Idea Makers

These organizations are helping drive Minnesota’s ingenuity

According to the latest PwC/CB Insights MoneyTree Report, the United States’ North Central region — anchored by Minneapolis-St. Paul, and comprising Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas — attracted just 22 venture capital deals totaling $160 million in new funding in the fourth quarter of 2017. Meanwhile, the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area attracted 357 deals totaling nearly $8 billion, and the New York City metro drew 177 deals totaling roughly $2.9 billion.

No one who’s paying attention thinks that’s good enough for our slice of flyover country. Minnesota won’t ever be the next Silicon Valley, but we can do more to attract national and regional funds’ attention.   

The good news is we’ve got a lot to work with here. And anyway, venture funding isn’t the only important measure of an entrepreneurial ecosystem’s vitality. Minnesota has a vibrant clutch of nonprofit organizations and partnerships devoted to supporting local innovators and pushing forward high-growth industries.

We reached out to some of those organizations for more insight into what they do for entrepreneurs, and what they hope to accomplish in the months and years ahead. 

Grow North
Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator
Minnestar
 Twin Cities Startup Week
MN Cup
Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI)

Grow North

Founded last year, Grow North is a “resource and connection hub for Minnesota’s food and agriculture entrepreneur ecosystem.” MN Cup shares founding-partner status with the Holmes Center, General Mills, and 301 Inc, General Mills’ in-house incubator. Major funders include General Mills, Schwan’s and Land O’Lakes. 

Helmed by 12-year General Mills veteran Lauren Mehler Pradhan, Grow North has an ambitious charge: to turn Minnesota into the United States’ premier innovation hub for food production and agriculture.

“We’re seeing unprecedented growth in entrepreneurial activity around food and agriculture,” Mehler Pradhan says. “Large companies are acknowledging that much innovation will happen externally, and they are pursuing symbiotic relationships with those driving it.”

Grow North’s entrepreneur-friendly programming includes extensive peer and corporate networking opportunities, connections to technical experts and investors, and “substantive education events” held every six weeks or so. Grow North was also the Food and Agriculture track lead at Twin Cities Startup Week 2017.

Mehler Pradhan acknowledges that Minnesota isn’t the only place laying claim to food and agtech preeminence. But with its 150-year agricultural pedigree, an unbelievably deep well of expertise across the entire food system and vast corporate resources, it’s one of the best places for ambitious food and ag entrepreneurs to scale their ideas.

“These conditions don’t exist anywhere else,” she says. “Entrepreneurs can impact almost any part of the food chain here.” 

Learn more at grownorthmn.com.

Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator

Backed by founding partners Cargill and Ecolab, Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator is the newest innovation driver on this list and yet another sign of Minnesota’s emergence as a world-class agtech hub. 

“When you combine Techstars’ brand and global network with [blue-chip companies like] Cargill and Ecolab, people see that something big is going on,” says managing director Brett Brohl. “This is about planting a flag and saying: ‘If you’re a food or agtech entrepreneur, you should be in the Twin Cities.’ ”

On June 16, 2018, the first 10-team Farm to Fork cohort begins a three-month sprint to demo day, on October 11. Along the way, they’ll work with seasoned mentors from Cargill, Ecolab, and other top Minnesota food and agtech companies. 

Like all Techstars program participants, each Farm to Fork company gets a slew of perks, per Techstars. These include a $100,000 convertible note, of which Techstars contributes $20,000 in exchange for 6% of the company’s common stock; $300,000 in “cash equivalent hosting, accounting and legal support”; “other credits and perks worth more than $1 million”; and lifetime access to 10,000 Techstars-affiliated mentors, 2,700 investors and 1,200 corporate graduates.

Farm to Fork’s purview spans the entire food cycle, from the field to the compost heap. In a lengthy blog post from January, Brohl laid out its pillars: food productivity applications, such as yield management and smart water usage; food safety; food retail and restaurants; food manufacturing and supply-chain applications, such as IoT and predictive modeling; and food waste management. 

Farm to Fork makes Minneapolis–St. Paul one of a handful of metros with two active Techstars programs. As of early 2018, the only others were Los Angeles, New York and Berlin. With Ecolab and Cargill committed for at least three years, MSP looks to maintain that rarefied perch a while longer. 

Learn more at techstars.com/farm-to-fork-program.

Minnestar

Minnestar is probably best known for its annual Minnebar camp — an informal “unconference,” says executive director Maria Ploessl, held every April at Best Buy’s Richfield headquarters. “Minnebar is a community-generated conference,” says Ploessl. “If you’re looking to forge new connections, it’s the place to be.”

Minnestar also hosts three Minnedemo-branded demo days each year that draw 700–900 attendees apiece. Minnedemo sources pitches across the full breadth of the Twin Cities’ tech ecosystem, from teams embedded with enterprises like Code42 to, last year, a father–son shop that converted a vintage film camera into a state-of-the-art digital device. 

Like Minnebar, Minnedemo’s lodestar is diversity. Minnestar sets aside Minnedemo tickets for students and aggressively reaches out to professionals and entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups via partner organizations, such as Hack the Gap. At Minnedemo27, held during Twin Cities Startup Week, six of seven teams had woman or person-of-color leads. 

“We want to make sure everyone has that access point,” says Ploessl. “We see ourselves as catalysts for a community that’s full of talented, innovative folks.” Learn more at minnestar.org.

