Welcome to our first newsletter of 2021! 

In our look back on the past year in our last newsletter, we talked about resilient startups, the pandemic, and capacity building.  We reflected on our own efforts, and then we started thinking about the startup ecosystem as a whole. 

We’ve talked extensively about nonprofit organizations that support startups (and our support of them through our Founders Pledge), and we have talked about government contributions (such as the not-yet-passed New Business Preservation Act, the Angel Tax Credit, and LaunchMN).

But what about our educational institutions? 

In our region, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University have well-known startup competitions, and their business schools churn out founders. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is in the top 10 for US research institutions, and the city has seen an influx of tech talent in the last year.

But what about the University of Minnesota?
 

How the U of MN is Embracing Startup Culture


The University of Minnesota Twin Cities (U of MN) campus is the 6th largest university in the US, with 50,000+ students. It has a ~$4B endowment and 485,000 alumni living around the world. It has produced 165+ startups since 2006, attracting $1.15B in capital investment. 7 have gone public since 2017.

How is the U of MN doing it? What are the programs, who are the people, and why is it working? 

Moonshots at the Carlson School
Our piece on giving during the pandemic highlighted some of the contributions by our portfolio along with our own efforts.

As we have taught with, co-invested, judged, advised,  and otherwise partnered with the U of MN over the years, Great North Labs has seen what things are working. Here are our top 4 observations:

1. John Stavig is a leader in the tech startup community.
2. MN Cup is elevating the entire startup scene.  
3. Atland Ventures provides students real VC experience.
4. The U of MN has a proliferation of startup support efforts across disciplines.


Read the full story.

MN Cup Director Jessica Berg is one of the first episodes of our new stealth podcast project. Hear from Berg and other people in the startup ecosystem who are executing in their niche, when we drop the first episodes!
 


MEDA Million Dollar Challenge Winners


The Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA) holds a national contest every year for BIPOC founders. This year, the Million Dollar Challenge awarded $1.1M in financing to six startups. 

The winners are: 

Mi Terro (City of Industry, CA) – $300,000
Femly (Baltimore, MD) – $250,000
Flourish Savings (Berkley, CA) – $150,000
Options MD (Los Angeles, CA) – $150,000
Please Assist Me (Washington, DC) – $150,000
Industrack (Plymouth, MN) – $100,000

Over the years MEDA has helped launch 500+ BIPOC-owned businesses with the potential to scale. The organization has assisted 20,000 minority entrepreneurs in Minnesota alone. 

Events

Here is a mix of upcoming events for investors, founders, and/or ecosystem supporters. All events listed are virtual.

Portfolio News

EmpowerU is new to the Great North Labs portfolio! EmpowerU is an online social-emotional learning organization that creates sustainable empowerment and therapeutic programming for students.

Twin Cities entrepreneur develops mental health website for teens”. Read about Empower U from Neal St. Anthony at the Star Tribune. Or here: “EdTech Makes Mental Healthcare Accessible for Students: How EmpowerU Works to Meet Students’ COVIDE Needs”.

“Tech for Change: At CES 2021, new devices and tech aim to help beat COVID-19”. Misty Robotics is making waves during the pandemic edition of CES. 
    
“PrintWithMe Deployed Portfolio-Wide by JMG Realty, Inc.” PrintWithMe is launching across 85 apartment communities reaching 30,000 apartment homes. 
 

Job Board

Dispatch is hiring

Business Development Representative & Territory Sales Manager- REMOTE
HR Intern, Driver Engagement Intern, Enterprise Sales & Alliances Intern, Driver Engagement Intern, Customer Experience Intern, Business Development Intern- BLOOMINGTON, MN

Structural is hiring
Marketing and Sales Intern- REMOTE or in ST. PAUL, MN

FactoryFix is hiring
Team Lead – Full Stack Developer, Full Stack Developer, & Infrastructure Developer- DevOps- MADISON, WI

TeamGenius is hiring
Customer Success Manager, and Lead Engineer-Mobile Development-  MINNEAPOLIS, MN

PrintWithMe is hiring
Regional Multifamily Housing Sales Director (East Coast)- PHILADELPHIA, PA
Regional Multifamily Housing Sales Director (East Coast)- WASHINGTON, D.C.
Regional Multifamily Housing Sales Director (South East)- ATLANTA, GA
Regional Multifamily Housing Sales Director (West Coast)- SACRAMENTO, CA
Director of Demand Generation, Printer & Implementation Technician, Part-time Warehouse Associate, Strategy Intern (MBA)- CHICAGO, IL

