Ryan and Josef talk about the importance of startup communities and the importance of innovation in rural communities, including St. Cloud, MN.

Molly shares her experience working with incubators, builders, and startups with Singularity University and how that led to her position as the Entrepreneur Ecosystem Development Lead at CORI, where she works with communities to build the infrastructure necessary to help entrepreneurs succeed. Molly paints a picture of a rural America in decline, and explains the transformative value generated by tech startups and productive tech startup ecosystems.   

She explains that the key to any ecosystem is putting the entrepreneur at the center, and calls out Red Wing as a startup community that is really executing- as well as every rural community they work with. “That’s the stories that need to be told. Those are the underdogs that we need to be uplifting. Those are the people flying under the radar that I could talk about all day.” “We have so much more to go as a country in terms of entrepreneurship, in terms of innovation than just what we see in these five major metro areas.”

Full Transcript Below:

00:00

Welcome to the execution is king podcast. Today I’m talking with Ryan Weber, managing partner of Great North ventures. And joining us as a guest is Molly Pyle, the entrepreneurial ecosystem development lead at the center on rural innovation. I’m Molly, how you doing today? Hey, doing well, how are you? Good, good.

00:22

Hey everyone, Ryan Weber here in greater St. Cloud, Minnesota for my home. It’s late June 2021. And we’re starting to see things open up quickly as our vaccination rate Minnesota exceeds 50%. I moved to the St. Cloud from the Twin Cities in 1998 to attend college. The population here is around 189,000. While in college, my partner at Great North ventures Rob and I bootstrapped a company and online PC software publishing and later, ad tech focused on smartphone app marketing to 170 employees and eventual and exit. You know, at Great North ventures, we think execution is key to success. And this podcast will hope to help founders and investors learn best practices from others building the next great global startups from wherever they may be. And I’m really excited today through the work at Great North ventures I’ve had the great fortune of interacting with Corey and some of the work they’ve been doing with ecosystems in the region. So Molly, could you start off by telling us a little bit more about your background and what Korea is?

01:28

Yeah, definitely. So I got started working in entrepreneurship, working with startups, running incubators and accelerator programs at a company called Singularity University based in Silicon Valley. And I had this amazing privilege to get to work with global entrepreneurs see incredible ideas and innovators from truly everywhere, every corner of the earth, you can imagine folks would come and participate in this program that helped them, leverage these exponential technologies and build them into scalable tech startups. So that made me really fall in love with the opportunity that entrepreneurship provides for people. No matter where you come from, if you have a good idea, you can turn it into something real and impact billions of people potentially. So with that sort of becoming my professional focus, I learned about the center on real innovation, which is just a really compelling organization for me specifically, as I wanted to see entrepreneurship as an opportunity become more accessible to more people. So the center on real innovation is an organization that’s really dedicated to closing the rural opportunity gap that emerged out of the Great Recession. I joined the organization in August, like Joseph mentioned as the entrepreneur ecosystem development lead. And that’s really just a long way of saying I help rural community leaders build startup communities and entrepreneur ecosystems. And what that means is building that infrastructure that’s necessary to help entrepreneurs thrive to help aspiring entrepreneurs who have an idea, but maybe don’t know that they can take it forward and execute it. Figure out who are the people who are the programs? Where are the partnerships, what can I access that can help me actually create this tech startup, even if I am in Red Wing, Minnesota, or Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for example. So these uncommon places that you don’t often hear about, as you know, innovation and tech hubs, but center on real innovation really believes that they can become these kinds of tech hubs. And part of that why is why are we focused on rural America specifically, it’s because to be frank, it never recovered from the 2008 recession. So the urban and suburban communities really bounced back rural places failed to replace the jobs lost in that recession, let alone grow their economies. And then we all know the effects of COVID. Nationally, globally, no matter where you are, who you are, we all felt the impacts, but in rural, specifically, only 5% of tech jobs even before COVID were in rural areas, despite the same regions representing 15% of our national workforce. So all of this very unequal recovery stems from what we’re seeing the automation of jobs, so many of which were originally in rural like agriculture, manufacturing, globalization, so outsourcing some jobs that could ultimately be done by Americans if they were skilled up to be able to meet the needs that those jobs require in terms of skills and talent, and this 30 year decline that we’ve been seeing in entrepreneurship. So that’s why we’re really committed to creating sort of inclusive ownership of production in the age of automation.

04:35

That’s great just for framing today’s conversation a little bit Can you talk about for corys focus? Can you define what you mean by entrepreneur and what you mean by rural?

04:46

Yeah, totally. So rural, we talk about like a community in the population size of 5000 to 50,000, which may seem even bigger than you might think but something that we think is important is trying to Create, whether it’s through regional partnerships or through technology as well, the density that rural communities in rural areas lack, that you just naturally have population density in an urban area. So we think about rural in this way, we try to encourage the communities that we work with to take more of a regional approach and think about how they can leverage technology to build more of an ecosystem and inclusive culture. And entrepreneurs, you know, anyone with an idea who is actively working on turning that idea into a startup, and we specifically focus on folks interested in building scalable tech startups. And we do that because there are lots of organizations incredible organizations like score and co starters and the SBDC and local communities that will help folks with a main street or small business or sometimes called a mom and pop kind of business idea. And we acknowledge that that kind of entrepreneurship is critical and is a backbone to really the American economy. But what we want to see is scalable technology startups being created in rural communities, because we’ve seen the returns that those kinds of companies can have in terms of jobs, in terms of wealth being created for that community. So seeing those kinds of impacts, helping people create tech startups, also the rise of distributed work and remote teams being something that you can do, you know, build and scale a startup in rural Maine. And you could have some team members in other hubs where there’s more tech talent, perhaps, but doing that, helping bring the jobs helping bring the wealth and create that in a rural community. That’s our goal. That’s what we’re really focused on.

06:36

Right? Can you share a little bit more about what community needs to be successful? Is there a checklist of must haves that you have put together?

