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IT testing firm tapQA stays on growth track

Founded in 2004, Minneapolis-based tapQA began to see an interesting inflection point a few years ago, says consulting partner Mike Faulise.
The company specializes in quality assurance, including software and systems testing, and Faulise notes that clients began to ask about offshore services, and to do pricing comparisons in terms of project costs. When tapQA compared the numbers, the firm founds ways of matching lower offshore pricing and, in some cases, coming in below those figures.
"We use local, Minnesota talent and we compete against offshore rates," says Faulise. "Because of that, we continue to grow, and to be effective in a competitive marketplace."
The company focuses on clients that tend to need contractors for a significant portion of work, particularly for technology projects. Faulise points out that the IT industry in the state is below zero percent unemployment, so finding in-house talent is especially challenging. Because of that, many companies have turned to outsourcing, and tapQA has stepped up as a resource to fill that need.
"We're able to separate strategic from tactical resources; that's one of our strengths," he says. "At the beginning of a project, you need strategy, and we can provide that. During a project, you depend on tactical skills, and we've focused on creating a solution that's just as affordable as offshore contracting, but without the hassles."
As tapQA contines to expand its contractor and client pools, the company anticipates more growth in the years ahead, particularly as it establishes more partnerships within the technology industry.
Source: Michael Faulise, tapQA
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

90 Degree Media aims to refine online advertising

Social media marketing has become crucial for all types of companies, since it allows them to connect with current and potential customers, but there's also a way to boost those efforts: digital advertising.
Minneapolis-based agency 90 Degree Media has been honing the advertising options it offers to clients, and these now include display ads, search advertising, video, mobile, and other selections. Clients can choose how ads get served up within a single medium, like mobile, or they can blanket the Internet with end-to-end solutions.
Since the agency has a couple of key partnerships in place, it offers advertising options at a much lower rate than companies might find if they were to make deals on their own, according to founder Jamison Geisler.
He started the company in 2009, after working in digital marketing and web development since 2001, and noticing that the majority of companies lacked good customer service. "I felt that so many of these companies really just didn't care about their clients or their business," he says. "It was merely a paycheck. Something needed to change." He decided to strike out on his own as a way to provide stellar customer service while developing customized digital advertising campaigns.

The company currently has six employees, but increasing client numbers will likely result in hiring in the year ahead, Geisler says.
He chose the name 90 Degree Media because it implied a sharp increase in profits, the image of a graph line that takes a sudden turn upwards. He says, "Although it's nice to think of that image in terms of our company, we really look at it as that kind of movement in profits for our clients and partners."
Source: Jamison Geisler, 90 Degree Media
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Ad agency Periscope boosts growth through hiring

Creative agency Periscope continues to keep its Human Resources department busy.
Following a steady hiring rate in 2011, the agency kept growth strong this year, adding 123 employees as of the beginning of October. That brings the company's total employee count to 475, with the majority of those staffers in the Minneapolis offices.
Lori Sharbono, Periscope's VP and Director of Business Development, notes that hiring is a result of robust business development efforts, which added some new clients and expanded some services as well. Loyalty marketing services, retail branding, and increased analytics capabilities have all been put into the agency's existing services mix of content creation, brand development, website creation, media buying, and other capabilities.
"It sounds simple and basic but what works for us is to focus on client success," says Sharbono. "We grow our capabilities based on what they need, and we try to stay a step ahead of that. In order to achieve that level of innovation, we focus on bringing in subject matter experts who can provide insight."
In addition to its Minneapolis office, Periscope also operates smaller offices in Hong Kong, New Delhi, and Toronto. Most of the new hires this year will be in the local office. Although the growth rate might make it more challenging to keep finding enough office space, it also creates a vibrant culture, Sharbono believes. "We have a very unique culture here, and that's what draws people," she says. "We have commitment to our clients, but we're also committed to creating a fun, lively culture for employees."
Source: Lori Sharbono, Periscope
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

