Great North Ventures Investment Themes
Great North Ventures is a network-driven, generalist early-stage fund that prioritizes exceptional execution. Founded by founders, for founders – we back repeat founders, we back strong first-time founders, and we form founder teams in our venture studio.
Our innovator network and team’s connections drive our value-add to startups, and our network density is greatest in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. While we are a generalist fund, we invest in three theses: “Solving Labor Problems”, “Digital transformation Through AI”, and “Community-Driven Applications”.
Digital Transformation Through AI
In Steve Case’s book “The Third Wave”, Case describes how the greatest opportunity for innovation will come from startups who disrupt legacy industries, and that proximity to these companies in these industries will enable founders to better empathize with their prospective customers and grow faster.
We agree with Steve, but we would take it a step further. The tools and technology that use AI to solve pervasive problems in legacy industries are going to be the dominant wave of technology-driven innovation in the years to come.
From the 1990s to the 2010s, early adopters of AI implementation were largely found in financial services and digital media. The talent required to build and deploy machine learning models was inaccessible by most companies- the world has an extreme shortage of scientists with advanced degrees in machine learning. Our firsthand experience backs this up, as founders from the digital media space where our company implemented predictive modeling at scale, our machine learning talent came at a premium.
In the last few years, we have seen developer tools and cloud infrastructure improve so much that building applications using AI is now less of a scientific hurdle. These advancements enable startups to implement machine learning in their target market, and will accelerate the pace of digital transformation.
Now the problem is more of a data acquisition hurdle. Can a startup identify a path to acquire the data they need to train the AI in the beginning? Can they build a proprietary data pipeline, that with scale, creates a strong competitive advantage? In our experience, typically, the best way to monetize data is to keep it to yourself. Startups succeed by requiring users to engage through their product to make use of their data.
What We are Looking For
E-commerce has gone from nice-to-have to a requirement for retailers, accelerated by the pandemic. Digital has become a cornerstone of retail strategy because of the ability to collect and act on customer data at the right time, in the right place. Top retailers are refining omnichannel strategies that embrace the right channels and offer seamless customer experiences.
An example from our portfolio is NextGem. NextGem has developed core AI technology to create an image scanner which reads and maps data, and a search engine which uses that data for their trading card platform.
Digital transformation in manufacturing includes things like asset optimization, workforce productivity, and production speed. It also includes IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), which encompasses the use of smart sensors and actuators to enhance manufacturing and industrial processes.
In our portfolio, FactoryFix is a marketplace for skilled manufacturing labor, which uses a matching algorithm to help predict the best-suited candidates for hiring managers.
It doesn’t always take a container ship lodged in the Suez canal to cause worldwide supply chain issues- worldwide pandemics and war easily do the trick. Predicting behavior, weather, demand based on troves of data leads to optimization of routes and delivery, increasing efficiency, decreasing waste, and better service and profits – whether the cargo is goods or people.
An example in our portfolio is Dispatch, which is a last-mile delivery company that provides on-demand delivery services to businesses of all sizes.
Protein folding algorithms, case triage, and AI-enabled medical devices are three examples of how AI is changing how healthcare professionals research new drugs, diagnose issues, and treat patients.
Flywheel is an example which offers solutions for the life sciences, clinical research, and academic research industries to accelerates collaboration, enables machine learning, and streamlines the massive task of data aggregation, curation and management. Nested Knowledge, which consolidates insight through metastudies, systematic reviews and living reviews in medical research, is an example in our portfolio.
The most visible of digital transformations in education was accelerated during the pandemic: remote learning. Not only is it improving accessibility, but it has opened the door to personalized learning approaches, and wider inclusion of digital resources – both of which can be complemented or optimized through AI.
Yardstik is an example from our portfolio focused on worker training, screening, and verification. Its platform offers solutions to help marketplaces and platforms more easily hire, onboard, and manage safer workforces.
Food and Ag
Agriculture is being optimized at all levels through AI. Tools for crop and soil monitoring, systems that can develop models and tools for assessments and management strategies, and self-operating machines are some uses of AI.
An example in our portfolio is Allergy Amulet, which uses AI to correlate allergen detection in food at the point of consumption.
From restaurant reservations and food delivery, to airline pricing and route planning, to chatbots and data analysis, digital transformation through AI has affected every facet of the travel and hospitality industry. From what is available, to how it’s procured, and even to how we experience it – every aspect has been affected.
Examples from our portfolio include Inhabitr and PrintWithMe. Inhabitr curates, sources, and delivers furniture for rental or purchase. PrintWithMe provides self-serve in-house printing amenities for coffee shops, apartment buildings, and other places people gather and work remotely.
