootstraps.
Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau probably could have made
the footwear their bootstraps were attached to all by themselves.
These men have been immortalized by having scores of things
named after them, notwithstanding the generations of St. Louisans
to have mispronounced their French names.
We invited a half-dozen historians, business leaders and educators
to suggest entrepreneurs who have helped shape the fortunes
of the Gateway City since its 18th-century origins as a fur-trading
outpost at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois
Rivers. They included: Robert Archibald, president, Missouri
Historical Society; Ken Harrington, managing director, Skandalaris
Center, Washington University; Tom Melzer, managing director,
RiverVest Venture Partners; Walter Metcalfe, partner, Bryan
Cave; Kevin A. Schulte, SLU’s Center for Entrepreneurs; and
Scott Zajac, managing director, Advantage Capital Partners.
Their input will flesh out the names of a few dozen city fathers
(and mothers) who have brought us this far, as well as provide
character sketches of the wünderkind who are developing lifesaving
pharmaceuticals, engineering entertainment concepts and creating
a new social consciousness.
St. Louis Entrepreneurs of Yesterday, Today—and Tomorrow
Not quite 250 years ago, our fair city was founded by entrepreneurs—fur
traders who believed the site near the mouth of the Missouri
would be ideal to build an international commercial empire.
“A lot of early American communities were founded on a religious
basis,” points out Robert Archibald, Ph.D., president of the
Missouri Historical Society. “St. Louis was founded for commercial
and entrepreneurial purposes. In those days, many believed that
geography determined destiny. Rivers were the superhighways
of the continent.”
(Editor’s Note: Obviously, we haven’t the room for each and
every present or former captain of industry; not to worry, as
they’ve all been in these pages many times before, and will
be again. By the same token, there are more IT and biotech startups—not
to mention dot.coms—than you could shake a virtual stick at.
We give many of these ink in our monthly “Tech Talk” column.
See page 50.)
St. Louis Entrepreneurs of Yesterday, Today—and Tomorrow
• French-born Pierre Laclède Liguest arrived in New Orleans
in 1755, venturing up the Mississippi eight years later
to build a trading post after his firm won trading rights in
the upper Louisiana Territory. Choosing a site near the mouth
of the Missouri, he sent his stepson, Auguste Chouteau, to start
the settlement in February 1764. Naming it St. Louis,
Laclède laid out streets, made property assignments and governed
until territorial officials arrived in October 1765. Laclède,
who brought his library to the wild, owned the town’s first
industry, a water-powered mill. Archibald emphasizes that it
was no mean feat for St. Louis’ first citizen to get furs from
the region’s Indian tribes to their ultimate consumers in Europe.
As an entrepreneur, “Laclède had tremendous prescience,” says
Archibald. (Archibald pronounces the second syllable of Laclède
like “bled,” not “bleed.”) •
• It’s a good thing Chouteau wasn’t required to get a work permit.
As Laclède’s 14-year-old clerk and lieutenant, Chouteau led
the workers who began building St. Louis on Feb. 15, 1764.
As the village grew into a commercial hub, he adapted from French
to Spanish rule in 1770, then U.S. control in 1804, diversifying
into banking and real estate as the fur trade declined. An early
historian wrote, “Laclède founded, and Auguste Chouteau built,
St. Louis.” Married to a Native American woman, he was as comfortable
in the wild as he was in high society. Today’s businessman jetting
from St. Louis to Singapore has nothing on Chouteau, notes Archibald.
“He understood the 18th century version of a global economy.
He worked for kings, queens and Democrats, and got rich at every
turn.” (He pronounces the first syllable of Chouteau like
“shoe,” not “show.”) •
James Buchanan Eads
• A self-educated genius, Eads invented the diving bell in 1842,
at age 22. Exploring the river bottom within an air bubble trapped
underneath the bell, he gained an understanding of river currents
and the forces his namesake Mississippi River bridge would withstand.
An entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, Eads convinced none other than
Andrew Carnegie to manufacture steel of a specific tensile strength
to build his bridge—although Eads had never built a bridge before.
