The Innovation Ecosystem


At Great North Labs, we work to cultivate the next generation of leading tech companies across the upper Midwest. As a venture fund, this means deploying capital, providing startup intelligence, and utilizing our network to support and grow early-stage tech startups. We also provide low-cost training through our Startup School, in areas that we perceive an educational need, such as our Lean Startup Bootcamp currently running in St. Cloud. 

This sort of development can’t occur through a singular entity, however, so Great North Labs supports a variety of impactful elements that are key to developing the tech community and innovation ecosystem. SingularityU, with 156 global chapters in 68 countries, is one of those organizations that we believe can be valuable to developing a transformative, globally competitive innovation ecosystem here in our region.

SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter  is an official member of the SingularityU global community, and is committed to inspire and educate leaders to solve Grand Challenges (e.g. Clean Water Access, Disaster Resilience) by leveraging Exponential Technologies (e.g. AI, blockchain, robotics).

Great North Labs Managing Partner Ryan Weber is an alumnus of the SingularityU Executive Program, and regularly speaks throughout the region on exponential technology. He is a founding board member and Co-Ambassador of the SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter (SU-MSP).

The chapter is holding its Kickoff this Tuesday, June 4th, from 5:30-8:30 at the Carlson School of Management. The event is to kick off greater collaboration and discussion around the use of exponential technologies for social good with local businesses, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Tickets are free and open to the public.

Speakers include:

MN DEED policy update

Speaking of innovation ecosystems, Google/YouTube alum Steve Grove is actively working to develop Minnesota’s. MN DEED will hold a legislative session wrap-up to talk about new initiatives coming with the new MN state budget. The wrap-up will be in a Facebook Live session on this Friday at noon:

In a series of Tweets, Commissioner Steve Grove said, ”The 2019 #mnleg jobs bill empowers @mndeed to help build future of MN economy:

-Angel Tax Credit is back
-New program “Launch Minnesota” to grow startups
-$40M in Broadband grants
@SciTechMN Internships & robotics programs
-Regional startup centers”

Events

June 4th– SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter (SU-MSP) Kickoff. This event will kick off collaboration and discussion around the use of exponential technologies for the greater good with local businesses, innovators, and entrepreneurs in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Great North Labs Managing Partner Ryan Weber also serves as the Co-Ambassador of the SU-MSP chapter, and will emcee the event. 

June 6th– Polsky Innovation Showcase. Part of UChicago Innovation Fest, this event is the culmination of the New Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago, one of the top college startup accelerator programs in the country. Great North Labs Analyst Mike Schulte will be at the event and available for meetings. 

June 10-11th– 2019 Upper Midwest ACG Capital Connection. This gathering in Minneapolis is for middle market professionals involved in corporate growth and M&A.

June 19th– OnRamp Healthcare Conference. Put on by gener8tor, this conference is focused on healthcare innovation, and will be at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI.

June 20th– Initiative Foundation Lunch and Learn. Ryan Weber will be presenting on disruption and innovation in the nonprofit sector at this community event in St. Cloud, MN. 

June 21-23– ConnectUp!. “ConnectUP! MN is a two-day, culturally grounded gathering of curated underestimated entrepreneurs and investors that: learn and share with each other, engage in relationship-building, provide best and next practices from the field, as well as engage in active problem solving to build thriving, diverse, and sustainable enterprises and co-design an ecosystem that prioritizes equitable access to resources, capital and networks.” It is held in St. Paul. 

Portfolio

PrintWithMe is new to the Great North labs portfolio. PrintWithMe is mobile-first kiosk printing for coffee shops, residential buildings, co-working spaces and anywhere pay-to-print printers are offered. This user-friendly service simplifies printing for customers, and makes providing a printer amenity easy for businesses. 

Advisors

Three Great North Labs advisors are new to the team

Carson Kipfer is the Principal Designer and co-founder at SportsEngine. He is also the Co-Commissioner of the US Pond Hockey Championships. 

Andy Johnson is the former CEO of NativeX. Before that, he was the President of Fingerhut’s Ecommerce division. 

Patrick Riley is a film producer, and the former CEO and co-founder of Modern Survey Inc., and the former CEO and founder of Cyber Works Inc. 


Our advisor, Julie Novack, had her startup PartySlate featured in Newsweek recently.

Job Board

Dispatch is hiring all over the country (26 cities!) for Field Sales Representatives and Drivers. In Bloomington MN, they are hiring Software Engineers, Biz Dev, and a marketing intern. 