Transformations in the industry are as mundane as chatbots serving real estate customers, to AI-controlled robots performing dangerous construction tasks. Scheduling, monitoring/sensing, and cloud-based collaboration are all widely used, and AI is increasingly used for planning, design, and risk mitigation.
CoverLease is software that enables data collection for the commercial real estate industry, which enables insight discovery and decision-making. Another example is SiteKick, a construction site monitoring and reporting system that allows for remote, constant monitoring of job sites.
Work with us
If you have a startup that is driving digital transformation through AI in these or other ways, submit here for feedback.If you have a startup that is driving digital transformation through AI in these or other ways, submit here for feedback. We will provide pitch deck feedback to all startups who submit.
Before you submit, get an inside look at our process first: “This is how to evaluate early-stage consumer app startups”
The world is changing, and a new wave of tech entrepreneurs are shaping the new normal. The tech sector is performing well as the need for innovation, necessitated by the pandemic, becomes more urgent.
As digital transformation accelerates in all sectors, and our country re-establishes its economic future, we are working to cultivate tech entrepreneurs in the Upper Midwest. By increasing the capacity of our innovation ecosystem, we can produce more startup successes locally. This benefits not only current founders and investors, but contributes to a sustainable economic future of the entire region.
We build capacity by donating time, money, and equity to organizations that support founders. Not every organization, but the ones we see as most impactful. By donating to those organizations, we support founders, the startup ecosystem, and the entire innovation economy.
Startups are fantastic drivers of economic activity. They are growth engines that take in capital and put out jobs – as well as create their own value. That’s why it’s so important to support them- and the organizations that encourage, enable, and enhance their existence.
So have we put our money where out mouth is? Any returning newsletter reader can attest that we certainly talk about building up the ecosystem enough. Well, now it’s time for us to shut up and put up. Check out our complete cash, equity, and time donations to date, along with the organizations we donate to.
If you are a founder or startup employee that is interested in rising to the challenge, check out our Founders Pledge. It is as simple as pledging to donate 1% or more of equity to the nonprofits that you find worthwhile. If you eventually have a big exit, that donation can mean MAJOR impact for a nonprofit organization. Our founding partners have pledged at least 2% of their personal interests in our debut fund, and we look forward to sharing our success with these impactful nonprofits.
“The question ‘does this make for a better society?’ is a question we don’t typically ask entrepreneurs to think about, but they should be” says Laura Dunham, Associate Dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at St. Thomas University. Dunham was recently featured on Stanford Innovation Lab’s podcast, eCorner.
Dunham speaks specifically to ethical behavior among entrepreneurs, but the same principle applies to us. So, does our investing make for a better society? Do our capacity building efforts bear fruit?
Time will tell on the tech side of things, but we can share some impact metrics. So far we have invested in 22 early-stage startups. They have attracted $138.4M in total funding, and have created ~750 jobs. Of those startups, 2 have rural presences (HQ or significant office), 4 have female founders, and 3 have minority founders and combined. These startups from underrepresented categories account for 30% of our invested capital to date.
Here is a mix of upcoming events, for investors, founders, and/or ecosystem supporters. All events are virtual unless otherwise noted.
- Nov. 9-11th, Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium. Speakers, panels, and networking plus opportunities to connect investors and founders. Ryan Weber will attend and connect with WI founders.
- Nov. 18th, 2020 2020 Tekne Awards. The Minnesota Technology Association’s (formerly MHTA) flagship event is going virtual this year. Our portfolio company Structural, and partner gener8tor, are up for the Technology Partner award!
- Nov. 19th, 2020 Customer Driven Innovation Workshop. FREE training in the Lean Startup School with Red Wing Ignite and ILT Academy. Go from “wantrepreneur” to entrepreneur by kicking off your startup journey. Great North Labs is a proud sponsor along with MN DEED. Applicants or their businesses must reside in, have ties to, or serve Greater MN.
- Dec. 2-4th, 2020 Web Summit From the folks who recently brought you Collision, this is the annual European version. Virtual.
- Dec. 1-3rd, 2020 Rise of the Rest Virtual Tour: Equity Edition. Black-founded startups based off the coasts compete for $2M in funding. Days 1 + 2 feature town halls: “Building Inclusive Startup Ecosystems” and “Entrepreneurship and HBCUs”. Day 3 is the Pitch Competition Finals.
- Dec. 2-4th, 2020 Powering Inclusion Annual Summit. This is the Center for Economic Inclusion’s Annual Event. Virtual this year, “The Summit is for leaders at every stage of the journey of building racially inclusive organizations, communities, and economies”.
