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St. Louis Arch grounds renovations

Progress on the renovations of the Arch grounds continues in St. Louis as seen on Thursday, March 17, 2016. A barge can be seen on the Mississippi River at the bottom of the photo. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Add another business competition to the likes of GlobalHack, Accelerate St. Louis and Arch Grants.

This one, the St. Louis Export Accelerator, has a bent toward companies looking to sell their wares and services abroad. The competition structure and no-strings-attached $20,000 top prize is meant to appeal to the entrepreneurial types in the region’s budding startup scene.

Seven winners out of 16 finalists will share $60,000 in prizes, to be awarded at a ceremony Tuesday at St. Louis University. Finalists also have the chance to take a course in international trade offered through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and winners will be offered space in the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership’s business incubator network.

Some 39 companies applied for a spot, and they had to demonstrate a plan to go global within two years of launching.

With professional mentorship, incubator space, the international business course and other services, Christine Karslake of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership emphasized that it was more than an elevator pitch competition.

“We realized that probably the most important things we can provide entrepreneurs was training on how to export,” she said.

The new competition was one strategy born out of a plan finished over the summer to grow the St. Louis region’s export capacity. In addition to better advertising and coordinating organizations that can help companies tap global markets, the plan also included the accelerator program in order to harness some of the region’s startup energy within the effort to boost exports.

It’s already helping some finalists. A year ago, when finalist Stacey Bone co-founded PawFriction, which makes an adhesive that helps keep dogs from slipping on smooth floors, he didn’t expect to be getting orders from overseas in his first year of business.

“Wading through the mess of shipping and tariffs was something myself and my business partner have minimal to no knowledge of,” he said.

Bone has already started taking the UMSL class offered through the export accelerator, and he said learning who in the region could help with foreign sales was more valuable than any prize money.

Employees at large firms that do a lot of overseas business, such as Millipore-Sigma or Monsanto, have taken the class over the years to learn the basics of business in foreign markets, said Larry Taylor, who runs export consulting firm Aziotics and helped develop some of the curriculum. Hopefully getting startups to participate will get more companies thinking about global market opportunities and help spread the word about area export-help resources.

“It does not matter whether you are experienced or inexperienced as a company,” said Taylor, who helped write the export plan for the World Trade Center St. Louis. “The learning process for exporting is always the same.”

Finalist Aggio, which builds agriculture data visualization software and provides analysis services, already works with firms around the world. The firm, based in the T-Rex building downtown, hopes to add other foreign customers and plans to increase its workforce.

“We have to connect with these people and take advantage of these services available,” said Saurabh Bharadwaj, Aggio co-founder and president.

The export accelerator program is only one piece of a larger strategy aimed at the region’s foreign business connections. It was facilitated through the Brookings Institution’s Global Cities Initiative, which St. Louis won a spot in last year.

In addition to the export competition, the plan calls for establishing a St. Louis Trade Commission to coordinate export efforts and resources designed to help businesses who want to sell overseas.

As part of the Brookings initiative, economic development officials are also developing a plan for handling foreign investment.

The export competition for startups was seeded with a $125,000 gift from JPMorgan Chase, and officials say they don’t plan to let it disappear after that cash runs out.

“We fully intend to find the right partners to fund this thing long term,” said Tim Nowak, World Trade Center St. Louis executive director.