St. Louis shows progress in supporting women entrepreneurs

As a graduate student, Erica Barnell knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur, but wasn’t sure if her dream could come true in St. Louis.

She saw few female role models among the high-profile startups raising money here. And as recently as 2019, a survey by American Express ranked St. Louis at the bottom for the success of women-owned businesses.

Now, Barnell is part of a wave of entrepreneurs who are reshaping the region’s male-dominated image. Pitchbook, a firm that collects data on venture capital, recently reported that investment in women-founded businesses is growing faster in St. Louis than in any other metro area.

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Pitchbook compared the money raised over the past two-and-a-half years to the total between 2008 and 2019. Female-led startups saw 187% growth here, compared to 164% in second-place Phoenix and 102% in Silicon Valley, the venture capital industry Epicenter.

In St. Louis, 40 companies founded or co-founded by women have raised $494.5 million since 2020. That’s less than Phoenix’s $626 million and a pittance compared to Silicon Valley’s $30 billion, but it’s a step up.

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It also stands for dreams realized. Geneoscopy, the company Barnell and her brother Andrew co-founded in 2015, raised $105 million last year to bring its colorectal cancer screening test into clinical trials.

The test is based on research Barnell started at Washington University, and the company expects to soon have enough data to seek Food and Drug Administration approval.

Raising money as an entrepreneur is sometimes challenging, Barnell said. Some potential investors asked, “What’s the difference between you and Elizabeth Holmes?” (Holmes, the disgraced founder of blood-testing startup Theranos, was convicted of fraud in January.)

A supportive St. Louis ecosystem, Barnell said, helped Geneoscopy get to the point where it could attract investors. Washington University’s Skandalaris Center provided early consultation, BioGenerator provided laboratory space, and Arch Grants presented the company with $50,000 in 2016.

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“All of those resources led to ultimate success,” Barnell said. “This infrastructure needs to be in place and accessible to businesses and even people who don’t already have a proper business.”

Mary Jo Gorman, a veteran healthcare entrepreneur in St. Louis, sees two reasons for the region’s improved ranking: the persistence of longstanding investment groups like BioGenerator and the St. Louis Arch Angels, and a deliberate focus by Arch Grants and others on supporting women and colored ones.

“In the past, it was generally more difficult to raise funds in St. Louis, and it was also relatively more difficult for women than men,” Gorman said. “On all of those counts, St. Louis has gotten a lot better.”

Martha Schlicher is CEO of an agricultural technology startup, Plastomics, and CEO of another, Impetus Agriculture. Both successfully raised money in the past year.

Schlicher says her gender wasn’t a barrier, in part because she had good mentors and strong leadership experience at Monsanto.

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She and other female members of the St. Louis Arch Angels try to help other entrepreneurs follow the same path. “There are female investors who will reach out to you and help you practice your pitch,” Schlicher said. “There are many women who turn to other women.”

Women have a long way to go to be on an equal footing with men in the high-stakes startup world. Nationwide, only 2% of venture capital goes to companies founded by women.

St. Louis seems to be on the right track, at least. If Barnell, Schlicher, and others are successful, they can start a virtuous cycle by being the until recently rare female role models and mentors.

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