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Innovation + Job News

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DoDrinks offers unique app for sharing happy hour anytime

"We should do happy hour sometime, I'll buy you a drink." That phrase may be uttered often, but for busy executives who barely have time to eat, putting together a leisurely get-together can feel like planning a trip around the world. It would be nice, but it's not exactly realistic with a jam-packed schedule.
That was the situation facing BreAnna Fisher when she was working at a marketing and advertising agency, and wanted to reward her intern for diligent work. "We had a project and he did an amazing job, so I said, 'I want to buy you a drink,' but later at home, I realized that I had a 3-year-old, I was full-time in school, and had a demanding job," she recalls. "I looked at my husband and said, 'When am I ever going to buy this kid a drink?'"
That realization sparked an idea for a business, DoDrinks, that would allow people to quickly "send a drink" (beer, wine, cocktail, or coffee) to someone else, which they could redeem whenever they like.
The idea is deceptively simple, since it involves some complex technology behind the scenes. Fisher relies on a technology team for development and testing, and the app is now in its third iteration.
The venture has started to gain momentum and garner attention from potential partners. Already, Fisher has linked up with Heineken, and is likely to ink deals with other drink purveyors.
Fisher credits her eight years in the military for giving her the discipline to take on an entrepreneurial venture. "I have a high risk tolerance, and I can complete a mission with limited resources," she says. "You can't be successful in the military without those skills, and as it turns out, they're perfect for leading a company as well."
Source: BreAnna Fisher
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Clockwork sees steady growth and hiring

Finding technology professionals, and application developers in particular, is a challenging task these days. With so many companies focused on tech in the Twin Cities, those gurus can be in short supply.
But Minneapolis-based Clockwork Active Media Systems has a knack for attracting this type of talent.
The digital agency has added about 40 technologists in the past couple years, and that boom has led to expansion plans for its existing building. Currently, the 10-year-old company has 73 employees, and a number of new job openings listed on its website.
Nancy Lyons, Clockwork's President and CEO, believes that Clockwork's distinctive team structure plays a large role in garnering more employees, particularly tech professionals, who appreciate being part of a larger vision.
"We have an approach here that anyone on a team can sit at the table with a client, it doesn't matter what your role is," she says. "That's what people are looking for in terms of employment, they want to be part of something bigger than they are."
As hiring continues, the breadth of talent helps to drive overall business growth, Lyons says. Big clients like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the YMCA and YWCA, and Cargill are drawn to the agency's team-based approach.
Lyons anticipates that the momentum will keep going strong, especially with more room thanks to the office expansion.
"People want to work here, and they love what they do," she says. "When you have that, growth comes as a result."
Source: Nancy Lyons, Clockwork
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Canopy builds buzz for its innovative iPhone case

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) might not be well known to actual consumers, but for companies that develop devices, software, gadgets, and games, it's the Olympics of trade shows. Held annually in Las Vegas, the event is awash in big names, dramatic unveilings, and more than a few industry parties.
So, when Minneapolis-based startup Canopy got a burst of attention for its new touch-sensitive iPhone case, Sensus, it was more than just nice recognition for its founder, Andrew Kamin-Lyndgaard--it proved that his idea was ready for the big time.
"People really took notice at CES," he says. "Since then, the attention has been constant."
Kamin-Lyndgaard started the company in 2008 as a solo entrepreneur, working in a 400-square-foot office in Northeast Minneapolis. The company's first product, the Canopy Kapok, was an iPhone case with dedicated buttons for shooting photos and video.
Although the product didn't garner wide adoption, it opened the door, he says, sparking conversations with others in the iOS application community who made products for Apple devices.
The result of those explorations is Sensus, a smartphone case that expands a device's functionality. As Sensus gets more buzz, Canopy is headed for a robust growth track. In the past couple years, Kamin-Lyndgaard has added seven full-time employees, and plans to hire another two or three in the coming months.
The larger goal, he says, is to be acquired by a bigger firm, and with the CES success, that seems a realistic goal. He says, "The nature of Sensus is disruptive, and that's why it's getting attention. That's going to be compelling for a company looking at acquisition opportunities."
Source: Andrew Kamin-Lyndgaard, Canopy
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Simple idea fuels entrepreneur's FinderCodes