StoneArch unveils mobile platform for medical device industry

Minneapolis health and medical marketing agency StoneArch unveiled an iPad-based mobile selling platform designed for medical device manufacturers and their sales forces.
The platform, dubbed VOLLEY, was developed in response to an observed need, according to company president Jessica Boden.
"Most of our clients are medical device manufacturers, and they depend on their direct sales forces to sell their products," she says. "When the iPad launched, the medical device industry was an early adopter, but because they lacked a strong platform for the industry specifically, the devices became more like toys than tools."
StoneArch brought together a cross-functional team to address the issue, and ended up with its first proprietary application, which launched on Oct. 16th.
VOLLEY allows for customized content across diverse target audiences, and features a sales rep coaching tool that can help reps deal with challenging customer situations. Use of the application also comes with StoneArch support, including training and deployment, and the agency offers rental iPads for small and mid-sized companies.
Boden says that VOLLEY is already being well received in the industry, and the agency is planning its next iteration after getting feedback from users. The project hasn't just filled a need in the marketplace, either--it's also created some new bounce at StoneArch.
"It's been really fun to develop this; the organization has gotten energy out of making it happen," Boden says. "It gives us fuel for thinking about other ways we can use innovation to help our clients accomplish more."
Source: Jessica Boden, StoneArch
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Skyline Exhibits brings innovation to tradeshow industry

 Most conferences feature a tradeshow floor, and exhibitors often compete to have the most innovative, eye-catching booth. That's where Skyline Exhibits shines.

The Eagan-based company designs and produces portable and custom modular exhibits for the tradeshow industry, and their work is seen both at conferences and at museums, mall kiosks, and public events. Skyline's designs combine soaring, two-story graphics with interactive displays, or more compact screens that are lightweight and portable. If you've been to a tradeshow lately and been wowed by the sheer creative force of an exhibit, chances are good that Skyline designed it.
The company employs more than 250 people and is hiring at a steady pace. Customers report that with Skyline's help, they're selling more at trade shows and are distinguishing their services more easily from competitors. In addition to a 270,000-square-foot facility in Eagan, the company has a location in Shanghai, as well as in the four largest venue cities in North America--Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, and Toronto.
But not long ago, Skyline faced some challenges as the economy struggled. Company president Bill Dierberger notes, "After watching the industry suffer the economic consequences of 9/11 and the dot-com bubble burst, we recommitted the company to innovation and re-energized around it."
The firm developed a product commercialization process that spurred growth, and these days, new product sales are increasing 10 percent faster than legacy product. Dierberger credits "sustained innovation" as the secret sauce that's keeping Skyline adding jobs and boosting sales. "We provide unique solutions to the trade show industry," he says. "That helps our clients achieve their objectives."
Source: Bill Dierberger, Skyline Exhibits
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Real estate startup BuyerCurious gets funding boost, looks toward growth

Minneapolis-based startup BuyerCurious has certainly piqued the curiosity of investors: the company recently announced completion of the final phase of its $1.75 million first round Series A funding, led by private angel investors.
The funding should help the firm take advantage of the online real estate transaction platform it's developed, notes co-founder Jim Lesinski. Launched late last year, the service allows homebuyers and sellers to connect and to negotiate with one another--reducing the control of intermediaries like realtors, appraisers, and bankers.
Before the launch, BuyerCurious had to iron out numerous kinks related to real estate regulation, Lesinski says. That proved challenging, since the company was determined to build an offering that could be used in any part of the country.
"From the start, we wanted a very robust platform," says Lesinski. "We've looked toward national expansion before it even rolled out." The new wave of funding should assist in that effort, he adds, and allow the company to pursue a major marketing strategy for the year ahead.
The company had previously secured about $1.4 million from Gopher Angels and other investors, and also became higher profile when it reached the semi-finals round of the Minnesota Cup.
Lesinski looks forward to getting some strong traction for BuyerCurious in the near future, thanks to more financial resources and a platform that's been earning adoptions. "This represents a transformation of the buyer/seller mindset," he says. "We're excited to be offering this first step in creating an electronic marketplace for real estate."
Source: Jim Lesinski, BuyerCurious
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Finalists announced for Tekne Awards

