St. Paul co-working center kicks off Startup Saturdays theme

Starting your own company doesn’t have to mean working alone.

A St. Paul co-working center recently kicked off a new Startup Saturdays theme. The 3rd Place, 2190 Como Ave., is one of two co-working centers that opened in the city earlier this year. The other is CoCo in Lowertown St. Paul.

Co-working centers are meant to be an alternative to the kitchen table or coffee shop for self-employed and telecommuting professionals, who typically pay a membership fee for access to a workstation, Internet connection and other office amenities.

The 3rd Place, a project of the social-media marketing firm Monkey Island, centers on the hope that a handful of aspiring tech startups will decide to take their projects out of the garage or basement and into its co-working space one day a week.

The sessions are free during the month of May. Amenities include high-speed wi-fi, whiteboards, and a conference room with a projector, but co-founder Zack Steven said the real reason to participate is the chance to be around other startup-minded people.

The real benefit is getting to “talk to people who have done it, and are doing it, and dedicate time to it so you can actually find out if what you’re working on is worth while from a market/business standpoint,” Steven said.

So far, Startup Saturdays have no formal program or curriculum — participants just show up between 9 and 5 — but Steven said they’re talking with local tech groups about possibly developing sessions specifically aimed at entrepreneurs.

Originally published May 26, 2010, by The Line Media.

Minnesota may start applications for $11M in angel tax credits before Aug. 1

Minnesota economic officials expect applications to be available for the state’s angel investor tax credit before the Aug. 1 deadline set by the Legislature.

Dan McElroy, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, told an audience Monday that his department hopes to have documents related to the tax credit posted on its website as soon as July 1.

McElroy spoke at an angel tax credit panel discussion at ADC Auditorium presented by several local science and technology organizations.

The Angel Tax Credit was signed into law April 1. It set aside $11 million in 2010 and $12 million for each of the following four years for a 25-percent tax credit for investment in Minnesota technology startups.

“We’re most interested in jobs, and good paying jobs,” McElroy said. “We’d love to see a couple relatively early successes.”

Among the criteria for companies to qualify: They must be less than 10 years old and have fewer than 25 employees. Their headquarters and more than half their payroll and employees must be in Minnesota, and all employees must make at least $18.55. Qualifying companies also need to be using or researching proprietary technology in a high-technology field.

More information is available at

Originally published May 26, 2010, by The Line Media.

Smart-grid software maker OSI to break ground on $20 million Medina headquarters

An energy management software company is expanding in the western suburbs.

Open Systems International broke ground Friday on a new $20 million corporate headquarters in Medina. The 100,000-square-foot building will be LEED-Gold certified and incorporate some of the company’s own energy management technologies.

“We are growing rapidly, leaps and bounds, and the space we’re in right now just isn’t able to accommodate our fast growth any more,” said Mimi Nelson, OSI’s director of marketing and communication.

The privately held company currently employs about 240 people in Plymouth, where it rents space in an office park. The new headquarters, on the corner of Highway 55 and Arrowhead Drive, will put everyone under the same roof and allow Open Systems to add more employees.

OSI, which was founded in 1992, makes automation software for the gas, electric, and transportation industries that allows companies to monitor and control their systems. A couple of years ago the company started upgrading its software to support smart-grid projects.

Originally published May 26, 2010, by The Line Media.

St. Paul nonprofit offers mobile phones to homeless job-seekers

Could mobile phones help the homeless find permanent shelter?

A St. Paul nonprofit started distributing cell phones last month to homeless residents. It’s part of a small pilot program to show how cell phones can help people in transition find jobs and permanent housing, as well as stay better connected with family, friends and agencies.

“There’s just no way to survive in this world without a phone. It really puts people further out of the mainstream than they are already,” says Marcy Shapiro, executive director of Twin Cities Community Voice Mail.

