How Tech Can Help Outstate Minnesota

Red Wing Ignite

A natural match: Metro tech companies need talent, while outstate Minnesota needs jobs

Dilema: Greater Minnesota needs jobs, while Metro tech firms need people. What if there was an overlapping solution? What if there was a way to bring tech jobs to the rest of Minnesota?

Doing so could increase the talent pool to businesses, normalize talent costs and bring jobs and wealth back to greater Minnesota. It may also help heal the economic and political rift between the Twin Cities and the rest of the state — and unite them around a shared vision of the future.

While the path forward is full of challenges — such as misconceptions about tech jobs, and the lack of infrastructure and capital — several outstate cities are already leading the way to a potential technological revolution.

Rochester: A new co-op space

Long-known for the Mayo Clinic and its burgeoning health care ecosystem, Rochester is also encouraging local startups, such as GoRout, which has attained national attention for its football helmet app. And less than a year ago, Jamie Sundsback launched Collider Coworking in downtown Rochester. The co-working space hosts meetups every week to discuss ways to build the startup community.

“Rochester is a traditional Minnesota city, risk-averse, with big successful companies and comfortable employees,” says Sundsback, who serves as the community manager of Collider. “But,” he says, “more people are beginning to understand the opportunity in the area. Tech entrepreneurship is happening here.”

Red Wing, creating pathways

Tech startups are also taking hold in Red Wing, a city known for its low-tech products like shoes and pottery.

One catalyst for building a startup community is Red Wing Ignite, an organization devoted to helping the community grow an innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem. It is plugged in to a couple of dozen communities across the country doing the same thing through a national organization, US Ignite.

“US Ignite has helped us facilitate conversations and has provided support for ways to develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem” says the Executive Director of Red Wing Ignite, Neela Mollgaard. This applies to teachers and parents alike. Changing a community starts with awareness. “Education plays a key role in developing the ecosystem” says Mollgaard.

One of the biggest challenges facing education is having teachers with enough experience in technology to be able to teach the curriculum, while parents need to become aware of the opportunities to help their children get on the path of a good-paying job.

Mollgaard and Ignite are working on developing a STEAM education platform (science, technology, engineering, art, math, and design), bringing in organizations like TechnovationMN, Apps for Good and Coder Dojo. Ignite also partners with local colleges to focus curriculum on tech, and facilitate internship programs to expose kids to technology and entrepreneurship early on.

Options are abundant for parents and teachers to engage their kids with technology. Kids can get involved now with robots, video games, online courses, YouTube and online resources such as Scratch, a free, online, entry-level programming language developed by MIT to teach programming fundamentals to kids.

These efforts help move Red Wing forward, but much needs to be done. “Challenges are pretty universal — access to capital, lack of awareness and opportunity, and a lack of clear economic impact,” says Mollgaard.

Access is a very real issue for outstate areas. While some don’t have enough investors visiting, some don’t even have Internet access. Access to jobs is the most pressing thing. Most areas in greater Minnesota are not seen as a communities with tech talent or even an interest in tech. As tech has a misperception, so too does greater Minnesota.

Fargo, North Dakota & branding

To counteract this disconnect, cities can carve out their own brand. Tech is no longer isolated to single locations. It is evolving into a network of communities of talented people solving problems they are uniquely skilled at; therein lies the opportunity. In this way, rural areas can continue to develop the brand they are already skilled at, and bolster it by leveraging technology.

Fargo is building its brand and is booming with tech — especially drones. “Fargo is becoming a key player on the global stage with drone and precision agriculture technology,” says Greg Tehven, the executive director of Emerging Prairie, a nonprofit that promotes tech startups through events and a coworking space.

Says Tehven, “Emerging Prairie is here to connect and celebrate entrepreneurial ecosystems in three key ways: Connect people to help facilitate the network effect, provide platforms for entrepreneurs to share what they are doing, and support by helping startups find the first customers, partners, employees or investment.”