06:46

Yeah, so I mean, the first kind of obvious thing, which I am proud of and want to share about the center on real innovation is one of the things we do as well is help communities to apply for federal funding. So the basic funding that you need to stand up and build an incubator, for example, or get the funding to run an accelerator program or a hackathon, all of that has to start somewhere. And we support real communities and applying to this federal funding. And I’m very proud to say since 2019, only, we’ve helped communities raise more than 13 million in federal funding and match dollars. So the first kind of thing I would say is, while there’s no checklist, it’s it’s pretty obvious that you need, you need capital, you need an infusion of capital, you need folks willing to invest in the community to build the basic infrastructure for an entrepreneur ecosystem. And you know, there is no replicable formula that you can take and drag and drop. We’ve seen some things work in some communities and not working others, but ultimately to one of the most basic things in addition to just having some infusion of capital, whether it’s federal funding, or investors or a mix of that public private partnerships, is also just access to connectivity to high speed internet. So just to illustrate, and part of what Cori does, as well, another bridge organization is support communities and accessing broadband and getting broadband set up. So for example, a recent Deloitte analysis of the digital divides economic impact showed that a 10% increase in broadband access in 2014 would have produced nearly 900,000 more us jobs, and 168 billion more in economic output in 2019. So that’s, that’s kind of, I think, a really powerful statistic to show how important broadband is to economic development and particularly, to building entrepreneurship ecosystems in tech startups. If you’re again, trying to hire remote, you know, DevOps team, and you’re in whatever rural community you may be in, that’s where you love. That’s where you want to be rooted and build your business. If you’re having trouble connecting to the internet and chatting with your team on zoom, which, as we’ve seen, is such a lifeline to doing work in the 21st century, you know, the chances of your success are really limited. So starting with broadband at the most basic level, starting with capital to help you actually build out some of the physical and, you know, otherwise infrastructure that you need for programming. That’s super, super important. And then I also think it’s really, really vital for tech entrepreneurs, especially in rural areas to see visible success stories of people who look like them, who come from their community, who have made it who have been there done that, even if they failed once or twice, I would say that’s even better. Because there is this mindset of, you know, this can’t happen here. There’s this fear of well, if I try and I fail, then everybody knows me, I’ll I’ll have to run into people at the grocery store and kind of hide my head and shame. And I think that we need to really blow up that idea and celebrate the failures, which is something I think I jokingly say Silicon Valley maybe has over indexed in doing but in rural communities, we can kind of bring it back down to It’s okay. You have the courage to actually go out there and try something. And we should be celebrating you and highlighting your efforts to try to build something amazing in this community and for us and for us to be proud of. So get back out there, try again, amplify the voices of people doing this, put them on platforms, do speaker events, do tech talks, do things that the community can come in open to the public and engage because these types of things, I think, plant that seed, and shift the narrative that oh, this can’t happen here. So that’s really important. And also that leads to more that leads to you know, I go to a tech talk, I hear from an entrepreneur, who has actually made it in my rural community. And that suddenly inspires me, I can do this. Now, what do I do? What’s the next step? So having a sort of clear pathway of you go to a tech talk, you hear someone who’s made it who’s from your neighborhood? And then you think maybe this is for me? Well, where do I get started? Who can help me? Are there programs are there incubators are their mentors are their angel investors. So building all of those basic next steps for an entrepreneur to have a sort of cohesive journey, I find that that’s really, really critical. And that’s something I work a lot with our rural community leaders on developing that journey for their entrepreneurs.

11:11

So where do you see communities like starting out? Do you have like leaders come to you who are working on building that infrastructure? Or do you see it beginning with entrepreneurs trying to do a tech startup and then reaching out when they when they have, you know, things that they need that they’re not able to come up with?

11:31

Yeah, our model is working with the community leaders. So the people at that ecosystem building layer, maybe their managers or directors of incubators, co working spaces, accelerators, or general, you know, entrepreneur innovation hubs, maybe attached to a university, we work with that layer of folks to ultimately build their capacity and their ability to serve their local entrepreneurs. So trying to keep things really deeply rooted in the community because someone who has been managing the CO working space in you know, platteville, Wisconsin for five years knows much more than I do about who you should talk to and where the mentors are, or what investment may have happened two years ago with this other successful startup. So we try to help those community leaders actually be the most effective that they can for the entrepreneurs. However, I will say I, I’m a big fan, probably no surprise to anybody in the startup world and Brad Feld and Ian Hathaway in the book, startup communities, I’ve been reading that and doing a book club, actually, with the real community leaders on it. And there’s a piece in that which I love. And I always try to drive back home, which is this philosophy of keeping entrepreneurs at the center, everything in the startup community in the ecosystem should revolve around entrepreneurs at the center, what do they need? What are they looking for? How can we best be of service to them? So trying to apply that lens to the work we do with the community leaders is really front and center of ultimately, everything I’m doing is saying, Are you talking to entrepreneurs just like how we tell entrepreneurs? Are you talking to customers? Are you getting out there in the field? Are you asking questions? Are you iterating, based on what they’re telling you, the ecosystem builders and the people serving entrepreneurs need to also have an entrepreneurial mindset. They need to be flexible and adaptable, they need to respond to the changes of what the entrepreneurs are saying they’re needing or what’s working or what’s not working for them. So trying to really help them adopt that mindset and be the best possible, you know, supporters and fans and amplifiers of their local tech entrepreneurs. That’s really, again, what I think we are all about, ultimately, are the work that I do.

13:43

I got a shout out our advisor Scott Resnick, at this point. He’s he wrote a portion of a chapter or maybe it was a whole chapter I forget in the startup community, his book. He’s EIR at starting block in Madison, Wisconsin doing all kinds of good ecosystem work in Madison.

14:03

That’s really interesting, Molly, you know, I was thinking back to when we were starting there. You know, it’s obviously a larger market, but we had entrepreneur success stories. And that was a major inspiration. And I think more recently, I’ve heard about tech successes and other smaller markets, like Ben from Douala into Moines. He’s got very become very active in the ecosystem in Iowa. And Zach, founder a jam that went public in Eau Claire has done so much to help, you know, you know, ignite, you know, a spark there in Eau Claire. And, and I think that’s something people don’t realize is that there are six very successful tech startups that are being formed, you know, all around the country in the world right now. But these markets are a little bit bigger than the markets you’re targeting. I’m really curious to hear are there any markets or startups kind of entrepreneurial success stories that you could share from these smaller rural markets that you’ve engaged in started working with?