The cell phone pilot is a first step toward updating the group’s model for the wireless era. Twin Cities Community Voice Mail has offered free phone numbers and voice-mail accounts to low-income Minnesotans since 1994. Today, finding pay phones to retrieve and respond to voice-mails is increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, many employers and landlords expect people to be reachable on demand. Missed phone calls can mean missed opportunities.

The phones are being distributed by three partner agencies, the Dorothy Day Center, the St. Paul YWCA and Face to Face Safe Zone, which are offering the phones to participants in a federally funded Rapid Re-housing program. The cell phone plans are covered for six months, after which participants can keep the phone and number.

Similar experiments have been tried in Fort Worth, Tex., and Washington, D.C., but Shapiro believes the program is the first of its kind in Minnesota and among the first in the nation.

The trial is being funded through a $12,000 grant from the St. Paul Foundation that will cover the cost of 30 phones. Long-term funding is the major challenge. Voice mail accounts cost the organization about $10 per month per client, but cell phones cost three times that amount. After much research, the nonprofit settled on a $30 monthly plan from Virgin Mobile that includes 300 daytime and 1,000 night/weekend minutes.

“The money is what’s really kept people from doing it,” she says. “The need is there. It’s really just about figuring out how to pay for it.”

Originally published May 26, 2010, by The Line Media.

MN Idea Open awards woman $15,000 for kid-driven kids’-fitness concept

Thanks to a sort of American Idol for ideas, a Twin Cities woman gets $15,000 to implement her concept, and a Minnesota foundation gets an experience that could help change the way local institutions make decisions in the future.

Christine Tubbs of Stillwater was named winner Tuesday of the inaugural Minnesota Idea Open challenge. Her idea was culled from more that 400 submissions in an online contest that asked Minnesotans to submit their best ideas to encourage healthier eating and more active lifestyles.

All submissions were posted on the contest’s website, where they could be viewed and comment on by other participants. Judges picked three finalists, which were then put to an Idol-style vote. Tubbs’ proposal, to put on a series of youth-led activity field days, was selected as the winner by the nearly 5,000 Minnesotans who cast their votes on the website since early April.

The Minnesota Community Foundation had the web application built through a partnership with Ashoka Changemakers, which organizes similar international contests for social entrepreneurs. Major funding came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The two-month contest showed how the Web can be used to get more people involved in public dialogue.

“We have been able to have conversations and get ideas from people from all walks of life, all across the state,” said Jennifer Ford Reedy, the foundation’s vice president for strategy and knowledge management. “We didn’t reach everybody, but we reached people who were not usually a part of the conversation.”

The local foundation now owns the web application and plans to make it available for other organizations in the state, as well as to sponsor one or two statewide contests per year.

Up next, though: helping Tubbs turn her idea into reality.

Originally published May 26, 2010, by The Line Media.

Minnesota Cup hopefuls vie for $40,000 in startup, growth capital

Think of it as Minnesota’s Next Top Entrepreneur.

The deadline for entries in this year’s Minnesota Cup contest was Friday, May 21.

The sixth annual entrepreneurship invited Minnesota inventors to submit ideas in four areas: bioscience, high tech, clean tech, social entrepreneurship, as well as a general entrepreneurship and student category.

Minnesota Cup director Matt Hilker said he’s hoping this year’s contest will match or exceed the 1,100 participants who submitted entries last year.

Judges for each category will spend the next month choosing about half a dozen semifinalists in each category. Those entrepreneurs will then spend the summer developing in-depth business plans and presentations for a chance to win up to $40,000 in startup or growth capital.

“The biggest benefit, even more than the prize money, is just the exposure they get,” Hilker said. Judges include prominent and experienced entrepreneurs and investors.

The finalists from the 2009 Minnesota Cup have collectively raised more than $8 million in capital since September.

Last year’s winner was a Minneapolis app developer called Alvenda, which garnered the grand prize for an e-commerce tool that allows retailers to sell products directly from web banner advertisements.

Originally published May 26, 2010, by The Line Media.

