Two years ago next month, Claudia Barona and Andrés Benavides moved 2,500 miles to pursue their entrepreneurial dream.
A $50,000 Arch Grant brought the Colombian couple to St. Louis, a place neither had visited before entering the competition for startup funding. They knew they would face barriers of language, culture and immigration laws, but their business plan depended on expanding into the vast U.S. market.
A middle-sized, centrally located city looked like a good entry point. They knew little about St. Louis except that it was in an agricultural area and that a local group was, for some reason, handing money to entrepreneurs.
The agricultural connections were an advantage. Their company, Lifepack, sells paper plates that are ecologically friendly in two ways: They’re made from agricultural waste, and they contain seeds that will sprout a vegetable or flower garden when planted after use.
Lifepack was invited to participate in Yield Lab, an agribusiness accelerator program in Creve Coeur. It introduced the founders to a variety of helpful people, including executives at big companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Monsanto.
As for Arch Grants, the group that brought them here, Barona and Benavides quickly learned that it was about much more than money. For starters, Arch Grants engaged a lawyer for the eight-month process of getting a visa that would let them work in the U.S.
Then there were the details of building a new life in an unfamiliar place: housing, a car, health insurance, a school for their daughter and much more. “These people picked us up at the airport and they had a house with furniture all arranged,” Barona recalls. “The Arch Grants people still help us all the time.”
The business connections also have been helpful. Lifepack’s products are available at the Missouri Botanical Garden gift shop and various farmers’ markets. The company sold about $150,000 worth of goods last year in Colombia and the U.S.
So far, all the plates are produced in Colombia. Barona said she has turned down restaurants that wanted to buy the products, simply because Lifepack doesn’t have enough production capacity.
The couple plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign this spring to raise enough money, perhaps $20,000, to start small-scale production in St. Louis.
They employ single mothers in Colombia and hope to do similar socially conscious hiring here, perhaps providing jobs for disabled people or veterans.
Later, they’d like to expand into consumer-products packaging, which is what the conversations with A-B and Monsanto were about. Imagine, for example, being able to plant a beer carton in your yard and grow milkweed that would attract monarch butterflies.
Benavides says the packaging business may start in Europe, because he’s found a Swedish manufacturer that will do an initial production run. That would make Lifepack a three-continent company, something few five-year-old startups would attempt.
Meanwhile, he and Barona want to develop a mobile app for consumers to track where Lifepack plates have been planted and post photos of the resulting plants.
It’s a lot of initiatives for a two-person company.
“We are a young company, but we are also kind of a difficult business,” Benavides admits.
Their mentors here don’t think so. “They have done lot to make a commitment to St. Louis,” says Ben Burke, Arch Grants’ director of entrepreneurship. “We want them to stay here.”
“They’ve had some sales traction, which is great,” adds Matt Plummer, a Yield Lab principal. “I think the St. Louis community overwhelmingly supports this international company trying to expand in the U.S.”