Branch is hiring
Senior iOS Engineer, Android Engineer, Enterprise Support Representative- REMOTE
Consumer Marketing Manager, Account Executive (Mid-Market)- MINNEAPOLIS, MN

Inhabitr is hiring
Chief Growth Officer/Head of B2C Growth Sales and Customer Experience Associate- CHICAGO, IL

Clinician Nexus is hiring
Customer Success Manager- MINNEAPOLIS, MN

NoiseAware is hiring
QA Technician (independent contractor), Senior Director of Software Engineering- DALLAS, TX
Data Scientist, Scrum Master Dallas, People Operations Generalist- REMOTE or DALLAS/AUSTIN, TX

Welcome to the May edition of the Great North Labs newsletter. In this time of economic change, entrepreneurial skills, advancing technology, and its new applications will drive the innovations and evolving business models necessary to spurn economic growth and prosperity on the other side of the downturn.

Great North Labs recognizes the importance of seeding investable startup opportunities, and endeavors to be a VC leader in the cultivation of robust early-stage startups in the region. That said, there are opportunities for learning necessary skills for startup entrepreneurs coming up soon, for high school students, college students, and entrepreneurs of all ages.

Education Programs

Today is the deadline to sign up for Jumpstart’s 3-day startup intensive for students! Jumpstart is structured like a hackathon, but with the focus including product and business instead of solely on coding and building. The program starts on Friday and goes through the weekend. Sign up by midnight with your own team, or as an individual. Each team will include technical and non-technical roles.

Jumpstart is virtual, free, and includes a day of workshops, speakers, and Q&A to learn from various startup ecosystem leaders. If you know any students in high school or freshmen in college interested in a startup, check it out. We are proud sponsors of this inaugural event by Futurist Academy, and are excited to see this kind of programming becoming more prevalent and widely available in Minnesota and the Midwest.

Jumpstart
Jumpstart is a free, virtual program for entrepreneurial high school and college students aimed at hacking together a product and business idea.

For entrepreneurs beyond high school, the Startup School is back! This collaboration with ILT Studios, Great North Labs, E1 Ecosystem Builders, and MN DEED has gone virtual. Startup Course 01 | Customer Driven Innovation – Module 101: Opportunity Identification is June 6th! This first of three modules is aimed to take entrepreneurs from idea to investable product. The module is available in two separate 2 1/2 hour time slots, is open to anyone, and, like the entire program, is free.


“Most good ideas do not come fully formed. Even the best ideas need to be iterated, explored, and refined before they have a chance at becoming great business ideas. What most people don’t tell you is that there is a process that can be taught and practiced to sharpen an idea–taking it from good, to better, and then to great.“

Support Startup Education

Silicon North Stars is a program founded by Mary and Steve Grove that takes high-potential ninth-graders from economically underserved communities in Minnesota, and exposes them to startup training, local tech mentors, and the culture of innovation born in Silicon Valley.

Usually the program takes the students out west to visit tech companies, but this past year was the first time the program was run entirely in Minnesota! With the evolving Minnesota startup ecosystem there was no shortage of resources, people, and companies for the students to engage with.  

If you’re interested in joining us in support this program and its alumni, Silicon North Stars is currently raising $10,000 via GoFundMe for their inaugural alumni scholarship program

Events

The summer event season is getting rolling, with many large conferences moving to a digital format. 

Portfolio News

Branch won a Webby! First awarded in 1996, the Webby Awards are, according to the New York Times, the “Internet’s highest honor”. This year the competition garnered over 13,000 entries. Branch was 1 of 2 winners in the “Banking/Financial Services Apps” category. Congratulations to the Branch team for this international recognition!

Job Board

Dispatch is hiring a Director of Sales, Product Manager, Product Owner, Quality Assurance Engineer, Senior Software Engineer, Content Creator, Business Development Rep., and Software Engineering Manager in Bloomington, MN. Territory Sales Manager positions are open for 16 states!

FactoryFix is hiring a Team Lead – Full Stack Developer, Full Stack Developer, and Infrastructure Developer- DevOps in Madison, WI; a Recruiter, and Business Development Rep in Chicago, IL.

TeamGenius is hiring a Customer Success Associate in Minneapolis, MN.