Reporters Notebook: Numbers suggest Minnesota has a ways to go in reclaiming its entrepreneurial ‘mojo’

I’m attending the launch event this afternoon for a group called MOJO Minnesota, an “innovation advocacy force” that wants to “reignite Minnesota’s culture of innovation.” I met with co-founder Ernest Grumbles a few weeks ago, and he explained they’re not going to be about putting out more studies and white papers. They’re going to be about action, he said. This will include state policy advocacy, “fostering dialogue,” and putting on events that connect like-minded entrepreneurs, investors and others.

A study showed up in my inbox this morning that suggests the MOJO team will have their work cut out for themselves. The Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity (PDF) is an annual survey of new business starts. This year’s report shows U.S. entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level since 1996. More new companies were formed in this country last year than during the 1999 or 2000 tech boom years. Minnesota, however, is singled-out for having one of the lowest rates of entrepreneurial activity.

In 2009, Minnesota recorded 220 new businesses per 100,000 adult residents, just beating out Alabama (210 per 100,000), Pennsylvania (200 per 100,000) and Nebraska (200 per 100,000). Mississippi was last with 170 new starts per 100,000 adult residents. I’m admittedly still learning this beat, but the numbers surprised me. I’d have guessed we’d be in the middle of the pack somewhere — not the bottom five.

Maybe it’s just that I’m better tuned in to the conversation, but it seems like there’s an awful lot of talk lately about how to make Minnesota more entrepreneurial. Can we do it? There’s excitement about the angel investor tax credit passed by the Legislature this session. I’ve also heard concerns that it’s not enough, that we need to do something bigger to overcome our cultural resistance to risk-taking.

Guessing I’ll hear some ideas later today.

Reporters Notebook: How Minnesota companies are using nanotechnology

I spent the morning at Medtronic’s Moundsview campus for an event called “Nanotechnology – A Showcase of Current Applications in the Region,” put on by Life Science Alley and MN Nano.

I’m back at my desk now, and here’s my quick summary.

We heard presentations from ten Minnesota companies (and one from Canada) about how they’re currently using nanotechnology and how they might use it in the future. The uses were all pretty varied. Some companies are using nanotechnology to develop cheap, disposable diagnostics tools (Diagnostic Biosensors, Douglas Scientific). Others are using nanotech to make tools last longer by coating them with thin, near indestructible layers of particles (Phygen).

Darrel Untereker, vice president of technology for Medtronic, started off the morning by explaining what nanotechnology is, and how it can be difficult to comprehend. “It’s everything, and yet it’s nothing.” In short, it’s any technology that centers around manipulating materials at a spectacularly small scale — a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Scientists have discovered that materials behave different when isolated at that scale. The Periodic Table? Forget it, said Emil Hallin, director of strategic scientific development at Canadian Light Source. At the nano scale, materials may have entirely different properties.

A few of the presentations were too technical my novice brain to keep up with, but several were quite accessible. Here’s a few very small summaries of some of the presentations:

  • Douglas Scientific, a company based in Alexandria, is developing a tool aimed at cutting the cost and time it takes to analyze biofluids. Currently, much of that work is done using micro test plates, a compact tray that can hold dozens of liquid samples. Douglas Scientific’s product compacts that even further by sealing nanoliter samples inside a thin plastic tape, which can be fed through a machine and scanned for data.
  • RJA Dispersions is a Maplewood company led by two former 3M employees. It produces nano-particle and pigment dispersions that are used to make ink jet ink. The particles need to be small enough that they won’t clog the ink jet nozzles and stable enough so that they won’t coagulate inside the cartridges.
  • And Kevin Kluggtvedt summarized efforts by the Rushford Institute for NanoTechnology to make the southern Minnesota town a hub for nanotechnology (Little Particles on the Prairie?). Companies include Rushford Hypersonic and Kluggtvedt’s company, Rushford NanoElectro Chemical Co.

Were you there, too? What did you take away? Feel free to share in the comments section.