Allison Carmen has said goodbye to Chile, and hello to Chilly.
The 30-year-old Oregon native and St. Louis entrepreneur, who last summer won a global startup accelerator competition that brought companies to the South American nation for six months, arrived back in St. Louis from Santiago last week. The average high temperature in Chile in February is 84 degrees. Like most of the United States, St. Louis has been experiencing unseasonal cold during the month, with low temperatures hovering near zero.
“I actually arrived back in the States through San Francisco, drove to San Diego, where the temperature was in the 50’s, and then on to St. Louis. So I’ve had a little time to get acclimated,” says Carmen, over a cup of hot tea at a downtown St. Louis restaurant, just a few blocks from her office in the T-REx incubator downtown.
Warmer weather aside, “for me,” says Carmen, “the best part of the (Chilean) program was the network I gained. The program had 100 companies coming in every three months. I was exposed to business ideas and entrepreneurs from all over the world. During my stay, there were about 300 people in the network, so it was exciting to hear what people were working on. I was asked to be a “pitch” trainer, so every Friday I would go to an incubator and run training seminars, giving other entrepreneurs feedback on their presentations. I enjoyed working with other entrepreneurs, judging events and mentoring students in the classroom.”
Carmen also left Chile with major props on her behalf. “There was a demo day competition, which I won. Out of 100 companies in my cycle, I was selected as first place. That was great validation for what we’re doing.”
What Allison Carmen is doing at Material Mix is monetizing the old adage, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Her company has been described as an “eBay of recyclable business waste”, connecting companies that need to dispose of waste products to other companies that can find another use for the materials. Material Mix is one of the 15 companies awarded a $50,000 Arch Grant in the startup competition’s initial year, 2012.
Carmen earned her bachelor’s degree in underwater ecology from San Diego State University, and worked after graduation for the city of San Diego, helping enforce the city’s environmental code. In 2011, she received an MBA from Saint Louis University, where the idea for Material Mix was born.
The original concept for Material Mix has pivoted a bit. Originally the company’s target demographic was the manufacturer. Instead of paying a hauling company to remove piles of leftover cardboard, for example, Material Mix wanted manufacturers to put their trash on an online exchange, to allow other companies, such as a paper mill, to buy the products, while Material Mix earned a fee for making the connection.
“Manufacturers are still a customer segment,” says Carmen. “But we’ve found those manufacturers have a relationship with scrap brokers already. The scrap brokers specialize in buying the cardboard and have built a strong working relationship with the manufacturer. So we actually are dealing more with the scrap brokers at this stage. They don’t have an elegant way to connect with each other. Many of them are using a Rolodex and telephone to do business. We’re giving them a marketing channel, a home page, and an easy-to-use inventory management system. We help connect them with each other and broaden their network.”
Carmen was able to keep tabs on her St. Louis based business for the last six months by communicating with her staff of three via Skype and other online tools.
Carmen believes Material Mix can take advantage of what might be described as a “perfect storm” of opportunity. “Today we have so much greater connectivity. Many of our clients are actively connected through LinkedIn groups. We have access to information for best practices for recycling, and there is a regulatory demand for recycling. For us, it’s “right time, right place.”
And that place is St. Louis, chilly weather and all.