When the Civil War began, he conceived of a fleet of armored
riverboats, persuaded the Navy of its necessity, then built
the boats that captured Forts Henry and Donelson in February
1862—the Union’s first victories. His final engineering
marvel was the jetty system that opened the mouth of the Mississippi
to seagoing ships at New Orleans. •
• Busch, second-youngest of 22 children, came to the United
States in 1857 and started working as a clerk on the
riverfront and in the wholesale supply business. Two years later,
with his father’s inheritance, he formed a partnership in a
brewers’ supply business, but it was his second one, with Eberhard
Anheuser in 1866, that made his name familiar throughout
the world. Anheuser-Busch’s success was attributable to Adolphus’
organizing genius and imagination—not to mention foresight.
He quickly recognized the value of technological advances, adopting
refrigerated rail cars and pasteurizing A-B’s brew, but it was
his marketing acumen that built Budweiser into the “King of
Beers.” He was wealthy as royalty but benevolent, notably as
one of the largest contributors to Washington University. Busch
Hall, for whose construction he donated $110,000 in 1900,
is one of the original buildings on campus. When “Prince” Adolphus
passed away in 1913, it made headlines around the world.•
• The average poor child in 1860s St. Louis completed
three years of school before being forced to begin work at age
10. Susan Elizabeth Blow addressed that problem by offering
education to children earlier. In 1873, Blow opened the
United States’ first successful public kindergarten at St. Louis’
Des Peres School. Blow taught children in the morning and teachers
in the afternoon. By 1883 every St. Louis public school
had a kindergarten, making the city a model for the nation—and
Blow’s tireless efforts for her city and its young people a
model for civic-minded entrepreneurs everywhere. •
• German-born architect Theodore Link came to St. Louis in 1873.
He designed more than 100 buildings, including his home at 5900
West Cabanne Place, mansions at 29 and 38 Portland Place, and
Grace Methodist Church on Skinker Boulevard. Link’s crowning
achievement was St. Louis Union Station. This architectural
jewel, completed in 1894, was the largest station of
its time. A leader of the Romanesque Revival movement, Link
was the first to use electric light decoratively. •
William H. Danforth
• “Danforth” is much easier to pronounce than “indomitable,”
but the word and the spirit of entrepreneurship are inseparable.
In 1894 Danforth founded the Robinson-Danforth Commission
mill to feed the nation’s farm animals. After a hurricane leveled
it a year later, Danforth borrowed $10,000 to rebuild. Danforth
expanded to consumer cereals in 1898, when he introduced
Purina Wheat. In 1902, the same year the company claimed
a million homes enjoyed its cereal, the Robinson-Danforth Commission
became Ralston Purina. In 1927, Danforth established
a foundation to aid educational institutions nationwide. Today
the private Danforth Foundation is the region’s largest, supporting
numerous civic and educational efforts. Danforth’s legacy has
continued through grandsons John and William, one a former U.S.
Senator, the other a former Washington University chancellor—and
still-vigorous champion of commercializing the life sciences.
Robert S. Brookings
• Brookings was a phenom who dropped out of school at 16 and
made his first million by age 30, selling brooms and other household
goods for Cupples and Marston. With partner Samuel Cupples,
Brookings developed the Cupples Station complex in 1891.
Covering 30 acres, this group of 23 seven-story buildings was
a giant freight depot where most of the city’s heavy wholesale
trade, amounting to more than $200 million annually in 1900,
was handled. Perhaps a more-permanent, less-controversial legacy
of this self-educated businessman is Washington University,
which had fewer than 100 students when he came aboard in 1895.
Using his personal fortune of $5 million, Brookings became president
of the board of directors, on which he served for 37 years,
helping construct new facilities and lifting the medical school
from relative mediocrity to national excellence. Wash U.’s Brookings
Hall bears his name. •
Edgar Monsanto Queeny
• Monsanto Chemical Works was founded by Queeny’s father, John
F. Queeny, in 1901. But it was his son Edgar who built
the foundation of the global corporation that exists today.
The elder Queeny, a wholesale drug purchasing agent, invested
$1,500 of his own money and borrowed another $3,500 from a local
Epsom salts maker to manufacture saccharin, a synthetic sweetener
then produced only in Germany. (Monsanto was his wife’s maiden
name.) In 1928, Edgar, age 30, took the reins from his
ailing father, whereupon Monsanto really took off. Within a
year, the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Expanding
the company from saccharin producer to chemical giant, Edgar
saw the company’s sales grow from $9 million in 1918
to $1 billion by his retirement in 1962. His legacy continues
with Queeny Tower at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Queeny Park
in west St. Louis County. •
• Hamwi’s waffle booth at the 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair
was next to that of an ice cream vendor who ran short of dishes.
