When the first InvestMidwest venture capital conference was held in St. Louis in 2000, no one could predict how St. Louis’ startup scene would explode in the coming years. “We started with only 20 pitching companies,” said Chris Walsh, InvestMidwest’s first and only executive director until this year when she announced her retirement. “Now we have a whole community of investors who come together every year. It has been incredible.” Over the last 20 years companies that have presented at InvestMidwest have raised more than $1 billion in equity, corporate collaborations and exit proceeds. Walsh is passing the torch to Cortex’s Vice President of Partnerships and Program Development Phyllis Ellison, who will serve as InvestMidwest’s Executive Director along with her roles at Cortex, Startup Connection and House of Genius.
InvestMidwest has grown into an annual venture capital conference that showcases 36-40 promising companies from throughout the Midwest to top venture capitalists. The event was launched with founding support from the Danforth and Kauffman Foundations under the leadership of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Missouri Venture Forum. According to Walsh the idea was simple: Bring venture capitalists from across the country to St. Louis and Kansas City to network with each other while hearing pitches from talented entrepreneurs and their companies. The conference, which alternates being held in St. Louis and Kansas City, now attracts over 300 attendees including investors from top venture capital firms and multinational corporations and showcases companies from throughout the Midwest
InvestMidwest focuses its pitches to three industry tracks – life science, IT and food/agtech/bioenergy. These industries line up well with Missouri’s key talent, academic and commercial assets and help attract top investors interested in opportunities within these fields. Each company gets only eight minutes to make its pitch – the rest of the time is about networking and building relationships, which according to Walsh is what ultimately results in companies winning funding.
InvestMidwest’s new Executive Director Phyllis Ellison has been working to grow the St. Louis entrepreneurship community since 2005. In addition to her role at Cortex, since 2012 she chairs the organizing committee for St. Louis' biggest celebration of entrepreneurs, Startup Connection. In 2013, Phyllis worked closely with ITEN as they launched the Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups in St. Louis. She has also been on an investor advisory committee with Prosper Women Entrepreneurs (now Brazen), the Board of St. Louis Makes, and more recently introduced House of Genius to St. Louis.
With Ellison at the helm, InvestMidwest is transferring its financial “home” from the St. Louis Regional Chamber to Cortex. “We’ve only been able to build what we have because of the support of the Chamber,” said Walsh. “They provided accounting, marketing, and even staffing support for our events. We were a startup ourselves, albeit not-for-profit, and we are grateful that the Chamber and our early supporters were willing to see our potential.”
“Here in Missouri, we have been incredibly fortunate to have Chris lead this conference from startup to the premier venture capital event that it is today,” said Tom Melzer, Managing Director of RiverVest Venture Partners and long-time InvestMidwest advisory board committee member. “We are thrilled that Phyllis will be continuing this legacy and folding InvestMidwest into the exciting work happening at Cortex and throughout Missouri. Startups and investors are attracted again and again to St. Louis and Kansas City thanks to the leadership of visionaries like Walsh and Ellison.”