Sometimes, business ideas come from unlikely places. For Blake Sohn, entrepreneurship started with a lost dog.
In the midst of the family's move to a new house, Sohn's dog, Emma, got free. Emma's ID tags had a previous address, as well as an older phone number, so Sohn considers himself lucky that he and Emma were quickly reunited. The seemingly minor event sparked an idea, however.
"I'd been interested in QR codes for some time, and I thought there had to be a way to use this platform for dynamic data in a new way," he says.
After developing prototype, Sohn founded FinderCodes, a company that creates durable ID tags for animals as well as stickers for possessions like electronics, backpacks, tools, and anything else that needs protection. The tags can be affixed to nearly anything, from a well-loved leather jacket to a kid's hockey stick.
If the item is lost, someone with a smartphone can scan the QR code to find the owner.
The company recently scored a big win: FinderCodes Lost and Found Kits were awarded a top innovation prize at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a major event for the electronics industry.
"I'm still stunned that we won it; it put us on a rocketship ride," Sohn says. The company is likely to keep zooming forward on that momentum with a new software upgrade, and future hiring. Right now, the company has 12 employees, and Sohn is looking toward worldwide opportunities and partnerships in Asia, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Already, the company has relationships with FedEx and AT&T. Sohn says, "The goal is just to help people manage their favorite things."
Source: Blake Sohn, FinderCodes
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

UnitedHealthcare creates contest for innovative health tech

UnitedHealthcare (UHC) is hoping that plenty of innovation-minded individuals will be ready to take on a new challenge, and perhaps win some prize money as a result.
At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, the health benefit company announced the introduction of a "Breakthrough Health Tech Challenge," meant to spark creativity both within and outside of the health care industry.
Innovators can win a prize of $60,000 for an idea that utilizes common consumer technologies or devices to solve a healthcare challenge. For example, an innovator might propose a mobile app for preventing diabetes, or outline how an online game could reduce the risk of heart disease.
"We believe this groundbreaking challenge will inspire new ideas and concepts that could serve as breakthrough solutions to improving people's health and the healthcare system," says Gail Boudreaux, UnitedHealthcare CEO.
Boudreaux adds that since the competition is worldwide, the "crowdsourcing" technique should be even more potent. Details of the challenge are available here, and ideas are accepted until April 8th.
This isn't the first contest run by UHC for addressing technology and healthcare. The company has developed a series of innovation challenges since mid-2012, and Boudreaux notes that a number of unique ideas and concepts have resulted, with implementation on the horizon.
For the current contest, entrants must submit a written proposal and experimental proof-of-concept data or prototype. UHC offers a partial award of up to $20,000 if a proven solution doesn't exist yet, and there may be opportunities for collaboration between UHC and the innovator if the project sparks interest.
Source: Gail Boudreaux, UnitedHealthcare
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

ReconRobotics boosts international sales

Already boasting a strong growth rate, Edina-based ReconRobotics is now poised for world domination.
The fast-track robotics company announced in June that it had established an international headquarters in Lugano, Switzerland, as part of a multi-year global expansion plan.
Just six months later, that office reported strong year-end sales of micro-robot systems to military and police customers in several European countries, including Germany, Hungary, and France.
Alan Bignall, ReconRobotics CEO, notes that robot sales were up more than 50 percent in 2012, with the international team leading the way in the last quarter. He adds that military and counterterror teams around the world are recognizing the unique capabilities of the company's mini-robots.
The company's mini-robots are particularly attractive to military and law enforcement, since they can be sent into dangerous situations and navigated remotely in order to collect intelligence. For example, a SWAT team can throw one into a house and use the robot's cameras to assess a hostage situation.
Nearly 4,000 of the company's Recon Scout and Throwbot systems have been deployed by military forces. The Throwbot XT weighs only 1.2 pounds and can be deployed in five seconds.
The momentum from domestic and international sales is likely to keep going strong, Bignall says: "The unique capabilities of our Throwbot XT give [our customers] a big tactical advantage during high-risk operations, and this is driving sales at a fast clip. We expect this trend to continue in 2013."
Source: Alan Bignall, ReconRobotics
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Exhibit Hall Earth acts as virtual conference content center