Structural is hiring a Node/JavaScript Engineer, a React Engineer, and a Digital Marketing Analyst.

TeamGenius is hiring a part-time Customer Success Associate in Minneapolis. 

FactoryFix is hiring a Software Engineer in Madison, WI, and a Business Development Specialist and an Account Managers in Chicago.

Misty Robotics is hiring a Manufacturing and Repair Engineer and a Robot Repair Technician II to IV, in Boulder, CO. 

pepr is hiring for Biz Dev – Outbound Sales in Minneapolis. 

2ndKitchen is hiring a City Lead and a Full-Stack Developer in Brooklyn. 

PrintWithMe is hiring a Business Development Executive, a Customer Success Manager, a Strategy Intern, and a Marketing and Operations Intern

Entrepreneurship is a proven capital-efficient way to build economic value and transform regions. Great North Labs believes that venture investment guided by a policy framework is the most efficient way to develop regional economies across Minnesota and the upper Midwest. Locally employing tech natives entering the workforce, and retraining the current workforce into tech roles with on-the-job training, is the most durable and sustainable way to build the economies in the region. We are hoping to invest at least 10% of our investments in opportunities that can deliver high returns and serve social criteria. Let us know if you know of a high-return, high-impact startup we should look at.

Is it spring already? Where is the late-April blizzard? Ah well, there’s always a surprise October snow to look forward to. 

MinneBar 14 was this past weekend, with 1700+ tech enthusiasts gathering at Best Buy HQ for the best local tech event this side of Twin Cities Startup Week. As they say, a good time was had by all. Our recap will walk you through the highlights and show you why we love it.

Speaking of Twin Cities Startup Week, mark your calendar for this October 9-16th. It’s going to be a good one this year. And hopefully snow-free!

Rob Weber has been supporting entrepreneurs in St. Cloud and hanging out with the GovernorRead all about it on the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation’s website.

Great North Labs Managing Partner Rob Weber with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz.

While you’re at it, do a little supporting yourself by contacting your state rep about supporting the Minnesota Innovation Collaborative. Steve Grove, MN DEED’s commissioner, has some big plans, and he knows a thing or two about both public policy and supporting entrepreneurship. 

Mary Grove does too, as the former director of Google for Entrepreneurs. She was on-hand at MinneBar to present “VC Reverse Pitch” with Rob Weber, where they shared metrics and qualifications they look when investing as VC’s. Mary, a partner in Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, also spoke about partnering with Great North Labs, “One of the reasons we like co-investing with Great North Labs is because Rob and Ryan have the experience of building, growing, and exiting a company.” 

Speaking of ecosystem building, a great article came out comparing Sioux Falls and Fargo. Sioux Falls and Fargo: Two Approaches to Building Startup Ecosystems. It’s a great intro for anyone interested in the tech and entrepreneurship communities in the two cities, or for anyone interested in practical examples over theory.

Upcoming Events

Beta Showcase Spring 2019-May 8th, Minneapolis, MN. It is “a science fair for startups, with beer and music”.  

Minnesota Entrepreneur Kickoff – May 14th, Fort Snelling, MN. This annual event is devoted to growing the MN entrepreneur ecosystem. Ryan Weber will be presenting on Exponential Technology. 

5 Lakes Forum– May 14th, Milwaukee, WI. “5 LAKES Forum is a launchpad for tech and startup leaders from the Great Lakes region to create meaningful connections and navigate high-level business and technology topics.”

EntreFest – May 16-17th, Cedar Rapids, IA. A two-day conference for entrepreneurship and innovation professionals. Ryan Weber will appear on two investor panels, and will also be speaking on Exponential Technology.

Drone Focus – May 29th, Fargo, ND. This conference is expanding their focus to include the infrastructure, software, systems, and resources for autonomous systems. It is put on annually by Emerging Prairie.

Lean Startup Bootcamp – May 29th-June 19th, St. Cloud, MN. Join Great North Labs for our Lean Startup Bootcamp to level-up your skills as an entrepreneur, a product manager, or student of innovation. This work-friendly training is from 6-8:30 p.m. for four consecutive Wednesdays. 

SingularityU Minneapolis-St.Paul Chapter Kickoff – June 4th, Minneapolis, MN. Join chapter co-ambassador Ryan Weber for the inaugural event of this organization, one of only 2 Midwest chapters of a total 142 chapters in 66 countries worldwide. SU-MSP is focused on education, networking and community, with a mission to work to solve the world’s most pressing problems with exponential technologies. (Signup and Speakers TBD).