14:54

Yeah, so I, I mentioned this community earlier, and I love talking about that. Because they are a, you know, real underdog that’s come up and hence a massive success, and that is Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and this is a community 40,000 in population 25%, poverty rate 25%, lower median income household in the population. So it’s a region and an area that had been in decline in all the ways you can think of and university attendance in their some of their main industries being manufacturing. So the two entrepreneurs locally, who decided to do something about this, James and Chris, they opened, codify, which is a co working space, an innovation hub and tech incubator in Cape Girardeau, which is in Southeast Missouri. And they started this competition called the first 50k, which is ultimately aimed at attracting tech startups to the area and ultimately giving them $50,000. If they agreed to stay in that area for two years and build their company there. And they provide lots of value mentorship, they actually have a in house project shop, and an adult coding boot camp where they’re building the tech talent pipeline as well. And that’s another big thing in terms of what do entrepreneurs particularly in rural need is access to tech talent, right? So beyond hiring remotely, if you can find local tech talent within your community, that’s fantastic. And so keep Gerardo the codify folks were really trying to solve for that building out the tech talent building out the program to bring entrepreneurs, and they had some really interesting learnings in that program, and found that there were some folks who, you know, came participated, got the $50,000 for two years and then left. And that’s obviously not what they want, they want to find people who are going to stay and become rooted in the community and really, you know, give back and stay there for as long as their startup is scaling and growing and in business. And what they found is that that was actually a real goal of one of their entrepreneurs show rust of a company called show.ai, which is a sort of AI and digital marketing firm, which is just rapidly now scaling, super successful. And part of it is because show, he was doing the startup thing in LA, he was, you know, scaling and getting a lot of traction and saw the first 50k competition as an invitation to return home. He had had family he had had, you know, community and connections in Cape Girardeau, and thought that that was always maybe a place that he would like to return to and be closer to his community. But he didn’t think that there was anything there in terms of, you know, startup activity, mentors, investors, people who could support him. So he was living in LA trying to build that out. However, he saw this first 50k competition, he realized, while people or people in my hometown are trying to make it happen, actually, there’s there’s activity, there’s vision. So he applied, he won, and he has been there ever since. And he’s actually a company that our firm, the Corey Innovation Fund, actually a branch of our organization has invested in so we have a fund that invested in qualified opportunity zone startups startups based in those opportunity zones, which Cape Girardeau is. So show being back in that opportunity zone, being back in his hometown with his family, building his tech startup that was you know, doing great in Los Angeles, but now continues to thrive in Cape Girardeau. I just love that story. And I think it’s a great example of finding, finding that personal connections, people who are gonna return to a place or move to a place or stay in a place because there’s something you know, that really roots them there. I think that is really special and really notable. And I just have to add that part of the first 50k program, why I love it, and think it’s impactful is if you can find those people who are going to stay, of course, beyond the two years, that’s the goal, who have this reason or vision for saying in the community. What that has happened is seeing the awardees, seeing those startups generate over 6 million in revenue, create 40 plus local jobs, and generally, again, prove to the community be visible that this is possible that this can happen here. So ultimately, I think that that is one success story. But the program itself is so much more impactful. I think when you look at that big zoomed out view of how many jobs and how much impact and how much of a mindset shift it’s creating for folks in Cape Girardeau.

19:25

Yeah, that’s really interesting. You know, I, I hadn’t heard details of that story, but I can only imagine how transformative that is to a community like that. And, you know, there’s, you know, you know, a couple of people I wanted to get kind of shout out and in our region, you know, in Sioux Falls Matt Polson, of marketbeat, a founder has really taken a leadership role along with local other entrepreneurs and consulting groups to really shape Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and it’s really a it’s become a statewide initiative. It’s really connecting communities around the state to supercharge startup entrepreneurship and In North Dakota, you know Greg Tevin and advisor in our fund, with emerging prairie in the grand farms initiative, they’ve got a plug and play now in partnership with Microsoft building the future farm itself, you know, these are larger markets, but you would, it would just blow your mind how connected these communities are and how these entrepreneur and ecosystem leaders together can really make a difference quickly and in and that’s what, you know, in your story. It resonates that speed at which, you know, a small group of people in a smaller market, when aligned can really, really change the trajectory of a community quickly. And that’s one of the real, you know, positives, there’s obviously no, there’s some of the challenges that we discussed earlier. You know, speaking of challenges, what are some of the lessons learned, you know, what are unrealistic expectations? What are some of the past failures that we might learn from, from some of the work you’ve seen?

20:52

It’s really important, like, I like I had mentioned that tenant of keeping startups and keeping entrepreneurs at the center of everything. So anytime that there is a story of a pitfall or a failure, I tried to think about, well, what were the symptoms or the factors that caused this and almost every time, I would say, if not every single time, it’s when governments or other actors, stakeholders, people kind of outside of the direct sort of center of entrepreneurship are trying to exert control, trying to impose their views from the top down, rather than letting the entrepreneurship ecosystem be really bottom up, be led by entrepreneurs. So architecting out, entrepreneurs from leadership is the most, I would say accelerated way you can lead an ecosystem to fail, if the entrepreneurs are not the people at the center, making decisions, having their voices heard, having their needs being met. I think that that is something that, you know, will be a fast track to pitfalls. And, and I think that all too often, too, there is this expectation of these kind of actors or investors at the maybe government or other level who believe that there is such a thing is an overnight success story. And while there are there are definitely people who can move fast and break things, as they say, all over this country, and particularly in rural areas as well, because I really believe that innovation and being resourceful is kind of at the heart of a lot of people in rurals mindsets and attitudes, you had to be innovative and resourceful to survive in rural America really, for so long. And so I think that when you can see, you know, folks not understanding that this is also a long term commitment. This is a long game, like, you know, Brad Feld says think of it in 20 year segments. So when folks are expecting overnight success and have a misalignment of expectations of Oh, we want to see your first accelerator ever that you’ve done in, you know, rural Vermont produce the next Google, that’s obviously not realistic. However, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be fantastic startups coming out of these areas. And these programs, it just means that we need to in tech startups, for that matter, it’s it’s definitely our focus, like I mentioned, but it’s something that I think we need to get on the same page about early on is that this is going to take, if you’re starting from scratch, especially a longer time, you’re going to need to really stick with it to be okay, like I mentioned with the failures that you might see at first, and to understand that this is something that will happen over the course of like Cape Girardeau, that kind of massive impact and all of the, you know, millions that they’ve generated, and the hundreds of jobs that have been created beyond that first 50k program, they also have, you know, tech startups being built just within their space, all of that happened over the span of now seven, seven years or so. So it’s it’s not something that can happen within six weeks. But it’s also you know, something that I think we can stay optimistic about because it can happen, it just may look a little different than you might imagine it would in Silicon Valley. And that’s okay. I don’t think we need to recreate the next Silicon Valley, I think rural communities can create their own thriving startup ecosystems that fit with the culture in the context. So ultimately, I think it’s about keeping that in mind.

24:18

That’s really interesting. You mentioned a few of the success metrics, like job creation, and you talked about, you know, upskilling, you know, the labor, you know, workforce, but also, you know, attracting, you know, you know, skilled talent back to a region. You know, are there any other metrics that are qualitative or quantitative things that you use as measures of success? Because, you know, this is a can be a grind, and you have to, it may take a long term, but what are some of the things that you would any other anything else you might suggest focusing on, you know, for measuring the progress that’s being made?