PrintWithMe is hiring a Regional Sales Director on the East Coast; a Software Engineer, Summer Strategy Intern (MBA), and Summer Strategy Intern (undergraduate) for Remote work.

Parallax is hiring a Customer Success Specialist, and Growth/Customer Acquisition in Minneapolis, MN. 

Branch is hiring a Channel Manager in Minneapolis, MN. 

Inhabitr is hiring a Chief Growth Officer/Head of B2C Growth and a Sales and Customer Experience Associate in Chicago, IL.

NoiseAware is hiring a COO, VP of Global Sales & Account Management, Product Marketing Manager, UI/UX Designer, Account Manager, and Customer Advocate in Dallas, TX.

UPDATE: Signup here for St. Cloud or Red Wing locations! Or View Course Information.

Greater Minnesota has been underperforming in its formation of new startups. When we founded Great North Labs, we recognized this need, and committed to changing it before the region could fall further behind. We founded a Startup School to provide the educational components that we saw local entrepreneurs were missing. By partnering with Red Wing Ignite and ILT Studios, we will greatly expand our reach, capacity, and educational offering. This co-created, yet-to-be-named, Greater MN Startup School initiative will reach across the state to cultivate founders and startups in areas ready for the impact of entrepreneurial innovation.

The Necessity of Startup Entrepreneurship

From 2000-2017, 52% of companies in the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired, or ceased to exist. Digital disruption is the primary catalyst of change. Adaptability is key to success. A key to any community, or organization, strengthening its adaptive intelligence is for it to master a disciplined approach to startup entrepreneurship. Disciplined startup entrepreneurship isn’t new but techniques have emerged the past 15 years that emphasize a more agile process for startup entrepreneurship that is needed in an environment with such accelerating changes.

One measure of the strength of startup entrepreneurship in a community is the number of first venture financings that it produces. The Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) now have 1% of the countries first venture financings, but Greater Minnesota (generalized as non-urban MN, or specifically as all of Minnesota outside of the Twin Cities region) has lagged behind. Comparing the efficiency –the number of first venture financings per population– of the Twin Cities to the next largest markets in Minnesota is revealing. St. Cloud, Duluth, and Mankato have 50% or lower startup efficiency. Rochester (home of the Mayo Clinic) is a standout, and outperformed with a 200%+ startup efficiency compared to the Twin Cities.

The Need for Startup Education

My twin brother and Great North Labs Partner, Rob Weber, and I have previously angel invested in 25 startups from 2006 to 2017 while scaling our own startup with offices in Silicon Valley and Minnesota. I served for 10+ years as Chief Product Officer, and noticed an inefficiency in the startup teams resulting from a lack of disciplined startup entrepreneurship practices compared to Silicon Valley. I struggled finding Minnesota-based product managers trained in the more adaptive style of product management made popular by lean startups so we invested in developing a common process and trained our team on it.

As investors, too often we’d hear from a founder that they just need $300K to prove out their latest thesis. We’d meet teams that burned through $500K in angel funding that still couldn’t present evidence validating their thesis. This evidence we’d expect a product manager to answer at our company in their first two months of leading a new product idea with nothing more than qualitative research.

For most of the funded startup teams, they were immersed in the market and sought to solve a problem they thought they understood well. However, they usually struggled to identify the problem that’s the most impactful to solve, the minimal viable solution that solves that problems needs, and an offer that communicates the value proposition clearly and for a price the buyer will accept.

The Great North Labs Startup School

Great North Labs was formed in the fall of 2017. In addition to our early-stage venture fund, we started an initiative called the Startup School to invest in strengthening our disciplined startup education in the region. We led a group of practitioners who ran workshops on Digital Transformation, Lean Startups (most frequent), and Agile Development. The free or low-cost workshops attracted over 200 participants through the end of 2019. The workshop materials were also shared with many others and we gave lectures at a number of universities and conferences in cities across the Upper Midwest.

Great North Labs Startup School

For the Lean Startup Workshop, we found that participants were engaged with low attrition rates and heard from them after the fact as they reported on their progress. We had the Executive Director of a significant non-profit mention using the process to discover a new innovation they were pursuing to commercialize, several tech founders launching their MVPs after researching, and many staying in touch to assist and support each-other but also in some cases joining forces on a startup.

We saw a greater gap in the smaller markets across Minnesota and throughout the Upper Midwest. However, one bright spot was in Iowa. There, the state had invested in programming similar to ours, and had expanded across the state with their Venture School initiative.

