The world is changing, and a new wave of tech entrepreneurs are shaping the new normal. The tech sector is performing well as the need for innovation, necessitated by the pandemic, becomes more urgent.
As digital transformation accelerates in all sectors, and our country re-establishes its economic future, we are working to cultivate tech entrepreneurs in the Upper Midwest. By increasing the capacity of our innovation ecosystem, we can produce more startup successes locally. This benefits not only current founders and investors, but contributes to a sustainable economic future of the entire region.
We build capacity by donating time, money, and equity to organizations that support founders. Not every organization, but the ones we see as most impactful. By donating to those organizations, we support founders, the startup ecosystem, and the entire innovation economy.
Startups are fantastic drivers of economic activity. They are growth engines that take in capital and put out jobs – as well as create their own value. That’s why it’s so important to support them- and the organizations that encourage, enable, and enhance their existence.
So have we put our money where out mouth is? Any returning newsletter reader can attest that we certainly talk about building up the ecosystem enough. Well, now it’s time for us to shut up and put up. Check out our complete cash, equity, and time donations to date, along with the organizations we donate to.
If you are a founder or startup employee that is interested in rising to the challenge, check out our Founders Pledge. It is as simple as pledging to donate 1% or more of equity to the nonprofits that you find worthwhile. If you eventually have a big exit, that donation can mean MAJOR impact for a nonprofit organization. Our founding partners have pledged at least 2% of their personal interests in our debut fund, and we look forward to sharing our success with these impactful nonprofits.
“The question ‘does this make for a better society?’ is a question we don’t typically ask entrepreneurs to think about, but they should be” says Laura Dunham, Associate Dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at St. Thomas University. Dunham was recently featured on Stanford Innovation Lab’s podcast, eCorner.
Dunham speaks specifically to ethical behavior among entrepreneurs, but the same principle applies to us. So, does our investing make for a better society? Do our capacity building efforts bear fruit?
Time will tell on the tech side of things, but we can share some impact metrics. So far we have invested in 22 early-stage startups. They have attracted $138.4M in total funding, and have created ~750 jobs. Of those startups, 2 have rural presences (HQ or significant office), 4 have female founders, and 3 have minority founders and combined. These startups from underrepresented categories account for 30% of our invested capital to date.
Here is a mix of upcoming events, for investors, founders, and/or ecosystem supporters. All events are virtual unless otherwise noted.
- Nov. 9-11th, Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium. Speakers, panels, and networking plus opportunities to connect investors and founders. Ryan Weber will attend and connect with WI founders.
- Nov. 18th, 2020 2020 Tekne Awards. The Minnesota Technology Association’s (formerly MHTA) flagship event is going virtual this year. Our portfolio company Structural, and partner gener8tor, are up for the Technology Partner award!
- Nov. 19th, 2020 Customer Driven Innovation Workshop. FREE training in the Lean Startup School with Red Wing Ignite and ILT Academy. Go from “wantrepreneur” to entrepreneur by kicking off your startup journey. Great North Labs is a proud sponsor along with MN DEED. Applicants or their businesses must reside in, have ties to, or serve Greater MN.
- Dec. 2-4th, 2020 Web Summit From the folks who recently brought you Collision, this is the annual European version. Virtual.
- Dec. 1-3rd, 2020 Rise of the Rest Virtual Tour: Equity Edition. Black-founded startups based off the coasts compete for $2M in funding. Days 1 + 2 feature town halls: “Building Inclusive Startup Ecosystems” and “Entrepreneurship and HBCUs”. Day 3 is the Pitch Competition Finals.
- Dec. 2-4th, 2020 Powering Inclusion Annual Summit. This is the Center for Economic Inclusion’s Annual Event. Virtual this year, “The Summit is for leaders at every stage of the journey of building racially inclusive organizations, communities, and economies”.
Airbnb to Ban or Cancel One-Night Stays on Halloween Weekend to Deter House Parties. NoiseAware has a new deal with Vrbo, as Halloween brings a round of pre-emptive, “possible Halloween party” cancellations to AirBnB.
PrintWithMe Announces National Partnership With Trammell Crow Residential. PrintWithMe has inked a deal with one of the nation’s largest developers of multifamily apartments.
BabyQuip and Inhabitr Form Strategic Partnership to Provide Long Term Baby Gear Rentals to Millennial Families. Inhabitr has a new partnership to provide baby gear rentals through its furniture rental platform.
Dispatch is hiring a Business Development Representative, Account Executive, and Customer Service Representative in Bloomington, MN; a Ruby Developer and Senior Ruby Developer for Remote work. Also Territory Sales Managers in Baltimore, MD, and Washington D.C.