24:50

Yeah, I mean, we definitely do look at access to capital as a indicator like like every startup ecosystem, but particularly how die The situation is in rural, that we’ve found and research shows that less than 1% of all VC money goes to rural areas 80% of all investments are made in just five major Metro cities. So tracking and looking at and supporting, how are how the companies in these rural communities are raising capital, whether it’s through traditional investment, capital micro financing grants, we’re trying to support them in all the different ways in blends that they can access capitals. So helping them do that. And tracking that is a huge metric. It’s also you know, the the, the equity investments that they can get from that wanting to see that it’s the exits we’ve had and seen a few exits a few IPOs, a few acquisitions. So trying to track all of that, but also, you know, just the the general startups if you’re starting really small, that are participating in your incubator. are you growing that number over time? Did you start off with five companies in your incubator or accelerator and then three years later, you’ve got 25, we would count that as massive progress because it means that you’re building traction at that community level. So funds raised jobs created profit generated by the new startups, those are, I think, really great and traditional metrics to look at. But helping match metrics with the early stage ecosystem development is important, too, right? You’re not going to have maybe 7 million raised in capital out of the companies in the first incubator ever, or maybe one company does that. And that’s great. But ultimately, you may not see that happen right away. But to match that metric with wherever you’re starting out, if you’re just trying to get folks to pivot, a small business idea, let’s say into a scalable tech startup in a week long, you know, startup bootcamp that’s going to have different and should have more than grounded metrics, then what you want in your accelerator program, after you’ve been doing this community building for three years, let’s say,

26:57

could you talk about, you know, kind of changing gears a little bit here? Where can someone find resources as a community leader or entrepreneur for supporting rural startups? You mentioned a book earlier startup communities? What other resources at quarry or or, or more broadly, Do you often recommend?

27:14

Yeah, I mean, like I mentioned, doing that book on Brad Feld, I mean, Hathaway book is, is, I think, a great tool for learning and for rural ecosystem builders to really get that perspective. I also, you know, selfishly would say what we’re doing at Korea is really partnering with folks to help navigate How can they build this startup community? What do they need to do? Who are the partners, where’s the funding? So we do a lot of that I also point people to the resources from the Kauffman Foundation, I think they are doing some really innovative work and are supporting entrepreneurs in you know, the heartland in rural areas where I think it’s really needed most. So I also think that as much as I mentioned before, you’ve got to get the actors and then governments and the stakeholders to really understand and put the needs of the entrepreneurs, front and center. And assuming you can do that, I think that governments actually a great source of support for entrepreneurs and for ecosystem builders. So if you know how to navigate those complexities of federal funding, SBR process can be great for non dilutive funding, though it can be challenging. There’s also a lot of programs through the Economic Development Administration, we support communities to apply for the build to scale program, which helps you really get that first infusion of capital to build out a scalable tech startup ecosystem. There’s also the USDA rise grant, which was just announced, which provides funding for tech innovation, entrepreneurship, even building physical infrastructure, building the incubator space that you may need. So I suggest you know, folks stay in touch and tuned into what federal funding opportunities are coming down the pike that Kauffman Foundation that Cory I mean, I would say the content that Joel are producing to at Great North ventures could be fantastic for people in your region. So I think it’s important, yeah, to take the national level, understand what’s happening at sort of that layer of the entrepreneurial vision and possibility in this country. But also what’s happening at your community level are they’re great people producing events and content and trying to make connections. And they would love to have more people at those events and reading their blogs and showing up and so finding whatever is in your area, but also tuning into some of those natural national resources. I also just really appreciate the work, though it may not be a resource they bring a lot of, I think thought leadership to this work is village capital and rise in the rest. So those are two that I kind of like to look to as well for what are they thinking what are they saying what are the frameworks they’re putting out? And, you know, how does that look and compare to the work that we’re trying to do in building these ecosystems in rural Specifically,

30:01

thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Molly, I usually close out with the same question every time. And that’s to ask you who is someone, or a team or a startup, or in your case, it might be an organization, but someone who’s flying under the radar, maybe people haven’t really heard about them. But that’s really executing, that people should be paying attention to.

30:24

I, it’s funny, I would take a wide approach to this question and say that every rural community that we work with is in many ways flying under the radar, right and should be looked at as a really, you know, interesting place and a inviting place to invest. And to just understand more and more about what startups are there that tech startups are actually viable and are happening and are being created in these rural communities. And I definitely think I would be remiss not to mention Red Wing, Red Wing, Minnesota being a place that we work and partner with that community. And though it’s not exactly under the radar, because one of their startups was on Shark Tank, actually. And I was just, you know, learning a little bit more about her story, and was really proud of just the way that she has built this company with her brother from the ground up and ultimately got an offer from the sharks and turned it down and is just crushing it otherwise with profit. So I love to see those kinds of things. It’s not under the radar. But I think there’s lots of other entrepreneurs in Red Wing and being served by Red Wing ignite, the one entrepreneur first collaborative that they have there, which I think is just really cool. It’s another model, like we talked about building density, that’s a great model, because they have regional collaboration, they’ve got 11 different counties within southeastern Minnesota, all working together to try to build up that, you know, pipeline of rural tech startups and amplifying those entrepreneurs. So another one I think is really cool. You guys may know is doc labs, this robot that will help people be better at basketball, I just love I mean, those kinds of stories of people having problems that really personally affected them, but then figuring out well, how can we how can we solve this because that’s a real pain point for you know, actual people in this world and solving that and going after that, I think is just, that’s the heart of what entrepreneurial ism is. It’s identifying what needs to exist in the world that doesn’t, and how can I go out there and build it? So seeing that happen in places like Red Wing in places like Wilson, North Carolina and Durango, Colorado, I mean, to me, it’s, it’s that’s the stories that need to be told those are the underdogs that we need to be uplifting. Those are the people flying under the radar that I could talk about all day, because I just think it’s really exciting that we have so much more as this as a country to give in terms of entrepreneurship in terms of innovation than just what we see in these five major metro areas.

32:57

What a great summation to that’s what it’s all about identifying problems people have and fixing them for him. That’s fantastic. Again, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today. We’ll catch up with you later. Yeah, thanks me. So fun.

We are pleased to announce the launch of our venture studio, Great North Venture Labs. Great North Venture Labs will design and build companies with world-class founders and operators that are in focused market segments with substantial opportunities. Promising studio startups will be funded with capital from the second Great North venture fund.

Read more in the Star Tribune

The venture studio model is a relatively new model for entrepreneurship that combines company building with venture capital. By creating researched opportunities from great ideas, and pairing them with talent that can execute, Great North Venture Labs  will create early-stage startups built to succeed. These startups will be vetted for funding, with seed capital coming from Great North Ventures (formerly Great North Labs). 

Great North Ventures will focus on investing in founders who are applying breakthrough tech to inefficient processes. Our first two Great North Venture Labs companies are headquartered where we have the strongest talent pipeline, in Minnesota. In light of today’s reality of startups adopting a remote-first approach to developing their teams, Great North Ventures will encourage founders to build where they are.

We are flexible with respect to what the right business model is, and will pursue different business model types including enterprise SAAS, online marketplaces, and online community/social networks. Strong execution translates to all verticals and business models, and knows no borders. 