Portfolio Action

ZenLord Pro is live with a new website. The landlord management software startup also has a flashy new explainer video, in case you’re looking for an easy way to manage your rentals or just need to understand what it is, exactly, that they do. 

New Advisors

Six Great North Labs advisors are new to the team

Nick Tietz is the former Director of New Business Development and Innovation at Life Time Fitness, and is a co-founder of VariAware, LLC and Vitals Aware Services. Nick is the founder of The Sota Enterprises, where works with companies and startup founders to turn ideas into assets. Among other things, he partners with Great North on Innovation Workshops.


Aaron Kardell is Founder & CEO of HomeSpotter, which is a “relationship engine” for brokers, real estate agents, and clients. 
He is the former founder & CEO of Mobile Realty Apps, and co-founder of Deals.by.


Casey Carl is CEO and founder of North Coast Ventures, a strategic advising and early stage venture investment company. He is also the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Minnesota health nonprofit MATTER.


Thompson Aderinkomi is co-founder and CEO of Nice Healthcare, which is a primary care clinic that provides care through in-home and remote video visits. He also co-founded Relate, and is a former co-founder and board member of Healthcare.mn.


Bryan Laskin is the founder of Operability, LLC, which is leading development for cloud based communications for the healthcare industry. He is also the SVP of Innovation for Dental Care Alliance, and co-founder of Talentship.


Scott Resnick is theCOO of Hardin Design & Development, and is the current Entrepreneur is Residence at StartingBlock Madison. He is also the former Executive Director of StartingBlock, which is an entrepreneurial hub in Madison (similar to 1871 in Chicago).

Job Board

Dispatch is hiring all over the country for Field Sales Representatives and Drivers and for a variety of positions in Bloomington, MN. 
Structural is hiring a Digital Marketing Specialist in St.Paul.
TeamGenius is hiring a Part-time Customer Success Associate in Minneapolis. 
FactoryFix is hiring a Software Engineer in Madison, and a Business Development Specialist, Business Development Manager, and a Key Accounts Manager in Chicago.
Misty Robotics is hiring a Head of Hardware and a Manufacturing and Repair Engineer in Boulder. 
Pepr is hiring for Business Development – Outbound Sales in Minneapolis. 
2ndKitchen is hiring a City Lead and a Full-Stack Developer in Brooklyn, NY.

The annual MinneBar event, hosted by non-profit Minnestar, is the largest bar camp-style conference in the country. Saturday, April 27th was the fourteenth incarnation of this highly anticipated event, and it did not disappoint. How highly anticipated was it? Tickets were released in two waves this year, and the first wave sold out in under 7 minutes. Total attendance for the 165+ sessions at Best Buy HQ in Richfield was 1,700.

Minnebar has become Minnesota’s version of South by Southwest

-random Minnebar14 attendee

As one passerby put it, MinneBar has become Minnesota’s version of South By Southwest. Don Ball, cofounder of coworking space COCO (now Fueled Collective) credits Managing Director Maria Ploessl and her crew for keeping it a “pure experience”. “Lesser minds would kill it off through monetization,” said Ball.

Becky Lauseng, Director of HR at the ag-tech software company Conservis and a Minnebar newbie, shared her glowing review with Great North, “This year was my first time attending Minnebar and wow, was I impressed! I’m already looking forward to next year!  From the variety of topics offered in the breakout sessions, to the passionate and forward thinking presenters, this event was so valuable to me.  For someone who supports a local technology company and its employees, I gained a lot of insight on current trends, ideas and technology advancements that I can take back to work and apply.  I can’t wait for next year!”

Great North Labs is a proud supporter of Minnestar and Minnebar. Our advisors Sona Mehring and Alex Ryan are board members, while advisor Ben Edwards and Great North Labs Managing Partner Rob Weber sit on the Advisory Board. Edwards is actually the co-founder of MinneBar and Minnestar, and he returned this year to represent his current startup (and Great North Labs portfolio company) Misty Robotics. We were glad to be a part of another successful Minnebar, and to see a strong showing from the MN tech community. Here are some of the highlights.

Diversity and Inclusion in Tech

The day started as it always does with Session 0. This year’s presenter was Sharon Kennedy Vickers, Chief Information Officer for the City of St. Paul. Vickers is a 2018 Bush Fellow, and is the co-founder of Techquity, and co-organizer of CodeSwitch and Open Twin Cities.

