If asked which St. Louis company would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars backing technology entrepreneurs, a 115-year-old electric utility might not be your first guess.
Ameren, though, isn’t your grandfather’s power company. It teamed up with the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Capital Innovators to launch the Ameren Accelerator, investing $100,000 apiece in a group of promising, energy-related startups.
Thursday was Demo Day for the first class of seven companies, a coming-out party after three months of intensive mentoring in the accelerator program.
The firms’ founders praised the help they got from the utility.
“Ameren has been so helpful it’s unbelievable,” said Leon Doyle, chief executive of Leeds, England-based WifiPlug. “Every single resource we’ve asked for, we’ve got.”
Several of the companies were able to arrange pilot projects with Ameren.
Rebate Bus, a Madison, Wis., firm that aims to simplify and speed up the delivery of energy-efficiency rebates, will begin running a rebate program for Ameren Illinois in January.
“It would have taken years to get where we are without this program,” said Chris Mertens, CEO of St. Louis-based Blossom. “I can’t think of another way we could have gotten inside Ameren like this.”
Blossom creates smart digital contracts that have many applications, including in solar energy. Mertens said he’s gotten approval to test the software at Ameren’s applications center in Champaign, Ill.
SensrTrx, also based in St. Louis, installs sensors to help factories use their equipment more efficiently. CEO Bryan Sapot says the accelerator experience expanded his target market by showing that the technology can also be valuable in power plants.
“There’s been a lot of engagement up and down the ranks inside of Ameren,” Sapot said.
That’s music to the ears of Warner Baxter, Ameren’s CEO. One of his goals, in addition to getting an early look at promising technology, was to make Ameren’s culture more innovative and entrepreneurial. About 75 Ameren employees, most of whom worked with the startups in some capacity, attended Demo Day.
“The hands were raising up from all over the company to be a part of this,” Baxter said. “It got them thinking out of the box; that’s what the entrepreneurs brought to them.”
Ameren and UMSL hoped the accelerator would create jobs in St. Louis, and that’s beginning to happen. WifiPlug, maker of an app-controlled device that lets users control their appliances from a smartphone, has hired a sales director here. RebateBus plans to base its sales and software development in St. Louis, hiring at least six people.
“We love St. Louis,” Rebate Bus CEO Joe Pater said. “Being here has been powerful for us.”
Ten UMSL students had internships in the accelerator, and at least three will continue working for the startups. The entrepreneurs also sought help from researchers at UMSL and other University of Missouri campuses.
“The collaboration was very powerful,” says Dan Lauer, executive director of UMSL Accelerate. “These companies got an inside view of how to succeed.”
Lauer says the Ameren program is the only one in the world that combines the expertise of a major company, a university and an established accelerator fund. He doesn’t want it to remain one-of-a-kind: He thinks his team could run four corporate accelerators a year, and maybe more.
If any other St. Louis company is looking for a window into the innovation economy, Lauer would welcome a call.