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The next gen manufacturers in St. Louis

If you were paying attention, you have learned that we tend to close our factories here in St. Louis. Up until a few years ago, all of the Big Three Detroit car makers had plants: now it is just GM. This week we stopped making Twinkies and Wonder Bread here and elsewhere around the country. Luckily, we still make most of the world’s Tums right downtown in a factory across the street from our baseball stadium. But there are other kinds of factories that are popping up in the past couple of years, and it has been interesting to watch. They are less obvious than the Tums plant, with small two or three person teams.

I have been making the rounds of various entrepreneurial gatherings the past couple of weeks, first at Washington University, then at St. Louis University, then downtown at our latest startup weekend. There are people making things, but they aren’t always something that can come from a traditional factory floor.

This isn’t news, but what is interesting to me is how often I am seeing this situation, and how I am seeing second-generation effects, where folks are building on top of existing software and hardware platforms. And the kinds of people who are these next gen manufacturers aren’t just the kind of nerds out of central casting on “The Big Bang Theory” but from all walks of life and all kinds of disciplines outside the STEM core. Heck, some of them don’t even wear glasses or have oddly mismatched 60′s clothing.

The winning entry in the Idea to Product competition at SLU were two students who came up with a way to use CAD modeling software to calculate stress and loading factors. A few years ago they would have built the program from scratch. Now they are building a plug-in to extend the Sketch up tool, which once was owned by Google and used to build out the various buildings that we see in Google Earth. I was one of the judges and saw other presenters who were former schoolteachers and MBA students.

At the Olin Cup competition at the Wash U Biz school across town, one of the fellows that I am mentoring is working on a hardware case for iPhones that will turn your phone into what he calls “the next generation wallet.” The idea is to carry some common tools. He is an architect, and years ago he would be building this from scratch too. You can donate to his Kickstarter campaign now if you want to get a jump on things.

Another Olin entrant was a group of ex lawyers who are building a piece of software that theirs brethren can use to figure out which venues would be the best places for particulars trials. They got going a year ago at the last startup weekend. They are building on top of existing legal opinions that are online and available to anyone who knows how to access them. You’ll be hearing more about them soon.

The Olin Cup winners get thousands of dollars and tons of other benefits too. The CAD guys from SLU won a thousand bucks for their efforts. The next group of Arch Grant applicants is being considered, which carries a purse of $50 thousand to 20 companies who want to relocate to downtown St. Louis. Last year we had someone move here from South America.

Another company to watch is Evtron, a bunch of kids that are barely out of their teens trying to make network servers in Missouri. They were presenting at the DEMO conference last month. It seems like a pretty wild idea, but they might have a tiger by the tail. (The tiger is the Mizzou mascot, for those of you that aren’t watching college football this weekend.)

So yes, we still make GM cars in St. Louis. And software and hardware too. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! (Those Tums could come in handy also.)


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More Stories By David Strom

David Strom is an international authority on network and Internet technologies. He has written extensively on the topic for 20 years for a wide variety of print publications and websites, such as The New York Times, TechTarget.com, PC Week/eWeek, Internet.com, Network World, Infoworld, Computerworld, Small Business Computing, Communications Week, Windows Sources, c|net and news.com, Web Review, Tom's Hardware, EETimes, and many others.