Rob Weber at the opening remarks

A key point from Vickers’s speech was that one of tech’s greatest pitfalls is in overvaluing “outputs” of users and workers compared to their inputs. She is working towards an inclusive innovation economy, and making Minnesota a great place to launch tech products with social impact.

“Diversity is the invitation into the room. Inclusion is the offer to dance.”

Elliot Payne

Later in the day, Jeff Lin hosted a panel on the importance of diversity in tech, with Antoinette Smith, Jenessa White, Elliott Payne, and Philip Xiao. As Elliott put it, “Diversity is the invitation into the room. Inclusion is the offer to dance.”

At Great North, we believe that founders in rural areas also work at a disadvantage, especially when it comes to accessing capital and receiving strong mentorship. We work with these founders through the tech and entrepreneur communities in cities like Sioux Falls, Fargo, and St. Cloud. So we were glad to see Caitlyn Casper from St. Cloud State’s Entrepreneurship Club taking part in her first Minnebar!

VC Reverse Pitch

Our team’s first presentation of the day was voted into the largest room, the Theater. Great North Labs Managing Partner Rob Weber presented “VC Reverse Pitch” alongside Mary Grove, partner in Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund (ROTR). The session shared a fund manager’s perspective on what they seek to know when determining whether a startup is worth investing in and how a VC can help a founder grow their business. It was packed with founders looking for inside knowledge on securing investment.

“They are good friends, co-workers, and partners.”- Mary Grove, ROTR partner

Among his opening remarks was a tidbit of valuable advice for founders. Rob talked about how important it was for a founder to be knowledgeable and able to provide an overview of their total addressable market (TAM) as experts in that industry. Weber also frequently encountered founders being unable to explain how their startup’s primary distribution model connects to their serviceable market (SAM).

Mary Grove later seconded this notion, as she said that many times what got ROTR excited was when they could look at a fleshed out growth plan, charted out for months in advance. She recommended that founders provide quarterly follow-ups to fund managers with key progress updates.

“One of the reasons we like co-investing with Great North Labs is because Rob and Ryan have the experience of building, growing, and exiting a company.”

Mary Grove, Partner, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund

Grove highlighted the importance of finding good, trustworthy co-investment partners to complete a successful venture round, and talked about why Revolution like to partner with Great North Labs on deals. “One of the reasons we like co-investing with Great North Labs is because Rob and Ryan have the experience of building, growing, and exiting a company.” She had more glowing words for the Weber twins early on, saying, “They are good friends, co-workers, and partners.”

She also stated that it is time for the Twin Cities to be nationally recognized, and we at Great North Labs agree with this wholeheartedly. We think that Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, and their mission of driving economic advance and funding great startups in states outside of traditional VC funding, is the ideal partner in driving this national recognition.

Intro to Exponential Technology & Leadership

Ryan Weber, Great North Labs managing partner (and Rob Weber’s brother), opened by explaining what compelled him to help establish a new chapter of Singularity University’s global community. After attending their executive education program in Silicon Valley, he returned home inspired by the future changes around the corner, and the possibility for global, positive impact by using these technologies for good. He joined the founding team of SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul in hopes of educating and inspiring others to work on moonshot projects aimed at changing the world instead of simply solving problems. 

Weber shared local startups that are using exponential technologies

The local tech community has gone through extensive growth in the past 5 years, and is becoming one of the best places to form a startup in the country. However, Silicon Valley is far ahead of us when it comes to startups with grand, world-changing visions. Weber believes that to take the tech community even further, we need to study the world’s greatest challenges, and see how we can exploit new exponential technologies to provide solutions that are ten times or more better than what is currently available. 

Weber’s presentation included an introduction to the concept of exponential thinking, a review of a few of the most promising new technologies with examples of local startups going after moonshots utilizing them, and closed with a call-to-action to join the movement by joining the chapter. Membership in SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter is free. The chapter’s kickoff event is at UMN-Carlson on the evening of June 4th, and non-members are welcome to attend.

Creating a MoonShot

Ryan Weber and The Sota Enterprises CEO (and Great North Labs Advisor), Nick Tietz, facilitated a working session focused on design to promote moonshot thinking and the new SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter. In 45 minutes they took a packed room of about 75 people through a structured process to generate a moonshot project.

Participants chose a Grand Challenge to work on, then used two methodologies, “Question Storming” and “Future Wheels”, to crystallize a moonshot statement that embodied the key elements of a world-changing project. Each participant left with a self-generated moonshot idea to solve a major problem facing the world that they would be interested in tackling.