The Greater MN Startup School Initiative

We are taking the experience and lessons learned along the way from our initial Startup School, from Iowa’s Venture School, and from other startup education programs to expand our program to our new Greater MN Startup School initiative. This new Startup School will make the skills and training necessary for disciplined startup entrepreneurship more accessible to Minnesota entrepreneurs than ever before. It will also open up networks and possibilities for people across the state that were previously unavailable. Across the state, we hope to see this cultivation of startups drive innovation, economic activity, and value creation.

Read more about our startup education and sign up for courses

Who: Great North Labs, ILT Studios, Redwing Ignite and Partners.

What: A new set of workshops designed to strengthen the skills in disciplined startup entrepreneurship and provide an applied learning environment that allows founders, and their supporters, to work from idea conception to commercialization.

Participants will learn innovation techniques for identifying, defining, sizing, validating, and commercializing venture scalable startups. There will be new online and in-class programming to help you learn with hands-on practical activities, mentorship, insights, and opportunities to network to help you build confidence in your startup thesis and master the art of gathering feedback, directly from your future customers.

When: The first class for Customer Driven Innovation will run from March-April. The first class for Business Model Foundation will follow in early summer. The first class for The Lean Startup will run from mid to late summer. Web-site registration will be open in February for the classes and we will follow up with additional details.

Where: Red Wing and St. Cloud will offer the same classes in parallel but on different days

Why: To teach participants about design innovation, the Lean Startup process and how to identify, develop, define, validate, finance and commercialize their ideas so they are more successful in developing their own startup as a new company or inside of an existing one.

Earn a certificate for completing each of the programs and strengthen your credentials for a career as a Startup Founder or Product Manager. Initially, three workshops will be offered and each will feature a program certificate for those that successful complete:

Program 1: Customer Driven Innovation – Gain fresh perspective that will expand your thinking and push you to bold new ideas through practice and discussion within the class and interactions with the instructors and classmates. You’ll come up with a number of potential ideas and pick one to develop as a concept pitch.

Program 2: Business Model Foundation – This program builds on the Customer Driven Innovation course to help you form a strong business thesis. Learn to document your initial business plan and quickly analyze it’s potential, advanced customer discovery interview methods, and skills needed to help gather better feedback and ensure you are solving the right problem.

Program 3: The Lean Startup Certificate– This program builds on the Customer Driven Innovation and the Business Model Foundation courses to leverage the creativity and collaboration within a startup team to develop and execute experiments that test your business thesis, synthesis key learnings, and to explore alternative thesis based on those learnings until you find a business thesis that meets your success criteria. This program will culminate with an idea pitch event where an investor panel will award cash prizes to the top pitches.

Building up the Region

The Twin Cities has emerged as a strong startup community in the Upper Midwest. There are parallels between Silicon Valley and the Twin Cities that we can learn from and try to replicate in Greater MN, and potentially the entire Upper Midwest region.

Silicon Valley benefited from an emphasis on experimenting with practical skills in emerging fields, a network of VCs, links with Economic Development Departments, local universities, and local LPs. Our vision is to partner with all the aforementioned entities to serve the entrepreneurs of Greater MN.

While this is our pilot year, we already have interest from a variety of organizations. There is strong demand from around the state. If your community is interested in our program, please contact us, and we can stay connected and help with preparations as we make plans for expansion.

As far as involved organizations go, we’d like to take a moment to thank LaunchMN in particular, for their financial and operational support. This new MN DEED initiative led by Neela Mollgaard has helped make this new Startup School initiative possible.

We have an opportunity now to transform our rural markets into strong startup communities, and improve their resiliency in a world that increasingly requires adaptive intelligence and innovation skills to succeed.


May newsletter
Great North Ventures

$40M Fund II Raised!

Great North Ventures Raises $40M Fund II
Great North Ventures

Great North Ventures Raises $40 Million Fund II

Investment Thesis: Fund II Strategy
Great North Ventures

Investment Thesis: Fund II Strategy

Investment Thesis: Community-Driven Applications
Great North Ventures

Investment Theme: Community-Driven Applications

Great North Labs Newsletter December 2017
James DonFrancesco

Great North Labs Newsletter – December 2017

Rob-Back-To-The-Future-wide
Rob Weber

A Letter To My Younger Self

mixed icons with brown color and tech theme
James DonFrancesco

Great North Labs Newsletter