FactoryFixis hiring a Team Lead – Full Stack Developer, Full Stack Developer, and Infrastructure Developer- DevOps in Madison, WI; and a Sales Development Representative in Chicago, IL, Indianapolis, IN, or Madison, WI.
PrintWithMe ishiring Regional Sales Directors on the East Coast and in Texas; Operations Lead in Chicago, IL; VS/SVP of Operations, Marketing Director, Inside Sales Executive, and Director of Revenue Operations for Remote work.
Parallax is hiring an Experienced Product Designer in Edina, MN.
Branch is hiring a Data Platform Manager, Senior Software Engineer, and Enterprise Support Specialist for remote work.
Inhabitr is hiring an Operations & Customer Experience Director – B2B Team in Chicago, IL.
Clinician Nexusis hiring a Customer Success Manager in Minneapolis, MN.
NoiseAwareis hiring a Director of Finance, QA Technician (independent contractor), Account Manager, and a Customer Advocate in Dallas, TX.
PartySlate is hiring a Senior Growth Marketing Manager in Chicago, IL.
Twin Cities Startup Week kicks off tonight, and goes until October 16th! This is the biggest startup (event? happening?) anything in Minnesota every year, and TCSW 2019 is bigger than ever, with over 300 events. So what does a venture fund like Great North Labs have to do with it? Are we just wandering around writing checks?
Oh, no. Oh ho ho ho ho NO.
1. BETA Showcase
When Reed Robinson at BETA approached us about including Greater MN in Twin Cities Startup Week (TCSW), we had some ideas.
This year, we helped BETA source and vet startups from around the state for the BETA Showcase, which regularly sells out (and which attracted 800 attendees last year!). For the first time ever, this premier event of TCSW will include 10 startups from Greater MN, in addition to the 14 from the BETA cohort. Who will take home the Golden iPod this year?!
While many demo events are industry or metro-specific, this will truly be a celebration of the state’s entire ecosystem. Come to eat, drink, and talk one-on-one with some of the hottest new founders in the state!
2. Greater MN Meetup
2019 is the first year focused on including Greater MN, so Great North Labs decided to help organize the Greater MN Meetup, with sponsors EPIQ Partners and Moss & Barnett.
This invite-only (request and invite at the link if you haven’t received one) pre-event gathering before the BETA Showcase will be a place for policy folks, business leaders, economic development pros, entrepreneurs, and investors interested in supporting the innovation and startup ecosystem statewide. It will also give all of the Showcase newcomers a place to gather with likeminded people before the craziness of the BETA Showcase.
Join us to connect with Greater MN stakeholders, and have a drink and snacks before the BETA Showcase!
3. Exponential Medicine
Ryan Weber is not only a Managing Partner at Great North Labs, but he is also the Co-Ambassador at SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul (SU-MSP), where he keeps up on digital transformation and exponential technologies.
The mission of SU-MSP includes educating people in the community around these topics. Exponential Medicine is part of the featured Health track, and we have gathered 3 cutting-edge local companies to speak about what they do, where they see the tech going, and the impact that will have in the future.
Come to learn about advanced tech in local medical companies StemoniX, Recombinetics, and Miromatrix Medical.
4. Exponential Medicine Moonshot Workshop
Another part of the mission of SU-MSP is to promote local moonshots using exponential tech to take on the world’s most pressing problems! This Moonshot Workshop will work on generating some of these big, transformative ideas with a health focus.
Ryan Weber will co-facilitate this workshop with fellow SU-MSP leadership team member Nick Tietz, Founder and CEO of ILT Studios.
Want to think outside of the box while brainstorming BIG ideas to make the world a better place? Join us for this session to not only learn how to generate these ideas, but to generate some yourself!
5. TCSW Awards Ceremony
The Closing Party of Twin Cities Startup Week is going to be a blowout at the Science Museum. This will be the last hurrah of TCSW 2019!
Sign up separately to attend the TCSW Awards Ceremony from 6-7 pm. There are a variety of awards given out, and this year we are proud to be sponsoring the 10K Award. The award is for recognizing an organization, team, or individual fueling Minnesota’s startup ecosystem outside the greater MSP Area.
Vote for the 10K Award recipient here, and attend the event for the last goodbye to TCSW until 2020!
6. Partnerships Matter: Why Go it Alone if you Don’t Have to?
Managing Partner Rob Weber will be speaking at EPIQ Partners alongside Neela Mollgaard, Director of Launch MN, and Matt Meents, former CEO of Magnet 360.
