Nicklaus: Missouri has lost startup momentum. $95 million could bring it back | Local Business

Missouri was once a leader in using taxpayer dollars to stimulate investment in innovative companies. Thanks to $94.9 million in federal money, it has a chance to make up for five years of lost momentum.

The state-funded Missouri Technology Corp. has invested $45 million in 140 companies over the past decade, but has been operating at a reduced level since former Gov. Eric Greitens slashed its budget almost 90% in 2017.

The new federal grant, from last year’s American Recovery Program Act, offers hope that MTC can once again be a catalyst for dozens of promising startups each year.

Gov. Mike Parson, in his budget, proposes directing the $94.9 million to the Department of Economic Development, and business groups say most or all of that should flow to MTC. In addition, the governor recommends $4 million in state funds for MTC, up from $3 million last year.

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If the Legislature goes along, the money would beef up the agency’s signature venture capital program, while also providing assistance to very small businesses and firms considered socially or economically disadvantaged.

The grant restarts a federal program called the State Small Business Credit Initiative, which began in 2011. Jason Hall, chief executive of Greater St. Louis Inc. and a former MTC chairman, said Missouri was the first state to match private venture-capital investments with the federal dollars.

When the Treasury reviewed SSBCI in 2017, Missouri was among the top five states in using the money to close venture capital deals. It was in the top 10 for leveraging private capital — which says a lot, given that venture capital activity is concentrated on the coasts.

“Missouri is sort of the reason venture capital approaches became popular with these dollars,” Hall said. “We showed how it could be done in a thoughtful way, and obviously we did something right.”

States are often criticized for using investment incentives to pick winners and losers, but Hall said that’s not true of MTC. The public dollars merely match, and amplify, private investment decisions.

The opportunity for a new cash infusion comes as some of Missouri’s early investments are paying off. Benson Hill, an agricultural technology firm, was lured here from North Carolina in 2013 by MTC and other investors. It went public last year and employs more than 350 people.

A 2011 MTC investment helped keep Confluence Life Sciences, founded by former Pfizer researchers, in town. It’s now part of a billion-dollar company called Aclaris Therapeutics.

The impact isn’t confined to St. Louis. MTC’s investments include Payit, a payment company in Kansas City, and Compatio, a Springfield e-commerce firm.

A recent MTC strategy report, though, mentions concern that Missouri “is beginning to lose the deal flow and investment momentum it has built.” TechStars, an international accelerator fund, pulled out of Kansas City in December after an eight-year run.

Ben Johnson, vice president for programs at industry group BioSTL, agrees that the infusion of new money is timely. “Missouri has lagged behind other states in business formation, particularly in underserved rural and urban counties,” he said.

MTC calculates that its $45 million of past investments were matched by $1.1 billion of private capital. If it achieves the same kind of success with the new federal money, $2 billion more would flow to Missouri businesses.

Such an infusion should help launch, at a minimum, several more companies the size of Benson Hill or Confluence. Missouri created a formula for success, and now it has an opportunity to fund it properly.