With this kind of support and innovation in a vertical that North Dakota is long known for, Fargo is quickly making the transition to being a part of something larger, a connected tech community. Many communities out there are. Tech is making an impact in outstate areas around the country. The talent is there, the opportunity is there, and it’s going to take both sides to make it happen.

Bridge project to rural Minnesota

Putting jobs back in rural areas is a big challenge and will require an intense amount of collaboration. It starts with an openness from both communities. This is ultimately a bridge project: two groups on different sides of the bridge working to connect in the middle.

Success means jobs in greater Minnesota and wealth moving back into local communities. Tech jobs have a multiplier effect. Studies have shown that for every tech job created, three to four other jobs in the community are created as well. This is a real opportunity to stop the talent drain and revitalize towns. New ideas outside of the traditional limits of urban centers can help companies grow and connect in new ways. Businesses will be fueled by talent at all levels, equalizing supply and demand.

It starts with a conversation. Leaders are needed on both sides to make this a priority.

Start a meetup. Start a coworking space. Make connections. Network. Find a counterpart that wants to work with someone to solve this problem.

Calling all entrepreneurs: Round 2 of Ignite Cup set for April 18

On April 18, Red Wing Ignite will host the second annual Ignite Cup, a competition for start-up businesses in southern Minnesota. The winner will have the chance to compete as a semifinalist in the statewide MN Cup business competition.

"The Ignite Cup brings a voice to some of the greatest minds in the area," said Neela Mollgaard, executive director at Red Wing Ignite. "We're excited about the collaborative nature of this event and partnership with the MN Cup."

To compete in the Ignite Cup, start-ups must complete an online application by March 31. On April 7, five applicants will be selected to present their businesses to a panel on April 18. The panel, featuring qualified economic development professionals, will then select a winner to move onto the MN Cup, where competitors have a chance to gain business plan feedback, mentorship opportunities, media exposure, networking opportunities, and $400,000 in available seed funding.

All Ignite Cup competitors will receive feedback and regional networking opportunities. The Ignite Cup is open to any southern Minnesota resident interested in business innovation.

To apply, go to www.ignite-cup.eventbrite.com. If you have further questions, contact Shannan Harris with Red Wing Ignite at 651-327-2154.

Viewpoint: Red Wing Ignite living up to its name

Stephanie Elsen serves on the Red Wing Port Authority Board.

I would like to share with the Red Wing community about a resource available in our fine city that is unique and extremely valuable.

Have you heard of Red Wing Ignite? Ever wonder what the organization does and what it's all about?

I like to think of Red Wing Ignite as our tech and innovation hub — a place for entrepreneurs, experienced as well as beginners and those who love technology to learn, share and grow.

There are not many cities the size of Red Wing that have such resources available, and we are so fortunate to have them here.

Red Wing Ignite originally started when the gigabit internet access was brought to Red Wing and in partnership with US Ignite, an organization funded by the National Science Foundation and the White House, to keep the U.S. globally competitive. Red Wing Ignite has received financial support from the city of Red Wing, Xcel Energy, the Jones Family Foundation, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Red Wing Shoe Foundation, Hiawatha Broadband Co., Red Wing Area Fund and the Blandin Foundation.

There is also an amazing board of directors with some very smart and dedicated people. Neela Mollgaard is the executive director. Along with the board and all the support, they have accomplished quite a bit in the three years since its inception.

Red Wing Ignite supports entrepreneurs by offering advice and support, as well as links to investors and investor events where entrepreneurs can pitch their products and seek investment. The agency has already helped many businesses, including a tele-health application, a social neighborhood app and many more.

While the focus of the entrepreneurs is typically new businesses, Red Wing Ignite also supports current businesses in a variety of ways. Gaining more innovative businesses in Red Wing is a great way to add high quality employment opportunities and quality businesses in our community. And while there are not yet any large tech companies starting a business here in Red Wing, it has only been three years, and there have been many different efforts in the works.

My favorite thing about Red Wing Ignite, though, is the opportunity to provide students to get a leg up by learning technology they would not otherwise have the chance to learn.