Work Space Selection: Aligning Work Space With Your Company’s Growth

While MinneBar is rife with practitioners teaching multiple skill levels in technical niches, it has really broadened its offerings compared to the early days. This year included a presentation on Korean Skin Care, Personal Finance for Programmers, and even one unlisted, pop-up session titled “How I Accidentally Started a Bank in Nigeria” [Or was it Angola? I forget the country].

One interesting, non-technical session addressed the workspace needs of companies with rapidly expanding employee numbers. David Anderson (Frauenshuh commercial real estate service provider) and David Paeper (HGA architects) provided great advice for growth companies on how to align their work space with their company’s growth. “Your most valuable asset is your people so your space needs to make them your first priority” said David. 

David Anderson and David Paeper talked about tailoring work spaces for growing startups

Their presentation covered a wide breadth of topics including Location, Amenities, Value, Design + Culture, Well-Being + Safety, and Function + Aesthetics. Key takeaways include:

  1. Subleasing – Subleasing often provides the most flexibility and value.  Most, but not all, sublet space can be searched for on an exchange to help a tenant quickly find what’s on the market.
  2. Visualization Helps Determine Location – They showed examples with overlaid visuals on a map, used to explore where a companies staff live and where the transit options are, in order to determine the optimal location.
  3. Suburbs vs. Downtown – The costs for the same quality of space are typically similar downtown versus in the suburbs. However, parking typically is an added expense for being downtown. 
  4. Compression Planning – A growth company should utilize compression planning in their real estate plan to help them understand how they can utilize their space effectively from the onset and after they achieve their expected growth without incurring unexpected costs.
  5. Freestanding Furniture Is Best – Freestanding furniture has greater reusability and is becoming more strongly preferred compared to panel furniture for tech companies whose need to reconfigure frequently

Sharing the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Tech Community Story with the World

For the entrepreneurs and for the tech talent, what’s going on matters, the ecosystem matters, the way we tell our story matters.

Meg Steuer, Forge North

A panel of presenters including Tiffany Orth of Make It. Msp, and Matt Lewis and Meg Steuer of Forge North talked about the importance of storytelling when building and promoting the local tech and innovation ecosystem. While economic opportunity is first and foremost, the whole presentation served as a reminder of all the great reasons why the the area is a good place to work, live, and grow a business.

Moving Forward

Mary Grove’s husband, Steve Grove, is working to drive changes at the state level as the new commissioner of MN DEED. The Minnesota Innovation Collaborative is an important effort to inject some growth into Minnesota’s innovation economy. While the Twin Cities metro has the most Fortune 500 companies per capita among US cities, many of them are from the 1970s or earlier, and we aren’t generating new ones at a lead-sustaining pace. Many parts of the state, including declining rural areas and the Iron Range, are in dire need of economic innovation. While we believe that private investment (like ours and that of ROTR) can drive growth in these areas, we believe that the most impactful approach includes public action as well.

MinneBar is a welcome reminder of the power of community, and of the promise of technology to create a better life. Whether you want to create a moonshot, build an exponential tech startup, get funding for a high-growth venture, house your growing company, or attract out-of-state talent, it’s good to know you are welcome at MinneBar, and in the diverse, inclusive tech ecosystem that is growing here in Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

Great North Labs is proud to work with and support organizations like Minnestar, SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul, Forge North, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, and the Minnesota Innovation Collaborative. We are fortunate to be part of this growing, talented, and inclusive tech and innovation community that is among the best and most economically promising in the country. And we are excited to facilitate rapid, innovative growth in early-stage startups by bringing capital, experience, and our network to bear in this rich environment.

The Minnesota Innovation Collaborative (MIC) is one of the most exciting items in this year’s budget. It is a program under the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), led by former Google/YouTube exec and Silicon Valley boomerang, Commissioner Steve Grove.

The program calls for $4.5M in 2020 and 2021 to grow the startup and innovation ecosystem, which is a critical part of our economic future. The MIC funding will support incentives, education, and outreach. Specific provisions include a MIC office where classes will be held and outreach will be headquartered, $5-50k grants for early-stage startups, and grants for organizations around the state that can provide training and outreach to greater Minnesota. Below is the executive summary of the program.

We fully support this initiative and encourage you to reach out to your state representatives and encourage them to support funding this program. Click on this link to find your state representative’s email and send them a quick note: “I support the Minnesota Innovation Collaborative!”

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