Hamwi rolled a waffle to contain ice cream and the cone was
born. Like many entrepreneurs, Hamwi made sure he seized the
moment—and the concept—ensuring his immortality. This didn’t
happen overnight—Hamwi was issued U.S. patent No. 1,342,045
on June 1, 1920. •
• A black businesswoman, inventor and philanthropist during
the early 20th century, Malone manufactured a line of beauty
products for black women and created a unique distribution system
that helped thousands gain economic independence and self-respect.
She was committed to community building and social welfare.
In 1918 she built Poro College, a complex that included
her business office, manufacturing operation and training center
as well as facilities for civic, religious and social functions.
• Lindbergh was chief pilot for the first St. Louis-to-Chicago
airmail route. While based at Lambert Field, he conceived of
an airplane that could fly from New York to Paris, and persuaded
a group of St. Louis chamber of commerce leaders to finance
the project. The result was the immortal “Spirit of St. Louis,”
which he flew across the Atlantic on May 20-21, 1927.
The feat made Lindbergh a national hero, and raised international
awareness of aviation’s potential. •
• Renowned as one of the city’s most charming hostesses, Rombauer
risked her own funds to publish The Joy of Cooking in
1931. As the Great Depression forced more American families
to cook for themselves, Rombauer’s wit and common sense made
the chore more pleasurable, and her engaging tone put amateurs
at ease. With the 1943 edition, this comprehensible,
comprehensive and fun volume became the nation’s most popular
cookbook; later revisions, including those by her heirs, continue
to meet changing tastes. •
• Founded in 1955, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum’s influence
on the St. Louis skyline is profound. HOK projects here include
Priory Chapel, Boatmen’s Tower, Cervantes Convention Center
& Stadium, Forsythe Plaza, Metropolitan Square, One Bell Center,
the Children’s Zoo and Living World, and the Union Station renovation.
The National Air and Space Museum, the airport and university
in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the Taipei World Trade Center exemplify
Obata’s work worldwide. •
• Not long after Edwards opened Blueberry Hill in the deteriorating
Delmar Loop in the early 1970s, he was affectionately
dubbed “mayor” of University City. Edwards is largely responsible
for helping Delmar make its dramatic loop back to solvency—and
incomparable hipness. The Pageant concert hall has helped draw
development east of Skinker. The area’s Boho ambience and mix
of boutiques, entertainment and restaurants lend a New York
state of mind you can’t find anywhere closer than, well, the
Washington Avenue loft district downtown. •
• Engelbreit, who just turned 55 on June 5, sold her first greeting
cards to a local store while attending Visitation Academy. Inspired
by art from the 1920s and 1930s, she developed a style marked
by colorful, richly detailed drawings and short phrases that
are by turns whimsical or profound. Greeting cards proved the
perfect medium for her work, and after initial successes, she
founded her own company in 1983. By 2000 she oversaw
a “vast empire of cuteness” that included 12 retail stores,
a national magazine and more than 6,000 licensed products. •
• Steward founded World Wide Technology Inc. in 1990
with Jim Kavanaugh, posting $812,000 in sales that year. Fifteen
years later, the company had grown to 1,100 employees, with
sales of $1.8 billion. WWT is a systems integrator providing
technology and supply chain solutions. The privately held MBE
(Minority-Owned, Small Business Enterprise) owns more than 1.6
million square feet of warehousing, distribution and integration
space strategically located in 30-some U.S. cities and South
• Clark’s brainstorm when shopping for Beanie Babies with a
10-year-old friend in 1996 was the impetus for Build-A-Bear
Workshops. For anyone who’s been under a rock the past 10 years,
at a Build-A-Bear store customers create their own personalized
teddy bears—and other stuffed animals—from start to finish.