I happen to teach one of those classes, along with two other teachers. It's a class where the students learn to build and market an app. The students learn about the app building, but they also learn about market research, development processes, presentation and more.

I saw firsthand a group of kids who will go to college way ahead of others, armed with this knowledge. One student went off to college and took and entrepreneurial class and said he already knew a lot of it, having taken the app class in Red Wing. And the students all did this for free, since Red Wing Ignite got a grant for us to teach the class. In addition, there are other classes, such as the Winger Dojo, where students can go in and learn how to code — a highly valued skill in today's society.

In addition to all this, Red Wing Ignite has a co-working space available to those who need an office space. The agency has gotten grants and built a community website (redwinginfo.com) which has an aggregated calendar of events for Red Wing.

Red Wing Ignite provides educational events for entrepreneurs. They attend events and network with businesses and contacts who would have otherwise not known about Red Wing. The group also is supporting the launch of a new "Maker Space" in Red Wing, with Minnesota State College Southeast, whose goal is to provide tools for crafters and makers. The list goes on and on.

I hope that this letter encourages you to support and become involved with Red Wing Ignite. It is a resource so valuable to our community in so many ways. If you want to stay on top of what it has going on, you can follow Red Wing Ignite on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/redwingignite.

Startups bring vibrance to rural areas

RED WING, Minn. — An ambitious headline from an August VentureBeat article read, “In 5 years, the Midwest will have more startups than Silicon Valley.”

The area isn’t exactly known for technological innovation as much as for agriculture, but that’s not to say the drive isn’t there.

Nonprofit organization Red Wing Ignite is helping ambitious entrepreneurs find the resources they need in the Goodhue County town.

“We provide a link to mentors, investors, advisors on topic areas,” said Red Wing Ignite executive director Neela Mollgaard. “The one thing we can do that is maybe more difficult in bigger cities is get them right in front of the customers, so they can get instant feedback on their business if they need to change their product to have it better received in the marketplace.”

The organization was founded in 2013 with the help of the city government and community foundations. It’s already competing in the larger tech world: local winners of a hackathon went on to the U.S. Ignite Conference in Silicon Valley, where they competed well with startups from there.

One such startup that’s benefited from Red Wing Ignite’s services is Live. Give. Save. Inc.

“It’s like a Fitbit for your finances,” said CEO Susan Langer of Red Wing.

Langer traveled to Africa in 1995 while she was working in marketing a large credit-card portfolio. She saw micro-financing introduced there and was inspired by how well it worked.

“Every time we go out and purchase something, we pay taxes on the products that aren’t listed on the price tag,” she said. “We are always going to purchase things regardless of tax. So why not tax ourselves?”

Users will be able to work with a smartphone app to “tax themselves” on purchases. Langer calls it a “new user experience in personal financial management.” The designated money can go towards a retirement fund or a charity of the person’s choice

Langer said she’s enjoying having her business in Red Wing, although there are some unique challenges.

“It’s tough to access finance for our startups,” she said. “Active investors for a financial technology business are usually on the coasts. The other thing is that it’s tough to recruit tech developers. We have a pretty big and complex vision. That type of talent is not in this area.”

She can address the need to network by connecting in the Twin Cities. She has good internet access in Red Wing, so she can host teleconferences with team members across the country, a bonus of working at Red Wing Ignite. Overall, internet access has improved in rural areas over the last few years.

Mollgaard said Ignite works to help new businesses find the connections that aren’t so obvious in rural areas.

“We’re working with some other businesses too to connect them with resources to launch their businesses, based on whatever their product is,” Mollgaard said. “We pool our local resources to help guide them.”

Langer has also worked with the Red Wing Port Authority, thanks to Mollgaard’s introduction to it. She enjoys the community spirit of being in a smaller town, with schools, local government, citizens and businesses working togther. She hopes businesses like hers in rural areas can bring in more people.