This is an evolution from our initial positioning. The truth is that the latest opportunities, teams, and new ventures are distributed. Remote work is becoming standard, and our geographic investment focus has become increasingly arbitrary. Good opportunities happen anywhere people can execute them. 

Why Now?

Before we launched Great North Labs in 2017, we considered launching a venture fund and a venture studio. Predating the launch of Great North Labs, Ryan Weber and I traveled the world as founders, and we were able to see great examples of the venture studio/incubator type of businesses such as Betaworks in NYC, IdealLab in LA (our partners in Fund I portfolio company Branch), and High Alpha (our partners in Fund I portfolio Structural) in Indianapolis. Locally, Rally Ventures (our Fund I partners in Parallax) and Invenshure (our Fund I partners in Flywheel) have successfully executed this studio model too. After much consideration, we opted to exclusively focus on launching our venture fund first so that we could develop a strong platform as early stage investors.

Now that we are getting started to launch Fund II, we now have a more robust internal team along with our Innovator Network. This strong foundation rooted in strong execution from founders and operators who have demonstrated excellence in execution enable us to do so where most other early stage funds lack operational depth. 

We are not just service providers, we are entrepreneurs!

One of the biggest questions we get from our fund’s Limited Partners is how can we build even large ownership in the startups we invest our capital and resources into. With the explosion of new early stage funds, including those that invest earlier such as in pre-seed, the competition for the best deals is fierce. There is no more proprietary deal flow than ground up building a startup, and the opportunity to pick teams centered around strong foundation execution enables us to de-risk the earlier stages at a level not possible by most other funds.

The first Great North Venture Labs company

The first Great North Venture Labs company is in stealth mode. The new startup is focused on solving the biggest problems faced by collectors of trading cards. Like many other alt assets such as luxury goods, paintings, vintage cars, NFTs, the trading card market has grown immensely over recent years, but the market is still dominated by legacy marketplaces and other industry participants, many of which rely on dated technology and analog business processes. It looks to enhance the trading card market by using breakthrough technologies not available to prior businesses operating in the trading card market.

This stealth startup is headquartered in Minnesota. Additional details will be shared at a later date.

The University of St. Thomas (UST) is the largest private university in Minnesota with ~10,000 students. The business school, the Opus College of Business, is #2 in the state for undergraduate business education. The Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, named for Best Buy founder Richard Schulze, is #1 in the state and nationally ranked. Digital transformation and education trends are driving big changes at the university in how entrepreneurs are educated and how startups are supported.

This year the university announced the end of its full-time MBA program, and a focus on part-time and online MBAs, citing the changing demand for graduate business education. The decline is part of a local and national trend trend, as Minneapolis-St. Paul MBA program applications are down 20% in the past five years, and as top ten business schools even see double digit declines. 

We’re not here to argue for or against an MBA, but to call attention to the fact that the perception of the degree is shifting, and UST is shifting with demand.

At Great North Labs, we don’t prioritize pedigrees. Whatever your background, what is important is whether or not you can execute. Whether you’re working from theory or practice, it comes down to the product and your delivery of it. 

Elon Musk weighed in on MBAs with the Wall Street Journal recently, saying, “I think there might be too many MBAs running companies. There’s the MBA-ization of America, which I think is, maybe not that great.”

Musk’s advice for business leaders was, “Spend less time in meeting rooms, less time on PowerPoint presentations, less time on a spreadsheet, and more time on the factory floor, more time with customers.”

So that begs the question: outside of the MBA program, how is UST supporting innovation? What is UST doing to get students “onto the factory floor” and spending time with customers? 

How University of St. Thomas Raises Up Startup Entrepreneurship

For answers, we turned to Great North Labs own Mike Schulte, JD/MBA ’17. Mike has experience with the Opus College, the School of Law, and the Schulze School, as well as the university’s other programs and initiatives. He is not only keyed in to the school’s programs, but speaks as an investor and startup ecosystem supporter through Great North Labs, and can speak to how his educational experience has helped his career in venture capital.  

The Aristotle Fund provides real investing experience to students. The fund is a 100% student-managed investment fund, and is the ultimate in experiential learning. Gerald Rauenhorst, the founder of a construction company that became The Opus Group, (and UST Trustee from 1966 to 2012), provided the initial $5M for the fund. The gift was kept anonymous for the first 17 years, until 2016. Rauenhorst stipulated that there be no faculty oversight in the investment decisions. Consequently, though it is run as a class, every student manager is invested in the Fund’s performance to the point where it is a full-time job. 

“A fierce competitor, Rauenhorst wanted all the future student managers to learn firsthand the challenges of managing money and holding themselves accountable to their clients,” said Professor Mary Schmid Daughert 

Official mentors include accomplished portfolio managers at top local investment firms. One attends the class every week to give feedback on pitches, and they pull no punches. Mike has acted as an unofficial mentor for the class, and continues to make connections through his former classmates. 

“This was the best educational experience I ever had, and I could easily find 20 other people to tell you the exact same thing. When we get together we still talk about spending hours in front of the Bloomberg terminal scouring analyst  reports and how it has shaped our careers,” said Mike. “I would not be able to do what I do at Great North Labs if it weren’t for the Aristotle Fund. That is why I recommend these students for positions.”

Servant Leadership creates ethical behavior in entrepreneurs. Servant Leadership is prioritized as part of the UST mission, with both the law school and the business school focusing a lot on self development. They bring in examples from industry to exhibit how this looks in practice, which include Pat Ryan of Ryan Companies US Inc., Dennis Monroe of Monroe Moxness Berg PA, and Alan Page, former Minnesota Supreme Court justice and NFL Hall-of-Famer. They challenge their students to adopt these same principles. 

UST talks a lot about Servant Leadership as a foundation of their mission, and it is visible in everything they do. Laura Dunham, Associate Dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, was recently featured in the Stanford Innovation Lab podcast episode “Teaching Ethical Entrepreneurship”. The podcast focuses on elevating applied ethics in the field of entrepreneurship. 

“I have students reaching out to me all the time to ask for career advice, and I never say no. I helped one student with an internship at a law firm I worked for. I’ve written letters of recommendation on behalf of students. This is what servant leadership looks like,” said Mike. “I really believe that faculty choose UST for the culture and that is why they punch above their weight class in that regard.”

At Great North Labs, we also believe in the principles of servant leadership. We support and give back to the communities we belong to, including organizations making a difference in the startup ecosystem. In addition to cash and time, we donate equity through our Founders Pledge so that when Great North Labs has a win, we all benefit. 

The Schulze School of Entrepreneurship pays students to work at early-stage startups. St. Thomas is arguably the most aggressive university in Minnesota at placing their students in early-stage growth companies. This sets them up to learn the skills required to execute and operate a successful startup business. These internships provide the “factory floor” experience that isn’t found in the classroom. 