“Success rarely happens as a solo effort. Every entrepreneur must find and nurture partnerships along the way. From co-founders developing trust in early stages to finding the right advisors to track towards an exit, partnerships matter. Come and absorb from an informed group of experienced partners.” – from the event description that was so right-on it had to be directly quoted
Come to hear about the value of partnerships, and valuable partnerships.
7. Kind of all over the place
Great North Labs contributes to many organizations that are important to the local startup ecosystem including MN Cup (Final Awards ceremony on Oct. 14th!), Minnestar (Minnedemo 33 is Oct. 10th!), BETA (operational support for all of TCSW), and SingularityU Minneapolis-St. Paul.
A healthy ecosystem produces more startups, and we hope to grow it locally, while continuing to invest in early-stage startups throughout all of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. We are glad to see Twin Cities Startup Week growing in attendees, events, and sponsors, and by including startups from Greater MN!
2019 is here! Since Great North Labs is a proponent of iterating based on data-driven feedback, it’s time for a look at the best-performing content from 2018. What captured people’s interest? What is the Great North community interested in?
- Facebook controversy. Rob Weber’s post about Sheryl Sandberg and the importance of “integrators” titled, of course, “Sheryl Sandberg and the Importance of Integrators“,is the top post of the year. The Facebook COO faced a lot of criticism in the past year, and Mark Zuckerberg, the Woz to Sandberg’s Jobs, found himself testifying before Congress this past April for 10 hours. Facebook has come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of data breaches and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and public interest remains high as the 68% of Americans who use Facebook grapple with the implications of data insecurity.
- The Internet of Things. Pradip Madan’s white paper on the third generation of IoT and the industrial internet is well-researched and thought-provoking, with input by Great North Labs advisors at Protolabs and Misty Robotics. Pradip makes the case that we are uniquely situated in the upper Midwest to originate the next wave of tech-enabled disruption in IoT in “IoT 3.0“.
- Venture capital investing. Pradip Madan writes about VC as an investment class is his white paper, “Where to Invest in the Midwest: Venture Across Asset Classes“. He examines the benefits of venture investing as an asset class even during a down cycle, and how funds can provide protection from multi-year downturns. Pradip also enumerates the unique advantages that Midwest venture funds offer.
- The Midwest tech ecosystem. “Putting the ‘Silicon’ in Silicon Lakes”, by Great North Labs Managing Partners, Rob Weber, Ryan Weber, and Pradip Madan, enumerates the key ingredients required to create an innovation hub like Silicon Valley that fosters growth and startups. It is part mission statement, part love letter, and all about the opportunity present in the upper Midwest.
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By Pradip Madan, Ryan Weber, and Rob Weber
In the US, several tech ecosystems have become centers of tech innovation in addition to the much-vaunted Silicon Valley. Silicon Alley is in NYC; Austin is known as Silicon Hills; Silicon Mountain includes Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins; Silicon Forest is in the Greater Portland region; and Silicon Prairie covers Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City (depending on who you ask). But what about the upper Midwest? Can it rightfully be called “Silicon Lakes”?
The ‘Silicon’ brand has not only spread through the US, but has also found limited purchase overseas, as in Silicon Wadi in Israel. More importantly, the essence of Silicon Valley has become rooted in various international regions, including the thriving tech ecosystems of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing, Cheng-du, and Dalian in China; Bangalore, Pune, and Hyderabad in India; Haifa, Israel; Tsukuba, Japan; Suwon, Korea; and Hsinchu, Taiwan.
On a smaller scale, innovation hubs are also springing up from Barcelona to Buenos Aires and Paris to Johannesburg, and can be found near universities and in buildings repurposed as co-location centers for innovative tech companies.
The “Silicon” Recipe
So, what is the essence of Silicon Valley? How do you define the nature of innovative regions and hubs, beyond the “Silicon” brand? By identifying the nature of particular attributes across these hubs including culture, talent, capital, and collaboration, we can begin to see common characteristics, and what it takes to form a successful innovation hub.
First, you need the right culture. This attribute is best characterized by the culture Intel established in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Key traits include openness, transparency, and optimism combined with discipline, inclusion, talent and meritocracy; clear shared goals with an emphasis on value creation and collaboration; a platform to succeed with a permission to fail, and the resilience and acceptance to repeat despite failure.
At Intel, there are open cubicles for Intel’s rank and file alike, including the CEO. Measurable individual key objectives are shared with colleagues, as is encouragement to push the edge. The employees are a cultural cornucopia, including the best new college graduates (NCGs) hired from the best schools. These employees manifested the culture, and while Intel was not unique in creating it, its powerful brand did a lot to popularize it.