“They are a strong force in creating opportunities for families to raise children in a safe, healthy environment that offers so much in influencing young minds. The more businesses we create, the more jobs we have to attract families,” she said.

“The reward of being here is that it’s a lot less expensive to run a business in a small town for office space and living costs. There’s also a rich organic intimacy within the rural community. It’s an innate blend between personal and professional.”

Langer cited the collaborative culture at Ignite between all the different businesses who use the space. Besides Live. Give. Save., there’s one which works with virtual reality and one working on an innovative ramp for trucking.

“I think it’s really important that towns of all sizes try to support small businesses and entrepreneurs since that’s going to be the largest growth in our economies going forward,” Mollgaard said. 

“If communities want to stay vibrant and grow, it’s something they should look at. It’s also a great way to bring creative, vibrant minds together in local communities, and new ideas and new thinking.”

Brita Moore, bmoore@agrinews.com

Lt. Gov. Smith discusses 'exciting' collaborations with Red Wing Ignite

Red Wing Ignite Representatives met with Lt. Gov. Smith

Red Wing Ignite Representatives met with Lt. Gov. Smith

By Maureen McMullen on Oct 19, 2016 at 11:37 a.m.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith visited with Red Wing Ignite representatives and toured the building Thursday as part of her "87 Counties in 86 Days" tour, which also included visits to Dodge and Wabasha counties this week.

Community representatives including Mayor Dan Bender, City Council Administrator Kay Kuhlman, Port Authority President Scott Adkisson and Red Wing Schools Supt. Karsten Anderson joined Ignite Executive Director Neela Mollgaard and Program Coordinator Shannon Harris to discuss the organization's impact on the community's economy and entrepreneurial efforts. Sen. Matt Schmit also attended.

Adkisson, an Ignite board member, explained the organization's mission to help Red Wing on the map, in the state and nationally, as an "entrepreneurial spirit community."

"An entrepreneur myself for the last 40 years as a business owner, there's not a lot of support for our dream," he said. "So, we thought what we needed to do was go after support for entrepreneurs so that they have the best opportunity to build a business and not just take their dreams and watch them fail."

Anderson described the collaborations between Ignite and the school district, including the development of a curriculum for a computer coding class — a resource he says is crucial, but lacking in most schools.

"It pains me to know that throughout Minnesota and throughout our country, we've reduced that kind of educational opportunities for kids," said Anderson, whose education career began teaching a high school computer programming class. "Our schools just don't have that kind of programming anymore."

Smith said she was impressed by the organization's community-wide collaborations to foster talent, workforce and access to capital.

"You can just see what can be accomplished when you've got the kind of collaboration that is happening here in Red Wing," she said. "They are creating a real physical and virtual ecosystem for entrepreneurship in the region and in this community with Red Wing Ignite, and that's really exciting."

During the meeting, Mollgaard identified funding as one of Ignite's primary challenges.

"When we talk about the future, I feel very confident that what we're doing is what we're supposed to be doing," she said. "We have the groundwork laid, but I think what we're finding is the biggest challenge that always comes up is funding."

Red Wing, she said, faces a unique struggle in gaining funding: Although the community's population can't compete with cities that have a larger university system, Red Wing's low rate of unemployment and poverty disqualify the city from certain federal grants.

She also floated the idea of appropriation funding.

Smith mentioned a number of avenues through which organizations like Ignite might gain funding, including angel tax credit and the Minnesota Job Creation Fund.

"What I heard today was important feedback that sometimes those efforts seem to focus most on bigger companies, and we need to keep our eye on the bigger opportunity for smaller companies," she said. "Also the state and the legislature need to do their part by funding those strategies that we know work."

Letter to the Editor: Ignite internship helps advance economy

Red Wing Ignite Tech Interns: 2016

Red Wing Ignite Tech Interns: 2016

I came to Red Wing for the first time this summer to take advantage of one of the three tech internship opportunities offered through Red Wing Ignite. If the word “internship” makes you think of a position doing cheap, trivial work primarily for the sake of corporate recruiting, my experience was something very different. 