The Summer Internship Grant program provides funding for some students while they intern at an early-stage startup. Companies interested in entrepreneurship students can inquire through the “Hire a Tommiepreneur” page on the St. Thomas website. 

gBeta St. Thomas program. gBETA is a program of gener8tor, a nationally-ranked startup accelerator with programs across the US and Canada. The seven-week accelerator is for early-stage companies, and is free, requiring no fees nor equity. Great North Labs is a proud partner of gener8tor, and a supporter of gBETA Greater MN-St. Cloud. 

gBETA St. Thomas is exclusively available to students and alumni of the University of St. Thomas. Companies of any stage, industry, or business model can apply to participate. The next cohort is July 13th -Sept. 3rd.

Mentor Externships give you a dose of the day-to-day reality, before you’re committed to it. The mentor-externship program at the School of Law requires at least 1 hour of “experiences” per week, where students are in the field, with mentors (usually UST alum), learning what lawyers do on a daily basis. This is completely self-directed, and students pick the fields they want to learn about. 

“For me, it was actually helpful in teaching me what I didn’t want to do which, in hindsight, was incredibly valuable. When I entered law school, I liked the idea of spending my days as a litigator in the courtroom… when I dug a little deeper, I determined that it wasn’t for me,” said Mike. “In addition to the externship, there was one semester where you worked 2-3 days a week in an internship. I worked at St. Paul City Hall. I had always liked local politics, but in practice… that was not the case. Every student’s experience was unique in this program, but I have no doubt that it was far more valuable than sitting in a traditional classroom setting.” 

Real consulting experience with real clients. The Applied Business Research course takes a team of 4 and assigns a client with a marketing need. The consulting team spends 6 weeks putting together a project, just like a marketing agency would do. 

“My project was for Code42. Code42 was considering a new product launch and wanted to know how to market it. Our research, including secondary, IT executive interviews, mass surveys, etc., uncovered that their customers cared less about the new product and more about security concerns,” said Mike. “Today, Code42 is positioned as an enterprise security software company. While I’m sure they weren’t relying on our research independently, I do think we provided valuable insights.”

By the Numbers

St. Thomas has 34,000 business alumni worldwide. 96% of them found employment, or went on to graduate school, within 4 months of graduating. Undergraduates from the School of Entrepreneurship have gone on to raise $42.9M in subsequent funding. 71% of the companies started by undergraduate alumni in the last 10 years are still in business. gBETA St. Thomas has helped develop and support a dozen local startups, without extracting capital or equity from the founders. 

Mike Schulte has seen first-hand the founders, talent, and startups that St. Thomas’s programs generate and support. He himself launched his career in venture capital thanks to the experiences he had at St. Thomas., and has been with Great North Labs for 3 years. 

Mike isn’t the only UST success story with Great North Labs. Two of our portfolio startups, TeamGenius and Clinician Nexus, are led by UST alumni founders. Our portfolio of startups employs 19 University of St. Thomas alumni all together. That’s almost one alumni for every startup we invest in!

Why it Matters

Though the market for full-time MBAs is fluctuating, UST is pro-actively adjusting to emerging trends. The school is re-thinking it’s educational offerings, as it adjusts to meet demands, but is maintaining rigor and efficacy.  In short, digital transformation is fueling innovation instead of fueling attrition.

While that change might not quite reach the level of “Hey, teacher! Leave the kids alone!”, it’s definitely not business as usual. The entrepreneurial support programs that have emerged across disciplines, schools, and functions are signs of this shift, and of the continued commitment of UST.

Those programs have continued to produce and support startups, founders, and talent, even as ideas of entrepreneurial education evolve. And during these challenging times, St. Thomas’s values have shined through, with the school emerging in the national scene as a leader in ethical entrepreneurship. That’s a mark of smart leadership for the largest private university in Minnesota. 

The University of Minnesota is embracing startup culture across disciplines and producing results in the number of founders, tech talent, and startups. One of the top universities in the country with enrollment regularly over 50k, a system-wide endowment of nearly $4B, and over $1B spent annually on research and development, it’s incredibly important for the cultivation of early-stage tech startups in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Because of this alignment, Great North Labs engages with the U of M in several ways.

How the U of M is Engaging

John Stavig is a leader in the tech startup community. The managing director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship, Stavig teaches entrepreneurship courses and leads the Center. He helped launch one of the first student-run VC funds in the world, Atland Ventures, with David Russick. 

Stavig has opened the doors to the Carlson School of Management for events and educational opportunities that benefit both students and startup community members. Great North Labs’s Ryan Weber has taught Lean Startup boot camps out of Carlson, at Stavig’s invitation, reaching ~50 students with our Startup School. Ryan has also guest lectured in the Applied Technology Entrepreneurship course on conducting market research and fundraising.

John Stavig welcomes tech startup community events into the Carlson School of Management. Ryan Weber has lectured on crafting Moonshots, Lean methodology, market research, and raising capital.

MN Cup is elevating the entire startup scene. MN Cup has become the largest statewide startup competition in the country. MN Cup takes no equity, is totally free, and distributes half a million dollars in seed funding to their startup participants. The exposure, funding, and recognition they receive is unparalleled in Minnesota. Some of the biggest startups to come out of the competition are:

  1. Sezzle- 2016 High Tech Division winner
  2. Stemonix- 2016 Grand Prize Winner
  3. Kipsu- 2015 Finalist
  4. 75F- 2014 Grand Prize Winner
  5. WhenIWork- 2013 High Tech Division Winner
  6. Foodsby- 2013 Semifinalist

Donors like the Carlson Family Foundation enable Director Jessica Berg to make MN Cup possible. The competition grows bigger every year through their support and efforts. Great North Labs’s Rob Weber judges every year in the High Tech division, and can attest to the increasing quality of startups. Great North has invested in two MN Cup alumni to date, Plyo (2018 Student Division Winner) and TeamGenius (2017 Semifinalist).

Plyo rewards college students for exercising on campus with virtual points that can be redeemed for exclusive offers to popular restaurants, retailers, and brands. Plyo won the 2018 Student Division of the MN Cup.

Atland Ventures provides students real VC experience. Atland is the first-of-its-kind, student-run venture fund, investing in companies that leverage disruptive tech. Originally founded in 2016 by four students, Atland has invested in a dozen companies, including two in the Great North Labs portfolio, Structural and Dispatch. Atland is an independent company, not a student organization, and students can actually see profits from their efforts if the fund succeeds. Their faculty support is from Stavig, David Russick, founder of Gopher Angels, and Raj Singh, Assistant Dean of Undergraduates at Carlson. 

