As a graduate student, Erica Barnell knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur but wasn’t sure her dream could happen in St. Louis.
She saw few female role models among the high-profile startups that were raising money here. And, as recently as 2019, an American Express survey ranked St. Louis near the bottom for the success of women-led businesses.
Now, Barnell is part of a wave of entrepreneurs who are upending the region’s male-centric image. Pitchbook, a firm that gathers data on venture capital, recently reported that investments into female-founded firms were growing faster in St. Louis than in any other metro area.
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Pitchbook compared money raised in the last two and a half years with the total between 2008 and 2019. Women-led startups here achieved 187% growth, compared with 164% in second-place Phoenix and 102% in Silicon Valley, the venture capital industry’s epicenter.
In St. Louis, 40 firms founded or co-founded by women have raised $494.5 million since 2020. That is smaller than Phoenix’s $626 million, and a pittance compared with Silicon Valley’s $30 billion, but it represents progress.
It also represents dreams realized. Geneoscopy, the company that Barnell and her brother, Andrew, co-founded in 2015, raised $105 million last year to push its colorectal cancer screening test into clinical trials.
The test is based on research Barnell began at Washington University, and the company expects to have enough data soon to apply for Food and Drug Administration approval.
Raising money as a female entrepreneur was 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 advice, BioGenerator provided lab space and Arch Grants handed the company $50,000 in 2016.
“All those resources led to the ultimate success,” Barnell said. “That infrastructure needs to be in place and accessible to companies, and even to people who don’t have a real company yet.”
Mary Jo Gorman, a veteran St. Louis health-care entrepreneur, sees two reasons for the region’s improved ranking: the persistence of longtime investment groups such as BioGenerator and the St. Louis Arch Angels, and an intentional focus by Arch Grants and others on backing women and people of color.
“Historically it was harder to raise money in St. Louis in general, and it was also relatively harder for women than for men,” Gorman said. “On all of those counts, St. Louis has gotten much better.”
Martha Schlicher is executive chair of one agriculture technology startup, Plastomics, and chief executive of another, Impetus Agriculture. Both successfully raised money last year.
Schlicher says her gender hasn’t been a barrier, partly because she had good mentors and strong executive experience at Monsanto.
She and other female members of the St. Louis Arch Angels are trying to help other entrepreneurs follow the same path. “There are women investors who will reach out and help you practice your pitch,” Schlicher said. “There are a lot of women reaching out to other women.”
Women have a long way to go to achieve parity with men in the high-stakes startup world. Nationally, just 2% of venture capital goes to female-founded companies.
St. Louis at least appears to be on the right track. As Barnell, Schlicher and others succeed, they can start a virtuous cycle by being the female role models and mentors that were rare until recently.
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