A hands-on process allows the customer to pick the bear, stuff
it and give it a heart and a name. Clark is known as “Chief
Executive Bear” at a company whose sense of whimsy goes as far
as executives’ answering-machine messages, which wish callers
a “beary” nice day. The company boasts 176-plus stores in North
America, plus a number of franchises overseas. •
• Lakey was no slouch before joining Orion Genomics, where he
serves as president and CEO. He cut his teeth developing new
DNA sequencing technologies for the Human Genome Project at
Harvard Medical School. Orion, based at the Center for Emerging
Technologies incubator in midtown, is pioneering a method for
early cancer detection and improved treatment, focusing on cancers
of the lung, breast and ovaries. Orion aims to identify tumor
DNA and develop diagnostic tests to detect even minuscule amounts
in a patient’s blood, enabling early detection, when cancer
is most treatable. Initially founded in 1998 as an agricultural
biotech company, Orion maintains a division that concentrates
on mapping the genes of plants. •
• In 2002, Butler received two gift cards for retailers
he didn’t patronize. When he found that eBay was the only place
he could sell them, Butler realized an untapped market existed
among folks who didn’t need or want cards they received. Lots
of folks: At the holidays, Americans buy nearly $20 billion
of the things in lieu of selecting the wrong gift. Butler approached
several potential investors who wouldn’t pony up because nobody
was doing anything similar. That, Butler insisted, was precisely
the point, whereupon he found the seed money to launch CardAvenue.com
in 2004. Butler is CEO of the website, which charges a 6.25
percent fee from the seller and a 50-cent closing fee only if
a sale or trade is completed. If the card doesn’t attract a
new owner, the seller isn’t out any money. Like many entrepreneurs,
Butler also has a “real” job—he’s an insurance broker with The
Daniel & Henry Co. •
• Visitors to BlessingBasket.org, which Wilson founded
just three years ago, have put the U.S. equivalent of well over
$1 million directly into the hands of the world’s impoverished,
according to the website. Buyers can purchase baskets from weavers
around the world who receive multiple times more than Fair Trade
wages for their baskets—and certainly much more than they would
receive in their native countries, including Bangladesh, Ghana,
Indonesia and Uganda. •
Dennis Wahr, M.D.
• Wahr practiced interventional cardiology for 15 years, then
started a medical device company, Velocimed, with three of his
own product ideas. In less than five years, all three products
were approved in Europe, one here, and the other two were in
clinical trials or about to begin. St. Jude Medical made a pre-emptive
bid for Velocimed, whereupon Wahr joined RiverVest Venture Partners
here, which had invested in Velocimed’s last two fundraising
rounds. Wearing his RiverVest hat, Wahr is co-founding a new
company with a Minneapolis inventor. •
• Foster, who was born deaf, founded iMAT (iMobile Access Technologies),
a startup that brings real-time radio to the eyes of the deaf
and hearing-impaired. iMAT invented a device and has developed
a delivery service that provides captioned radio content by
subscription, thereby enabling broadcasters to reach an unserved
market. In doing so, iMAT is working toward the creation of
multiple revenue streams through subscription and advertising,
expanding radio’s consumer base. What’s more, theaters and stadiums
could adopt the technology to serve the 28 million Americans
who have some level of profound hearing loss—a population that
by 2030 could reach 56 million as baby boomers age. A $20,000
winner of the 2005 Olin Cup entrepreneurial competition
at Washington University, iMAT is housed at the Technology Entrepreneur
Center, the IT incubator downtown. •
Do We Go From Here?
is alive and well in St. Louis. But many men and women with
great ideas need “block and tackle” skills to move these
ideas out of their heads and into other people’s hands.
Attorneys to help with incorporation, with patents. Investors
willing to shoulder some of the responsibility, and risk.
Some start-ups require an incubator environment.
Regardless of the business model, whether bricks and mortar,
virtual or both, money isn’t everything for the entrepreneur—it’s
the only thing. Practically.
Angel investors are key, says Kevin A. Schulte of the Center
for Entrepreneurs at Saint Louis University. St. Louis could
build a network of them, he says, if only one percent of
the populace stepped up to the plate. Nationwide, he says,
that’s the percentage of citizens who are millionaires,
or wealthier. If the region has a population of 2.3 million,
that’s 23,000 millionaires. Schulte contemplates what the
future could hold were each of those people (you know who
you are) to commit 10 percent toward building an angel investor
network. The pool of money would be so vast that—well, do
“We’d have plenty of money to build a region of entrepreneurs,”
Indeed, prospects are bright.