The limited partners include some of the most active local early-stage investors, including our partners Ryan and Rob Weber. Rob also serves as a mentor, and has recruited past Atland directors and managing partners to expand on their practical experience by interning at Great North Labs. The experience students gain at a working venture capital fund is a tremendous benefit in an industry that is notoriously hard to get in, and several have gone on to land jobs at startups and venture funds. 

The U of M has a proliferation of startup support efforts across disciplines. Venture Builders, Grow North, MIN-Corps, WE at the Holmes Center; the Venture Center, MNBridge, and the Discovery Capital Program at University of Minnesota Technology Commercialization, are among the additional efforts to cultivate and support startups. 

One example of the results of this multi-disciplinary collaboration is a startup we recently looked at called Grip Molecular Technologies. Grip is a cutting-edge startup using novel nanomaterials in an electronic biosensor to provide medical diagnostics. Not only are 2 different research scientists on the team from the U of M, but also a marketing executive.

Results by the Numbers

Since 2006, the U of M has launched over 165 startups. They have attracted over $1.15B in capital, and 7 have gone public since 2017. Investors can track U of M startups as they develop, through an online Startup Pipeline. 

The U of M is ranked #18 for Global MBA programs in Entrepreneurship, with the largest statewide startup competition in the country, and 260 mentors providing guidance. Countless students have gone on to lead or work in startups. 

In the Great North Labs portfolio, startups employ over 63 U of M alumni. That averages to nearly 2 U of M alumni for every startup we have invested in!

Dispatch is an on-demand delivery platform that enables businesses to track, manage, & share deliveries as they are ordered. Dispatch is based in Bloomington and employs 17 University of Minnesota alumni (according to LinkedIn data).

Why It Matters

The University of Minnesota is embracing startup culture across disciplines, and is contributing to the growth and development of talent, capital, and support necessary to early-stage startups in the region. This enables digital transformation and innovation across sectors. We are aligned with this approach, and work with the U of M to realize economic value creation in Greater MN, Minnesota, and across the Upper Midwest. 

While people and companies capture headlines with big funding rounds, IPOs, and acquisitions, much of the work the U of M is doing is out of the spotlight. The truth is that the university is plugged in and making a difference in the startup ecosystem. 

We’ve seen it firsthand, working with the administrators, the organizations, the faculty, and the students. And with leaders like Stavig, Berg, Russick, and the Carlson Family, the impact is only going to grow.

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. 

Building Capacity

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.

Annually, venture investment makes up only 0.2% of GDP, but delivers an astonishing 21% of U.S. GDP in the form of VC-backed business revenues.- Source: Brookings article “As the venture capital game gets bigger, the Midwest keeps missing out

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. 

Ethical Entrepreneurship

“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.

Events

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

Portfolio News

Airbnb to Ban or Cancel One-Night Stays on Halloween Weekend to Deter House PartiesNoiseAware 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 ResidentialPrintWithMe 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 FamiliesInhabitr has a new partnership to provide baby gear rentals through its furniture rental platform. 

Job Board

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. 

Entrepreneurship is a proven, capital-efficient way to build economic value and transform regions. It doesn’t just happen, though. Developing talent, supporting founders, and delivering capital and connections to promising ventures are all key. They are all necessary for driving innovation, which drives value creation.

According to Brookings, “Annually, venture investment makes up only 0.2% of GDP, but delivers an astonishing 21% of U.S. GDP in the form of VC-backed business revenues.”

These key functions of a productive startup ecosystem don’t just happen. They need to be built and executed, and supported themselves. We founded Great North Labs to deliver the capital and connections, but other organizations are needed to provide the additional support. 

We are committed to doing our part to support these organizations. 

So what does that actually mean? What are we actually doing? 

Our Contributions

We donate equity through our Founders Pledge, lean in with hands-on support, and our Partners donate cash. Here is an accounting of what we have contributed to date since our 2017 inception. 

To put that in context, that’s roughly 41% of our annual management fee given in cash, and 45 work weeks worth of labor. Through our Founders Pledge, our founders have pledged to give at least 2 percent of our own personal interests from our $23.7M debut venture fund to local nonprofits. In other words, we are serious about this.

Who we Support

OrganizationContributions
Startup SchoolGreat North Labs’s initial education initiative- Lean/Agile workshops developed and taught + donations
ILT AcademyCurriculum development/marketing/mentoring in support of this new Startup School program + donations
gBETA Greater MN-St. CloudOur support in bringing, funding, and supporting gener8tor’s accelerator programs in St. Cloud + donations
SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul ChapterOrganizing, facilitating, marketing, operating, and events + donations
MN CupTime spent at pitches and judging + donations
BETA.MNTime spent collaborating/supporting + donations 
MinnestarBoard commitment, fundraising (check out our ongoing Scoreside campaign) + donations
Silicon North StarsDonations
St. Cloud State UniversityTime spent as guest lecturer + donations
College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s UniversityTime spent as guest lecturer + donations
University of MinnesotaTime spent as guest lecturer
North Hennepin Community CollegeDonations
GSDCTime spent supporting + donations

Great North Labs has committed to supporting the organizations that we see impacting startups, and we challenge others to do the same with donations of time, money, or equity. To back up that challenge, we believe in being transparent about our own donations. 

Supporting an Innovative Economy

We believe in supporting organizations that are impacting local startups. We believe in building up the ecosystem to produce more winners. 

The Midwest has a rich history of generating winners, even during difficult economic times. We have hard-working, educated talent, we have the capital, and we have the networks capable of supporting breakout startups. 

Whether you call it digital transformation, disruptive innovation, or the 4th industrial revolution – the fact is that technology is driving changes that affect every facet of our lives and economy. The pace of transformation is only increasing as the pandemic accelerates the need for tech innovation and drives tech sector growth and consumer adoption.

Currently, Silicon Valley and the east coast attract the lion’s share of startup funding, develop the biggest companies, and create the most value in their economies from startups. They are harnessing innovation to drive their economies. With the right systems in place, we can do it here, too.  

On March 19, 2020, a bill proposing the New Business Preservation Act was submitted to the Senate that seeks to drive economic activity, innovation, and job growth in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn. The New Business Preservation Act will provide equity funding for new businesses, with larger allocations directed to areas lacking in capital including the Midwest.

While the bill was important even earlier, the events of recent weeks add urgency. Dollar for dollar, it represents possibly the most effective grassroots economic stimulus for the mid-to-long term (2-10 years). Even for the immediate months ahead, it can stem job losses among venture-based businesses.

As an early-stage venture fund based in the Midwest, Great North Labs believes this legislation will drive startup activity and value creation in the undercapitalized regions of our country. Entrepreneurship is a proven, capital-efficient way to build economic value and transform regions, and adding capital to our under-capitalized region will bolster existing entrepreneurial ventures and encourage new ones.