Airbnb to Ban or Cancel One-Night Stays on Halloween Weekend to Deter House Parties. NoiseAware has a new deal with Vrbo, as Halloween brings a round of pre-emptive, “possible Halloween party” cancellations to AirBnB.
PrintWithMe Announces National Partnership With Trammell Crow Residential. PrintWithMe has inked a deal with one of the nation’s largest developers of multifamily apartments.
BabyQuip and Inhabitr Form Strategic Partnership to Provide Long Term Baby Gear Rentals to Millennial Families. Inhabitr has a new partnership to provide baby gear rentals through its furniture rental platform.
Dispatch is hiring a Business Development Representative, Account Executive, and Customer Service Representative in Bloomington, MN; a Ruby Developer and Senior Ruby Developer for Remote work. Also Territory Sales Managers in Baltimore, MD, and Washington D.C.
FactoryFixis hiring a Team Lead – Full Stack Developer, Full Stack Developer, and Infrastructure Developer- DevOps in Madison, WI; and a Sales Development Representative in Chicago, IL, Indianapolis, IN, or Madison, WI.
PrintWithMe ishiring Regional Sales Directors on the East Coast and in Texas; Operations Lead in Chicago, IL; VS/SVP of Operations, Marketing Director, Inside Sales Executive, and Director of Revenue Operations for Remote work.
Parallax is hiring an Experienced Product Designer in Edina, MN.
Branch is hiring a Data Platform Manager, Senior Software Engineer, and Enterprise Support Specialist for remote work.
Inhabitr is hiring an Operations & Customer Experience Director – B2B Team in Chicago, IL.
Clinician Nexusis hiring a Customer Success Manager in Minneapolis, MN.
NoiseAwareis hiring a Director of Finance, QA Technician (independent contractor), Account Manager, and a Customer Advocate in Dallas, TX.
PartySlate is hiring a Senior Growth Marketing Manager in Chicago, IL.
This invite-only event has some impressive speakers lined up, and should be excellent for networking with local execs. Great North Labs is an organizer of the event, and Ryan Weber will be speaking. Request an invite here.
From the press release:
Digerati.org is a national platform connecting digital leaders with networking and education opportunities. The Digital Transformation Summit event is focused on digital transformation, emerging technology, and networking for Chief Executive Officers, Chief Digital Officers, and other CXOs. In a world where software is increasingly transforming the core of every industry, hard-fought lessons from the digital practitioners delivering radical transformation are indispensable to senior management at all organizations.
The event is curated and invite-only, and includes panels by some of the leading companies in Minneapolis. It will be held on July 25th in downtown Minneapolis. Invitations inquiries can be made on the event page.
Ryan Weber is co-founder of Great North Labs, a local early-stage venture fund that invests in upper Midwest technology startups. He previously co-founded NativeX, a Minnesota based ad technology and media company that he ran for many years. Weber is helping organize the digital summit, which he says will feature an amazing lineup of local digital transformation leaders who are building forward-looking, digitally-driven enterprises.
Among the list of leaders speaking at the event are Mark Ritchie and Gene Munster. Ritchie is a politician and entrepreneur who served as Minnesota’s 21st Secretary of State. Munster is a former analyst for Piper Jaffray, and currently heads Loup Ventures.
Bharath Lingam, CEO of [x]cube LABS, a leading digital transformation company and host of the event, said that digital transformation today is a highly visible and yet very misunderstood topic. The best way for enterprises to engage with the subject is to have “birds of the same feather” communities, where digital practitioners can meet with each other, share lessons from the trenches on how they’re solving their challenges and learn from each other. The Digital Transformation Summit is designed to accomplish exactly that.
The Digital Transformation Summit is designed to provide a great opportunity for digital leaders to network with their peers and learn from the best practitioners of the trade.
The event will also host access to a digital innovation experience area, where the guest will get to experience some of the emerging tech like deep learning, blockchain, virtual reality and sensors, hands on.
Brendan Cooper, Head of Digital at Panini and a past Digerati event speaker, has said: “The Digerati community is the best and fastest way to meet and learn from people practicing digital transformation. Success on the frontier of business change requires extraordinary insight from people that live on that frontier. This is where you get it.”
Digerati.org is a public initiative focused on evangelizing digital innovation in the Enterprise space. The organization is involved in publishing research and news on digital themes, celebrating intrapreneurship around digital and holding workshops and conferences. Digerati.org is also focused on creating user groups of Digital Leaders and Influencers that can meet up regularly to discuss and organize new initiatives.