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The Google/CoCo partnership: a new era for local tech?

In a CoCo space normally dedicated to lounging and casual conversations, a very focused, amped-up crowd settled into chairs and waited for the fireworks to begin. They weren't disappointed.
Held on Wednesday, February 20th, the event in the Minneapolis offices of the co-working organization was just a kickoff, but it felt significant. Google announced a partnership with CoCo for an event series to be held over the next two years, but this was more than a ho-hum press conference about some proposed get-togethers. In a room packed with entrepreneurs and business leaders, the sense of potential was palpable, and the speakers picked up on that anticipatory vibe.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, and Google Director of Entrepreneur Outreach Mary Grove fired up the group with visions of what will be: a stronger technology and entrepreneurial community, more support for fledgling businesses, meetups and resources and many other goodies.
Large-scale events will be held once per quarter, with at least two to four meetups and user groups per month. The partnership will involve use of Google technology tools and innovators, and give local entrepreneurs access to Google developers.
"Target started in a dry goods store, and 3M began as a sandpaper store," said Grove. "Google started in a garage. So we know the value of having people starting businesses, inventing things, finding growth. There's a world of opportunities, as long as people are coming up with ideas, and we need to seize those."
At the Starting Point
Right after the speeches, the event moved into a panel discussion, with local entrepreneurs like Solome Tibebu of Cognific (see The Line's recent coverage of Solome and the St. Thomas entrepreneur incubator here) and QONQR's Scott Davis talking with Grove and CoCo's Don Ball about significant entrepreneur issues like startup funding, fear of failure, mentorship, and patents.
The rich discussion about top challenges demonstrated the "let's get started" quality of the day, which was underscored by lively educational workshops just after lunch. The partnership with Google isn't just a way for local entrepreneurs to have access to a smattering of technology insight and a couple new tools, it's potentially a game-changing support system that could make the Twin Cities a dramatically fresh place for innovation.
Mayor Rybak communicated that feeling in his kickoff-infused speech, noting that Minneapolis was once a place where the big woods of the east shifted into the open prairies of the west. "When travelers first came here, they would step out of those dark trees and the skies would open up," he noted. "This is where vision begins."
In his speech, CoCo cofounder Kyle Coolbroth cited more recent history, as he gestured toward the sweeping space once occupied by the Grain Exchange for the region. "I wonder what the original dwellers in this space felt as they enriched the economy, as they built something new," he said. "I think I know, because we started CoCo as a place where entrepreneurs could follow their dreams, and now, we'll build the next economy here."
Klobuchar's Tweet
One of the most distinctive aspects of the recent event was the way that it brought together not just entrepreneurs who could attend physically, but also those who might be far away from the Twin Cities.
CoCo's Twitter feed, occupying a slice of the old Grain Exchange board, popped with activity as it brought together updates from inside the room and from those watching via Google Hangouts, the company's online video conferencing platform.
Major points from each speech were tweeted almost before the speaker could finish saying them, demonstrating the power behind real-time connection, both in-person and online. Even Senator Klobuchar issued a tweet of congratulations to CoCo, only minutes after stepping away from the podium.
In the front row, new entrepreneur Chad Olsen listened appreciatively, and says he's looking forward to what's ahead. As founder of a startup tech firm, ByME, he anticipates greater access to tools, mentorship, and even potential investment.
"I feel like Minnesota is poised for being really big for tech, and I think this partnership shows that the community here is serious about making this a major place for innovation," he says.
Stay Tuned...
CoCo's Ball and Coolbroth both emphasized the evolving nature of the partnership, and how many events and educational opportunities will be driven by ideas from the local entrepreneurial community. The Google-driven events look to resemble that Twitter feed, where insights are shared and ideas are bounced around in the real-life and digital spaces, as if there's no separation between the two.
"Simply put, I think it's awesome," says Matt Woestehoff, Director of Business Development and Operations at The Foundation, a firm specializing in IT for the creative industry.
The company has offices at CoCo, and Woestehoff believes the new partnership will benefit not just those, like him, who are in the co-working space, but the greater business community as well. "With something like this, it gets better for everybody."

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.

All photos by Bill Kelley
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