Conferences can be rich sources of networking, innovation, education, and sales leads, but those opportunities tend to end when the speakers and the trade show exhibitors begin packing up to leave.
One local entrepreneur wants to keep the energy going.
Michael Lunser, who acts as a project manager for conference content capture firm OrganicVoices, felt that all of the education and connection that occurs at conferences could be put to greater use, and also reach a wider audience, if they could be transferred to an online format.
The result is Exhibit Hall Earth, a startup project that Lunser is rolling out for organic agriculture conferences initially, but which has potential for all types of conferences.
"The traditional model for content capture is to record speakers and then try to sell the materials to attendees," he says. "But that model is starting to wear out; people aren't as interested in buying a pack of CDs anymore."
He envisioned a system where content could be included as part of a registration cost, with all the sessions and workshops online for easier access. Since the exhibit hall would be online and accessible, it could also host articles posted by users, publish classified ads and job listings, and become robust with other content. Lunser has even created a cookbook on the site so that attendees can swap recipes.
"Instead of a couple days networking and learning about topics, you could get exposure to so much more in a virtual exhibit hall," he says. "For conferences, it would allow them to have a presence on a yearly, ongoing basis. Everyone benefits."
Lunser is still fine-tuning the site, but is optimistic about making the model into a must-visit destination for conference attendees.
Source: Michael Lunser, Exhibit Hall Earth
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Auto repair estimating tool RoadTab expands to more cities

Launched last year, RoadTab is gaining speed. The online matchmaking app between auto owners and repair shops began in the Twin Cities, but now offers options for users in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Seattle.
The service's growth isn't a surprise, notes founder Jacob Phillips. "People are responding to the way the system works, and really liking the way they can get estimates online, instead of taking their vehicles to different shops."
RoadTab allows users to input the type of work they need performed, and to receive estimates via email. Based in Chanhassen, the service got its start when Phillips reflected on his experiences owning a small car dealership. Constantly on the phone to auto repair shops, he sought a tool that would streamline the process. When he couldn't find one, he decided to build his own, with the help of web and mobile development firm Tiny Mission.
The app is free for users, and mechanics pay a yearly membership fee. Phillips has refined the tool so that requests don't get sent out to every mechanic in the system. For example, if a car owner needs repair on a cracked windshield, only specialists in auto glass repair will get the query.
One sticking point is that it can be difficult for mechanics to give estimates for cars they haven't examined, but despite that challenge, the service seems to be picking up more mechanics and site users on a regular basis.
Phillips anticipates that the service will begin rolling out to more cities in the future. Next up is probably Chicago, he believes. "We can see this being nationwide," he says. "It's picking up momentum as it goes."
Source: Jacob Phillips, RoadTab
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

BuyerCurious launches new service for homeowners

Connecting various players in property transactions, BuyerCurious has seen steady growth since launching last year, and now it's added a free service to be even more useful to homeowners.
The site recently released AgentSmart, which allows home sellers to get competitive bids on real estate listing service. Users can anonymously request and compare quotes for conventional full-service agent representation, or they can ask about custom services like closing assistance.
"We think this will be of tremendous value to homeowners thinking about selling," says Jim Lesinski, founder and CEO of BuyerCurious. "It's agent-friendly as well."
He believes that AgentSmart will save time and money for sellers, because they'll be able to compare multiple bids from agents online. Agents are likely to welcome the service because they'll be able to grow their client list without having to depend only on referrals. Opportunities just "show up," Lesinski says.
The service guides sellers through a process of creating a profile of their property and determining what they need. Users stay anonymous until the point that they select an agent. Lesinski notes that this is appealing for property owners who want to shop around for agents, but don't want to deal with multiple cold calls.
Another benefit, he notes, is that AgentSmart creates a competitive bidding situation. He says, "Many consumers don't know real estate services are negotiable. In fact, two-thirds simply accept the terms proposed by the first person they meet with."
Best of all, for both sellers and agents, the service is free.
Source: Jim Lesinski, BuyerCurious
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Fixity focuses on grassroots marketing