During a period of two to three months, my employers depended on me to build, from the ground up, a new web application that employees would be using on a daily basis. Together my team of three interns provided solutions for four local organizations that might have otherwise left their tech-related needs unaddressed. 

I found the experience quite worthwhile from my own perspective as well. Apart from helping the Red Wing community, it helped me to gain new vocation-specific technical skills as well as the confidence to know that I’m able to finish such a large-scale project well beyond the scope of my undergraduate coursework.

College students studying computer science and information technology have a lot more power than members of that age group have ever had before. In their early 20s, without a ton of professional experience, they already have the ability to turn ideas into big-name websites, help existing companies function efficiently enough to stay competitive and play a central role in building our increasingly technology-dependent society. Even in a small town like Red Wing, there are plenty of areas for young students at nearby colleges to make a big contribution.

But these internships are also important for the future. Not only do they help prepare local college students to join the workforce of tomorrow, but they also help convince them to start their careers in the Minnesota area, not run off to the West Coast to find work as tech-minded college students are apt to do. It’s clear that these internships are a great opportunity for everyone involved and will help advance the local economy in years to come.

Jonah Tuchow

Northfield, Minn.

Jonah Tuchow was a Red Wing Ignite Tech Intern and attends Carleton College.

Rural tech startups see success across the US

While tech startups have become synonymous with urban areas that offer improved access to talent, resources and infrastructure, the reality is that rural areas are also home to startups.

This may come as a surprise to those who have moved away from rural areas specifically to find a job in the tech industry..

Red Wing Ignite Offers a Chance to Ignite Passion in Teenagers

Photo credit: Technovation MN

Photo credit: Technovation MN

Teens can learn to build and market their own app – for FREE

What ignites passion in your teen? Sports? Video games? Perhaps you don’t know, or perhaps they haven’t quite found their passion yet. I felt the same way in high school. Whilst I watched others playing their sports, joining the cheerleading team and more, I wondered what my calling might be. And then one day, I gave a speech in speech class. I was terrified. Mine was a demonstration speech about how to make coffee. I started by pulling the carafe out of a bag, and it fell to the ground and broke. I gave the entire speech with a pretend coffee pot, and was mortified and shaking. When my speech was over, the teacher said to me, “Why don’t you join the speech team? You have a great voice!” I really couldn’t believe it. I was pretty sure I was the worst speaker on the planet and thought it was only a matter of time before the teacher himself started laughing. I have no idea what made me say, ‘yes’, but I did join the speech team. And I competed at the state level competition two times! I am now 46 years old, and I love public speaking. It all started with the spark of something I had no idea I would enjoy.

Red Wing Ignite - Developers

One thing we are very lucky for in the fine city of Red Wing is that Red Wing Ignite, a local not-for-profit technology organization, works hard to promote technology and tries to get grants that can really help people. One of their most recent grants is for a class for high-school students, to teach them how to build and market an app. The program is FREE for them! It’s a 12 week program that meets 1-2 times per week, and includes the learning of how to use an app builder, how to plan for it, market it, and promote it. Where else can students get this knowledge, and for FREE? The class requires a time commitment and it won’t necessarily be easy every step of the way. But it’s worth it. Your teen might even find their calling!

Photo credit: Technovation MN

Photo credit: Technovation MN

Click here for more details (on page 17) or call Red Wing Community Education at (651) 385-4565. I am teaching the class, along with Tao Peng. If you prefer to contact me directly for more information about the class, please feel free to do so! Email me at stephjo@redwing.net.

Small Towns, Big Ideas

South Eastern Minnesota

South Eastern Minnesota

NOTE: Follow Up to Southeast Minnesota explores how to make hay in the emerging creative economy

The McKnight Foundation commissioned writer Jay Walljasper to do a series of reports looking at the prospects and challenges in Minnesota’s 80 counties outside the metro area. According to Jay, "a cloudy economic picture emerges in recent figures from the Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

This is the the first report, focusing on Southeast Minnesota.