Our support of this legislation is apolitical. As investors, we see the success of this approach every day. Around the world, venture capitalists who pick talent, invest in portfolio companies, and work with their ecosystem (including government) enable grassroots wealth creation. Better than any stimulus or wealth transfer mechanism, the most powerful and durable antidote to economic inequality is new value creation. It is not the CCC or WPA creating jobs for the sake of paying people, or the government distributing wealth, this is grassroots economic growth driven by venture capital.  It is not a one-time distribution. It does not depend on daily oscillations of the stock market which cannot possibly reflect true changes in economic value. Rather, it drives true economic value creation through innovation.

“Senator Klobuchar’s bill is a positive step at a critical time.  As we look at how to cope with the challenges presented by the coronavirus, we should not lose sight of the critical role new businesses play in creating jobs.  The New Business Preservation Act will help level the playing field, by backing entrepreneurs in every state and every zip code, and lead to a more inclusive economy.”

-Steve Case, Chairman and CEO of Revolution (Revolution operates the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund focused on investing in areas outside of traditional VC hubs.)

The Bill

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons, Sen. Angus King, and Sen. Tim Kaine. It seeks to create an Innovation and Startups Equity Investment Program (ISEI) within the Department of the Treasury. The Program will “allocate money to certain States to assist high-potential scalable startups access venture capital to commercialize innovations, create jobs, and accelerate economic growth, and for other purposes.”

New Business Preservation Act

The legislation calls for $2B to go to the ISEI, with $1.5B going to initial funding and administrative costs, and a further $500M for follow-on investments. Eighty percent of funds would go to the Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest, with distributions based on population and adjusted for VC money already present, according to Leigh Buchanan at Inc. magazine, and as exits produce returns, they will be “reinvested in the next generation of businesses, creating a sustainable funding resource.”

Feasibility of the approach

Investing in America’s startups by following VC leads into deals is a fiscally responsible approach. As the chart below of VC returns by vintage year shows, even in recessionary years, returns are at an acceptable level for U.S. Treasury purposes.

Startups headquartered in the under-capitalized areas targeted by the bill will likely outperform the national averages because they generally are more capital efficient due to nascent capital markets to support them. It’s not unreasonable to expect a 5%-15% IRR even in recessionary times. This is accomplished because VC is a long-term investment vehicle, which is the perfect counter to a short-term financial crisis.

Small business vs. startup vs. tech startup

While the article and press release talk about “small businesses” and “new businesses”, the bill deals strictly with startups. A “startup” is defined in the bill as a business entity that:

While there is no mention of the word “technology” in the bill, most people associate startups with tech for good reason. New technologies drive, catalyze, and enable innovations central to new business models, products, and entities. While using a new technology is not required for a startup to put together a winning formula (or to get funding from the ISEI), many of the most innovative and successful companies in the world relied on either new or novel uses to create their businesses.

These companies often require upfront equity investment in order to achieve the scale necessary with their new software or hardware technologies to become viable, high-growth companies. Unlike a services, manufacturing, or industrial business, technology startups rarely have the assets or the initial sales base to obtain traditional bank financing.

The capital gap

Currently, in many of the vast, regional economies outside of VC centers, private investments are reserved for real estate and other traditional vehicles. The need for liquidity in the innovation ecosystem is not met. Because of this, startups in the Midwest and other under-capitalized areas have to work with a capital efficiency not required in more capital-rich areas.

This lean approach can be productive in the early stages of a company’s life by helping to refine products and achieve product-market fit out of necessity. This efficiency is an advantage that Midwestern startups have over coastal startups when capital markets start to freeze up in an economic downturn.

However, once the opportunity for rapid growth and scaling arrive, large amounts of capital are necessary for a startup to reach its potential. Until recently, this meant relocating the operation to Silicon Valley, Boston, or New York. Along with the promising startups goes the jobs created, profits generated, and other ancillary economic benefits. This capital gap is where venture funds such as Drive Capital, Great North Labs, Hyde Park Venture Partners, Rally Ventures, and others that specifically focus on areas underserved by venture capital, work to provide the capital, guidance, and networks required to fuel growth and build long-term value.

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.


Great North Labs will be participating in a couple of events at the World Economic Forum this year, where we have been invited to talk about our work investing in early-stage companies in the Upper Midwest. The Forum (WEF) is an annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, of business, political, academic, and other leaders.

The purpose of the forum is to engage with leaders, and to help inform and shape global, regional, and industry agendas. According to WEF:

“The Forum strives in all its efforts to demonstrate entrepreneurship in the global public interest while upholding the highest standards of governance. Moral and intellectual integrity is at the heart of everything it does.” 

Great North Labs Partner Pradip Madan will be speaking about investing in the Upper Midwest, supporting and growing the ecosystem with initiatives like the Startup School, and of course, the promise of the Upper Midwest region.

Like Steve Case said at the Greenwich Economic Forum in November, there is a tremendous opportunity for venture capital within the coasts. 

“To me, it feels a little like the Internet 35 years ago when nobody, other than a few…believed in the idea of the internet. And people, when I was talking about it, were skeptical.”

“Over time, I think you’ll see venture capital shift. The coastal investors will need to have regional investment strategies.”

-Steve Case, Chairman and CEO of Revolution, and founder of Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund

Here are the events where Great North Labs will be speaking.

1. Global Citizen Panel sponsored by Pink Lion

PinkLionAI Panel WEF

TIME: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 5-7pm.

LOCATION: Promenade 52, 7270 Davos Platz, Switzerland.

TOPIC: “Going Off Road Innovation in Tech: Leveraging unexplored areas and geographies to increase scale and innovation in the public and private sector.”

Attend this panel to understand methods and ways you can leverage untapped resources that are sitting available to you all around the globe.  We will look at how this works from the startup innovation perspective, through funding and the venture firm perspective, and out to the large corporate entity with innovation and human capital that is an underutilized resource in many geographies.  We will highlight this example specifically in how it is successful in the US and Minnesota and demonstrate and answer questions on how it applies to your specific use case. 

This panel has plenty of Minnesota representation with Pradip Madan of Great North Labs, Jennifer Bonine and Dean Costakis of Minneapolis’s PinkLion.AI, Patricia Simmons who is on the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees, and Maria Dayton who is the Ambassador of SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul.

2. The Digital Economist Night in partnership with The Caspian Week

TIME: Thursday, Jan. 23, 7:30p-midnight.

LOCATION: Promenade 61, 7270 Davos Platz, Switzerland.

TOPIC: Business models and strategies that will hallmark the next phase of global economic transformation.

Distilling the cutting edge tools from economic science, with hands-on industry experience, The Digital Economist roundtable series convenes enterprises, startups and innovators to explore, discuss and steward the business models and strategies that will hallmark the next phase of global economic transformation.

Pradip Madan will be hosting a roundtable for this, the inaugural summit for The Digital Economist, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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