It all started with a lampshade.
When Katherine Hayes was visiting her grandparents in 2010, she noticed stains on a lampshade, and decided to spend some time with bleach and a bucket rather than making a run to the store to buy a new one.
A finance professional, she'd been contemplating a career switch, and somehow, that seemingly minor moment of home maintenance clicked for her. "I love to repair things, put them back in order," she says. "I've always been a tinkerer, and in some ways, it's a reaction against our disposable consumerism. It feels like people don't fix things anymore, they just replace them."
That line of thinking has led Hayes to start Fixity, a service specializing in the small aspects of a home that could use adjustment. From tailoring curtains to mending jewelry to righting a wobbly chair leg, Hayes embraces the long list of to-do items that many people usually avoid. She's repaired a zipper on a travel bag, re-woven small holes in sweaters, assembled IKEA furniture (a talent in itself), and patched holes in upholstery, among numerous other tasks.
To get the business going, she's been relying on grassroots marketing efforts, which involve traditional referrals and social media. Hayes believes that her service is unique, because as a former art major, she utilizes creative solutions that some handyman-type services might skip. For example, she once sewed a round pillow to cover an oddly shaped window in a client's attic space.
"A handyman isn't going to be sewing pillows," Hayes says. "But if that's what you need, and you can't sew it yourself, now there's Fixity." 
Source: Katherine Hayes, Fixity
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

January events: Collaborative Innovation, Healthy Life, Technically Speaking, Leadership Challenge

The Collaborative Innovation Series
January 10
Cowles Auditorium, Humphrey Institute
301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis
7:45am - 10:25am
Maybe your resolution for 2013 is to put together a great board of directors. If that's the case, you're in luck: The Collaborative presents a morning of insight about how to create, develop, and effectively utilize a board.
Healthy Life Expo
January 12
Minneapolis Convention Center
10am - 5pm
$6 or free with donation to food shelf
This annual expo has been increasing in popularity every year, and this round offers up to 200 exhibitors, three stages of speaker presentations, product samples, free health advice, and plenty of information on wellness, nutrition, and fitness.
Technically Speaking: Leading with Emotional Intelligence
January 17
University of Minnesota
McNamara Alumni Center
5:30pm - 6:30pm
free, but must pre-register
The Technological Leadership Institute (TLI) at the U of M continues its new speaker series with this presentation about emotional intelligence, led by TLI's Kirk Froggatt. Geared toward leaders within organizations, the talk looks at the impact and practice of emotional intelligence as a way to boost leadership qualities.
Leadership Challenge Conference
January 24
St. Catherine University
Rauenhorst Ballroom
8am - 3:45pm
The Leadership Challenge conference brings together professional women from a range of settings, including government, education, nonprofit, and small business sectors. Now in its 16th year, the event is a day of education and discussion focusing on leadership, with interactive workshops and networking opportunities. 

Stuffdot rewards users for shopping recommendations

Let's say you've been looking for the perfect pair of boots for the last few months — classic but fashion-forward, dressy but office-appropriate — and finally, you find them and put a photo up on social media to show off your prize. How would it feel if a group of your friends then dashed out to buy the exact same boots?
More interestingly, would that feeling change if you got a "reward" every time a pair got purchased based on your recommendation?
It's the answer to the second question that drove the creation of StuffDOT, an online platform that allows users to post items like books, movies, clothes, and housewares, and then earn rewards if those postings lead to purchases by others.
Created by AOI Marketing, a Minneapolis-based loyalty marketing firm, StuffDOT is still in beta testing, but is likely to be widely released soon, according to Amanda Axvig, the company's vice president of marketing.
"Basically, it's just a smarter way to share," she says. "It rewards users for sharing what they like."
Like other referral programs, StuffDOT compensates users through a point system than can be redeemed for cash or gift cards from retailers like Target and Amazon.com, or even Punch Pizza. In look, the site is similar to Pinterest, but tying posts to rewards makes it even more compelling than those types of "inspiration sites," Axvig says.
Currently, StuffDOT is working with over 18,000 retailers, and Axvig notes that nearly every prominent online retailer has signed on as a partner. With that kind of beta, it's likely that the site's popularity (and AOI Marketing's staff numbers) will continue to grow.
Source: Amanda Axvig, AOI Marketing
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