Highlighting technology leaders in the state, the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA) announced finalists for the 2012 Tekne Awards.
The award program, now in its 13th year, recognizes innovations from 2011 that impacted the lives of Minnesotans, through lifestyle improvement or education. Forty-four finalists were named in fifteen categories.
The MHTA noted that the state remains at the forefront of cutting-edge technological growth, and the finalists show that the state's technology future is bright indeed, in areas that range from cleantech to robotics to mobile technologies.
In the startup category, finalists are Sophia Learning and Sparkweave, while those competing in the software category are Code 42 Software, Savigent Software and Third Wave Systems.
Finalists in other categories represent a range of companies, from large firms like 3M and Seagate Technology to smaller businesses like SheerWind, Digineer, and Agosto.
The awards are designed to showcase these types of companies, and draw attention to the innovative and competitive companies in the state, according to MHTA president Margaret Anderson Kelliher. They're part of the organization's larger mission to boost education and entrepreneurship along with technology development.
"We're very excited about the opportunities available to technology companies here," says Kelliher. "In general, we believe that individuals and companies in the state have more potential than they do challenges. We're proud and happy to support them in any way we can."
The Tekne Awards will be presented on November 1st at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Source: Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minnesota High Tech Association
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Mayo Clinic develops app for dealing with anxiety

Apps can help track stocks, monitor the weather, arrange a yoga sequence, organize business contacts, and just about any other task you might imagine. But the Mayo Clinic has unveiled an app that does more than provide time management: it helps users deal with anxiety issues.
Called Anxiety Coach, the app is available on iTunes for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touch devices, and is aimed at reducing worry for its users. Through a series of exercises, users can track their anxiety levels and determine their own progress in handling fears and agitation. Even if someone has a lower-level anxiety, such as fear of public speaking, the app can be helpful in minimizing the impact of those reactions.
The Mayo Clinic emphasizes that the app isn't meant to substitute for mental health services, but simply serves as a way to reduce anxiety between health care visits, or to address fears in general.
Developed by two clinical psychologists--Dr. Stephen Whiteside at the Mayo Clinic and Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz at the University of North Carolina--the app relies on cognitive behavioral therapy, which assists people in overcoming anxiety by gradual degrees.
In addition to a short test to measure severity of worries and fears, the app contains more than 500 activities related to specific fears, obsessions, panic attacks, social anxiety, compulsion, and trauma-related anxiety.
Dr. Whiteside notes that the app challenges people to face their fears, as opposed to other apps that tend to focus on relaxation strategies. Those types of apps "don't get the core of what is helpful in the long term," he says.
Source: Stephen Whiteside, Mayo Clinic
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

University of Minnesota spearheads project for more sustainable lawns

Advocates of sustainability have often demonized lawn care for squandering water, adding fertilizers and herbicides to the environment, and increasing our carbon footprint through gas-powered mowing. But a new research project from the University of Minnesota could make both environmentalists and homeowners happier in the future.
Funded by a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 5-year project is part of a national research effort aimed at improving specialty crops. Researchers will be investigating ways to develop turf grasses that require less water and mowing, and that stay green without extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers.
The reduction in water usage will be especially important, since this season's lengthy drought isn't seen as a fluke by many climate experts, but as an indication of dry seasons ahead. With a more drought-resistant turf grass, public spaces and lawns could remain healthy even with significantly reduced rainfall.
The project's lead investigator, U. of M. Associate Professor of Horticultural Science Eric Watkins, says: "This project will lead to the development of new varieties of these grasses that are well-adapted to adverse conditions and more available to consumers."
As part of the research, Watkins and his team will work with scientists from Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They'll evaluate homeowner buying patterns and breed new varieties of grasses called "fine fescue" that are better at withstanding heat and disease.
As the project evolves, it's likely that a greener and more eco-friendly lawn may be coming soon to a neighborhood or park near you.
Source: Eric Watkins, University of Minnesota
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Polaris looks toward major expansion and job growth