Today, this culture is multiplied across the many unicorns and the thousands of successful tech companies, from startups to mid-sized enterprises, that make up Silicon Valley.
2. Talent and Capital
On a physical level, the proximity of academic centers such as Stanford University and UC-Berkeley provide a fountainhead of talent and ideas in Silicon Valley. Stanford’s contribution to the development of Silicon Valley is particularly well-known and can be characterized as a successful pairing of advanced engineering and commercialization.
Commercialized advancements begat wealth, and now Silicon Valley is decades into significant wealth creation. This wealth and entrepreneurial thinking has led to a ready flow of risk capital, the availability of which is another key attribute of innovation hubs.
Complex problems benefit collaborative thinking, which benefits from diverse experiences. For many years, the complex problems of the human body have required in vitro testing of single molecular pathways for several months, testing in mouse models for 1+ years, and in clinical trials for more than 1-2 years. Realizing the need to accelerate this process by examining multiple variables at the same time, and that computational methods ranging from vertical search to structural biology could accelerate insights, Stanford University established Bio-X in 2003 as a center for interdisciplinary collaboration between the computational and life sciences.
The Innovation Ecosystem as a Rainforest
In his book “The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley”, author Victor Hwang delves into the ingredients for a healthy “innovation ecosystem”. He uses the rainforest as a metaphor to identify the success factors for tech entrepreneurship: a natural eco-system in which abundant species thrive based on autonomy, symbiosis, and survival of the fittest as core principles.
“However, the key to the mystery of Silicon Valley is the software. And that software works like a ‘rainforest’—an ecosystem that thrives because its many elements combine to create new and unexpected flora and fauna. Those elements thrive through rapid mixing, just as they do in a natural biological system.” – Victor Hwang, in Forbes
The Rainforest Thrives in the Valley
The companies in Silicon Valley largely embody the above practices. A hundred miles away in any direction, in Central Valley, in Wine Country, or in Pebble Beach/Monterey, the atmosphere changes tangibly, and the regions are untouched by tech concepts and unicorns. It is not that the communities are deliberately or inalterably different, it’s simply that the awareness of these cultural attributes has not been as powerful or pervasive, or to put it colloquially, it’s not ‘in the air and water’. The same transitions exist around most other “Silicon” ecosystems or innovation hubs.
… But Takes Root in any “Silicon” Soil
What made an impact at Intel was the investments its legendary CEO, Andy Grove, personally made in training, writing books, giving lectures, taking the time to teach new college grad employees, and promoting concepts such as measurable goals, transparency, and constructive confrontation. Similar cultural emphases at companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple help drive innovation today, while the many opportunities to mingle at conferences, meetups and BarCamps, (where like-minded engineers share ideas and solve problems), and the proliferation of open courseware, enable innovation to thrive on a much larger scale.
We instilled these principles in the open workspaces in our own past company, located in three places: St. Cloud, Minneapolis (in the repurposed Grain Exchange), and in San Francisco. Commingling the Midwestern values of the founders with the lessons of Silicon Valley’s success experienced by our Board members, we created a culture of entrepreneurial success.
The open work environment of the co-working space Fueled Collective, in the historic Grain Exchange building, downtown Minneapolis. Where grain was once traded, ideas are currency.
Conversely, is there evidence that policy-based institutions do not have impact? Look around Silicon Valley for unicorns traceable to policy-based cause-and-effect. The city governments of Santa Clara (Intel headquarters), Cupertino (Apple Headquarters), Palo Alto (HP and Tesla headquarters), Mountain View (Google headquarters), or Menlo Park (Facebook headquarters) have not been the agents of change.
So, does that mean policy-driven innovation hubs do not succeed? We believe that policy-based initiatives (ultra-high-speed broadband, net neutrality, etc.) are important enablers, but without entrepreneurial zeal, they are never enough, and ultimately wither. Relatively speaking, regions such as China have benefited from the visible hand of policy initiatives, but in the end, even there, the invisible hand of entrepreneurship has been the necessary ingredient.
The upper Midwest has the culture, the talent, and the capital to be an innovation hub. It has interdisciplinary collaboration – but it can use more. At Great North Labs we are working closely with St. Cloud State University and other local organizations to foster a similar ecosystem of interdisciplinary collaboration. We work with private and corporate LPs to seed startups in the upper Midwest, using the shared knowledge of our advisors and contacts to facilitate their success. We also educate, participate in events, and promote connections in the local tech communities. Our aim is to create a powerful innovation ecosystem in this region and connect it to the larger community of “Silicon” geography around the world. Welcome to Silicon Lakes!