 Twin Cities Startup Week

From food and ag to…well, everything.

Held every fall, Twin Cities Startup Week showcases “the best from the startup capital of the North.” Last year, the confab featured more than 160 events, each hosted and sponsored by a local company or nonprofit organization: free coworking days, open office hours with venture funds, seminars, industry-specific bus tours, demo days and nights ­­— even yoga classes. 

“The idea is, ‘Let’s schedule all the [entrepreneurial] events that already have good attendance in one week,’” says Nels Pederson, TCSW’s managing director. 

TCSW is built around nine tracks: disruptive technology, tech, marketing and advertising, impact ventures, student, food and agriculture, edtech and training, education, and investor. Each track has its own lead responsible for corralling speakers and drumming up interest in its vertical. Most leads are locally known in their fields — Growth North’s Pradhan runs food and ag, for example; John Stavig, director of the Holmes Center, runs education. 

Because Minnesota is a tougher sell for sun-drenched techies, two TCSW sponsors pay approximately $300/each for people to come out for the week. The fly-in program, backed by When I Work and Make It.MSP, brought 21 out-of-state entrepreneurs and professionals to town last year. Volunteers help guests find places to stay, while the guests make connections with their (perhaps) next boss or business partner. Participants run the gamut, from enthusiastic student-entrepreneurs from Milwaukee to product VPs from New York.

Virtually everyone who answered the fly-in program’s exit survey said they were more likely to move to Minnesota after TCSW, says fly-in program coordinator Dalton Scott. “Respondents reported a general sense of surprise at both Minneapolis-St. Paul’s regional amenities and the vitality of its startup community,” he says.

At least four past participants have already made the move. One 2016 Californian participant moved here last year with her girlfriend. They then convinced another couple to move here, and they’re working on a third. 

Not a bad return on a $300 investment. Learn more at twincitiesstartupweek.com.
 

MN Cup

A program of the Carlson School of Management’s Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship, MN Cup is “the largest statewide startup competition in the country,” according to MN Cup’s website. 

Since 2005, the annual competition has awarded $2.4 million to Minnesota-based startups. More than 13,000 startups and entrepreneur teams have participated in its process. Collectively, they’ve raised some $280 million. And the pot grows every year: In 2017, MN Cup gave away $450,000 in seed money to 23 companies. This year, it’s added a new education and training division and a new special prize for FinTech startups that will bring the prize money to nearly $490,000. Winners do not need to relinquish equity, a crucial distinction from most accelerators. 

But seed funding isn’t the only reason entrepreneurs apply to MN Cup in droves. “The prize money is the least valuable part of the process,” says John Stavig, director of the Holmes Center. “The real value lies in the connections participants forge with mentors and industry leaders and the exposure they earn by participating.”

Plenty of past MN Cup participants qualify as heavy hitters: When I Work, StemoniX, 75F, Jonny Pops, Rebiotix and Springboard for the Arts, among many others. 

MN Cup has partnerships with more than 75 sponsoring and partner organizations, along with the volunteer support of more than 300 judges and mentors. In 2017, 38% of MN Cup teams had a woman lead, 24% had a person of color lead, and 8% had a veteran lead. MN Cup director Jessica Berg believes the competition can do even better on the inclusivity front. She’s also stepping up efforts to increase participation from women, minorities, verterans and broader Minnesota. Currently, students are underrepresented, and participants disproportionately hail from the metro area. She’s also bullish on adjacent initiatives like Grow North, that harness MN Cup’s energy during the six months when the competition isn’t happening.

“We aim to build a year-round network and opportunity set — to grow beyond the cup and connect the dots for entrepreneurs across Minnesota,” she says. 

Learn more at carlsonschool.umn.edu/mn-cup.

Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI)

Created by an act of the Minnesota legislature some 30 years ago — as commodities markets cratered and farmers scrambled to find secondary uses for their products — AURI is a low-key, public-private partnership that’s done more to champion and support the state’s agtech industry than virtually any other organization. AURI assisted with 227 projects in 2017 alone, more than half of which focused on food solutions.

“Minnesota is experiencing a food renaissance driven by entrepreneurs and small businesses,” says Erik Evans, AURI’s director of communications. 

AURI focuses on four innovation categories: bio-based products, or renewable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and lubricants; co-products, or commercially viable applications for agricultural byproducts and residues; sustainable, healthy food products and derivatives; and renewable energy derived from biomass. 

AURI provides hands-on scientific assistance for clients at various stages of product development and testing; releases periodic reports on in-house applied research; and supports the impressive Innovation Network Program, which connects disparate institutional and industry stakeholders to identify and prioritize promising research needs in each of its four focus areas.

The organization accepts proposals from entrepreneurs and inventors with projects “that look feasible on paper,” says Evans. With limited resources, AURI can’t chase purely speculative ideas, but the organization considers ideas from “entrepreneurs who have at least done their homework and can show that their ideas have potential.” 

The wheat separates from the chaff, so to speak, at AURI’s three outstate Minnesota labs in Crookston, Marshall and Waseca. “Halfway through testing, we might discover something that makes a project commercially non-viable,” says Evans. In other words, science happens.

But more than enough game-changers emerge. Evans cites The Amazing Chickpea, a hypoallergenic peanut butter substitute made from garbanzo beans, and Smude’s Sunflower Oil, a healthy, Minnesota-grown alternative to canola-based cooking oil. 

Learn more at auri.org