Just in time for the upcoming snowmobile season, Medina-based Polaris Industries recently broke ground on a major expansion of its research and development facilities in Wyoming, Minn.
Doubling the size of its existing facility, the company is creating capacity for about 350 additional jobs, and it's likely to keep up a strong pace of hiring.
"The company has had record financial performance for a reason," says Jim Williams, VP of Human Resources. "We have profit sharing at every level, a robust bonus plan, and a super high-energy, positive culture."
The sense of collaboration at Polaris draws many candidates, Williams says, and the number of resumes zipping through the HR department can be formidable. Part of the allure is the company's generous policy on borrowing products like all-terrain vehicles, as well as receiving vehicles, accessories, and garments as rewards for good performance.
"There's a huge incentive to work here," says Williams. "We have a team made up of power sports enthusiasts, and the culture creates a tremendous amount of pride in the company."
That level of loyalty and commitment is driving growth for Polaris, he adds. The company recently announced that its one millionth product rolled off its assembly line in Spirit Lake, Iowa.
The new facility in Wyoming should allow the company to stay on its strong growth track and expand product development as well. It shouldn't be too long before Polaris is roaring toward that two millionth product mark.
Source: Jim Williams, Polaris
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Book publisher Hillcrest Media launches CoffeeandBooks.com

Although coffee shops have always attracted book lovers, one local publisher is using technology to make that relationship even more rewarding.
Minneapolis-based Hillcrest Media Group recently launched CoffeeandBooks.com, an online venture that pairs coffee house partners with publishers, with plenty of incentives thrown in for reading groups and bibliophiles.
Hillcrest CEO Mark Levine actually bought the domain name four years ago, but let it idle while he built the company into a leading local publisher, growing the company through other business divisions like Mill City Press, BPR Book Group, and Publish Green. Then, a chance connection with the head of Dunn Bros. put the site on a fast track.
"Once we had that anchor partner, the site became a priority," says Levine. "Dunn Bros. is very entrepreneurial, as are we, so it was a great partnership." The publishing firm tested the model about two months ago by putting together events for authors like Don Shelby and promoting them on CoffeeandBooks.com. When huge crowds showed up, they knew they'd found a powerful combination.
"The success we found with those early tests is very encouraging, and we're ready to go to the next phase," Levine says. That will involve putting a point-of-sale stand in participating coffee shops, with a selection of eight books, including both fiction and non-fiction. Although titles and publishers have yet to be fully finalized, Levine notes that some of the books will come from local favorites like Milkweed Press and the University of Minnesota.
He says, "So many publishers are dying to find non-retail places to sell books, and this is a fresh concept, so we expect to see a great deal of interest." Readers will also benefit from incentives like discounts on food and drinks, and a gift card for each book purchased. 
Source: Mark Levine, Hillcrest Media Group
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Healthcare IT firm ABILITY Network looks toward growth

Healthcare administration can be notoriously complicated, but Minneapolis-based ABILITY Network is determined to untangle the process.
The company, originally called Visionshare, initially provided only network connectivity for Medicare providers. But in the last few years, a major rebranding initiative brought in a larger management team, strategic investors, and a significantly revamped lineup of products and services.
ABILITY now provides workflow management services, cash flow tools, payer eligibility verification, and a secure claims submission solution, among other products.
"We're a company that just used to handle bits and bytes, and through that process, we earned the trust of providers across the country," says Mark Briggs, CEO of ABILITY. "Now, they've turned to us to deliver solutions that lead to better patient care."
Since its rebranding, the company has found itself on a robust growth track, both in hiring and sales. With 150 employees, ABILITY is likely to keep expanding, and recently opened an office in Tampa, with plans to open another in Boston. The new offices are part of a strategic hiring push, since software engineers can be difficult to find in the "silicon prairie" of the Twin Cities.
Providers who need software and services that give them more control over areas like revenue management and medical coding are driving the company's continued growth, Briggs notes. 
"We're helping providers do a better job by uniting all the pieces of a patient's chart, and letting them streamline clinical information," he says. "What we provide is an ability to put relevant content to work. We really think there couldn't be a better time in our country's healthcare system for tools like these. Definitely, there's a need."
Source: Mark Briggs, ABILITY Network
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Advance IT Minnesota unveils new award for young women in technology