U of M to lead virtual institute focusing on climate issues

The University of Minnesota is slated to lead an international virtual institute for the study of Earth-surface systems. The multi-university effort will have a particular focus on watersheds and deltas, and is being called Linked Institutions for Future Earth (LIFE).
The effort is funded by the National Science Foundation, which is awarding the U of M a grant of $720,000 to kick off the collaborative network. In total, funding, grants, and resources from all participating universities come to roughly $30 million.
An ambitious project, the initiative will bring together numerous international research institutions and field sites, with the purpose of better understanding the impacts of climatic and human stresses on the environment.
LIFE intends to produce research that can affect policy decisions as well as future scientific directions. Initially, the project will also boost networking and information sharing among researchers. It's also likely to increase awareness about sustainability issues among the general public.
LIFE lead researcher Efi Foufoula-Georgiou notes that the effort will build on another NSF-funded project, the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics, and with that foundation, the project will be able to take a significant step toward better understanding watersheds and deltas worldwide.
"LIFE seeks to empower the next generation of Earth-system scientists, engineers, and educators with depth, breadth, and a global perspective on environmental sustainability," she says.
All that global insight will start right here in Minneapolis, at the distinctive experimental facilities at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.
Source: Efi Foufoula-Georgiou, LIFE
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Referral Buzz builds growth through new features

For professionals like electricians, plumbers, and builders, referrals are a rich source of marketing. But harnessing this type of business driver is usually done on a casual basis, and often isn't viewed strategically. That's where Referral Buzz comes in.
Co-founder and president Lisa Schneegans and her partner Klaus Schneegans started the company in 2010 after renovating a number of older houses, and talking to contractors along the way. They discovered that the contractors relied heavily on referrals but didn't have a method for making the most of the referral system.
At the beginning of 2012, the service had about 100 contractors, and over the past year, Referral Buzz has steadily built up its reputation and developed new tools that allow small businesses to automate the entire customer life cycle, from lead generation to maintaining contact with past customers. Schneegans says, "These type of automatic tools help businesses during the 'hidden sales cycle.'"
Consumers benefit as well, since the service is a free, easy way to find contractors and others who have earned recommendations.
In 2013, Referral Buzz will get a major boost by becoming a partner of Trulia, an online marketplace for home buyers, sellers, renters, and real estate professionals. Schneegans notes that the arrangement will provide a huge benefit to the company's customers thanks to greater exposure, which will continue to drive growth for Referral Buzz.
The company has also added several features to its service, including an online digital portfolio where home improvement professionals can share photos of their work. Also new is an automatic synch between Referral Buzz and a contractor's Facebook page, and a mobile app is due to launch next year as well.
Source: Lisa Schneegans, Referral Buzz
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Minnesota exports reach an all-time high

Minnesota exports of agricultural, mining, and manufactured products reached a record $5.1 billion in the third quarter for 2012, up by one percent compared to the same period a year ago.
According to figures from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), this marks the eighth straight quarter of record exports in the state. Only three months ago, Minnesota reached an all-time high for a single quarter, when sales peaked at $5.4 billion.
Of the three major export categories, manufacturing has the highest sales, and is up by two percent compared to a year ago.
Ed Dieter, acting director of the Minnesota Trade Office, says that China and Europe had the biggest export gains recently, with China being especially strong. Dieter notes that sales there are up 16 percent over 2011. Other export areas that showed increases include Taiwan, Canada, Chile, and Australia.
In some other markets, sales were down when compared to last year's numbers, particularly for the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Argentina.
Given the state's strong biotech and medical device industries, it's not surprising that medical exports should see a big jump. The category increased by 19 percent during the third quarter, led by sales to China, Japan, and Belgium. The full report is available here on the DEED site.
Source: Ed Dieter, Minnesota Trade Office
Writer: Elizabeth Millard
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