Technology group Advance IT Minnesota unveiled a new award that could give some high school girls a major boost in their technology careers.
The first annual Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing Award will be open to girls in grades 9 through 12, and is tied to a national competition from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).
Advance IT decided to take on the award because of the shortage of skilled technical workers graduating from college, according to Ann Thureen, a vice president at Unisys Corporation.
She says, "Encouraging students at the high school level to see the possibilities of the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] field is a great way to get them into the right college tracks to sustain and grow our IT industry in Minnesota. We see more young women going to college than young men. We need to tap into this valuable talent pool and expose them to the opportunities for great paying jobs in IT."
Advance IT is administered through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, and serves as a connection point among employers, educators, and IT professionals. The group's mission is to position Minnesota as one of the top states in the country for IT-related employment.  The award will help to bring the organization closer to that goal, says Russell Fraenkel, Advance IT Minnesota's Director of Collaborative Programs and Outreach.
"The Aspirations Award provides an encouraging environment for young women to gain greater awareness of technology career options and sets the stage for them to become more deeply engaged in determining their education and career path," he says.
For high school girls who are ready to compete for the award, act fast: the deadline for entries is Nov. 16th, but entries that come in before Oct. 31 will be eligible for the national award as well.
Sources: Russell Fraenkel, Advance IT; Ann Thureen, Unisys Corporation
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

October events: Cyber Security Summit, Venture and Finance Conference, She's Geeky, Yancey Strickler

Cyber Security Summit
October 9 & 10
Minneapolis Convention Center
Fees range from $319 to $779, depending on registration type
Focused on how we look at digital space and security, this event brings together leaders from government, business, and nonprofit organizations to talk about digital infrastructure security issues. Now in its second year, the summit features talks about topics like cyber threat identification, privacy, and cloud computing, and boasts speakers from Medtronic, the FBI, Best Buy, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Minnesota Venture and Finance Conference
October 11
Minneapolis Convention Center
7:00am - 5:00pm
Fees range from $295 to $645, depending on registration type
Hosted by The Collaborative and the Minnesota Venture Capital Association, this one-day conference focuses on the future of innovation in a number of fields, including cloud computing, cleantech, healthcare, and mobile devices. Attendees can choose from a wealth of workshops, many of which are geared toward entrepreneurs who are trying to position a company for financing.
She's Geeky
October 19 & 20
Science Museum of Minnesota
120 W. Kellogg Blvd.
Now in its third year, She's Geeky is a conference designed to connect women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The event is an "unconference," which means that instead of a pre-planned agenda, topics and discussions are generated by attendees. Organizers note that women attending the events (which are held in multiple cities) find inspiration and gain self-confidence because they build peer networks for support and discuss critical issues.
Yancey Strickler talk
October 25
Walker Art Center
7:00pm - 9:00pm
Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler will speak about the website's inspiration and evolution, and its increasing impact on artists and creative entrepreneurs. In addition to talking about how Kickstarter's success could affect the wider world of arts funding, Strickler will also speculates about what the future might hold for the technology platform itself.

Drive Power's unique driving app is gaining traction

The campaign to end texting while driving is heating up, especially with the recent announcement by AT&T that it was joining up with the Department of Transportation and the FCC to establish a national movement to halt the practice.
Although individuals can "take the pledge" to stop texting and driving, they can also thwart temptation with DriveScribe, a mobile application that acts as a real-time driving monitor and "coach" that gives tips on better driving. Parents can also use the app to get alerts whenever a teen texts while on the road.
Created by Minneapolis-based tech firm Drive Power, the app launched in August and is seeing a great deal of momentum already, including a pilot project in Saudi Arabia and a partnership with GMAC insurance.
CEO Will England notes that the quick adoption rate is being fueled by a free version of the app, as well as an expanded incentives program and an aggressive awareness campaign. He says, "We're continuing to gain traction in the individual-user market, even hearing from parents that many are requiring their teens to use DriveScribe when they drive."
Another growth driver: corporate partnerships, like the ones with GMAC and the Saudis. The project in Saudi Arabia involved having employees of Saudi Aramco, one of the largest oil companies in the world, use DriveScribe. With a large fleet of vehicles, the company believes that DriveScribe can reduce liabilities and minimize accidents.
"We're actively working with corporate partners to promote safe driving among large groups of drivers," England says. With such high-profile projects leading the app's kickoff, look for DriveScribe to come to a vehicle near you in the not-too-distant future.
Source: Will England, CEO
Writer: Elizabeth Millard
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