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Mobile tech company ThisClicks hits its stride with new funding

Saint Paul-based ThisClicks, a mobile technology company in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood that specializes in “workforce solutions” apps, recently received $4 million in new funding from three venture capital firms. In its sixth year of operations, ThisClicks is hitting its stride.

Founder and CEO Chad Halvorson aims to boost the company’s sales force and press ahead with the rollout of its time-clock app, WageBase. He’s also planning to move to a larger office in Saint Paul, and double the company’s employee headcount from 15 to 30 by December.

WageBase is ThisClicks’s second product. WageBase is a startlingly simple concept: a remote time-clock app that lets hourly employees clock into and out of work from anywhere. (A GPS tracker ensures that they’re doing so from the workplace, not bed.) The app is especially useful for big diffuse workplaces, such as construction sites.

The building blocks of Halvorson’s company have been in place for a decade and a half. As a part-time grocery jockey in the late 1990s, Halvorson grew sick of making extra trips to the store to check his weekly schedule. He dreamed up an online employee-scheduling program—WhenIWork—that would eliminate this problem. He shopped a prototype version of the app with a contact at the Mall of America, but it didn’t pan out.

“There were just too many barriers,” he says. “Many people still lacked high-speed Internet and the mobile space didn’t really exist yet.”

Halvorson bided his time with other projects. He founded a Web consulting firm in college. In 2005 he partnered with a video design company to found Meditech, a “full-service development and marketing agency for the medical device industry.” Meditech eventually acquired Boston Scientific, St. Jude’s, and Medtronic as clients.

In 2008, with the mobile revolution in full swing, Halvorson gave his teenage dream another shot. He built a new version of WhenIWork—he’d registered its Internet domain back in 1998—and used his own funds to build an organic business-development campaign driven largely by content marketing and word of mouth. He describes this approach as “consumerized B2B marketing.”

“We don’t want to market directly to the guy in the suit,” says Halvorson. Instead, ThisClicks focuses on scheduling managers and supervisors at small- to medium-size companies, counting on WhenIWork’s obvious benefits to impress upper management and engender long-term contracts.

In fact, WhenIWork has taken off—the app now counts recognizable businesses like 1-800-GOT-JUNK? as clients—without a traditional sales force or seed funding. Halvorson hired his first business development staffers in late 2013, and the recent capital infusion represents ThisClicks’s first debt tranche.

This was deliberate. “Before we could consider raising money, we needed to figure out how to make money,” says Halvorson. “When you raise money first, it’s easier to learn how to spend money.” To ensure that his company would survive if it couldn’t find decent financing terms, he vowed not to raise outside funds until ThisClicks was taking in at least $1 million in annual revenues.

It helps that, unlike many tech entrepreneurs, the Minnesota-raised Halvorson took a low-key approach to success. “We weren’t interested in breakneck growth” to start, he says. Figuring out how to appeal to hourly workers and schedulers was far more important.

What’s the endgame for ThisClicks? On this point, Halvorson sounds a lot more ambitious. “We want our apps to be the most important tools in employees’ and managers’ pockets,” he says. “We’re focused on being the premier provider of cloud-based workforce solutions.”

 

Art Leadership Program a win-win-win

Corporate sponsors have long played an integral role in the development and dissemination of art and culture. OST USA, an IT company with a 125-employee office in the North Loop's TractorWorks Building, is further advancing corporate sponsorship.

As the highest-profile partner of the Art Leadership Program (ALP), an ongoing collaboration that provides emerging artists with resources, guidance, and access to markets, OST supplies studio space (ArtLab 111) near the building’s loading dock for the dozen or so artists-in-residence it has already sponsored (usually for three to six months), and a lobby gallery (Gallery One) that regularly hosts exhibitions and openings for ALP’s participants.

“OST is the quintessential corporate partner,” says Ron Ridgeway, ALP’s founder and chief visionary, who launched the partnership. Ridgeway is also a mixed-media artist and corporate branding consultant. “We maintain a meaningful venue [for our artists], as well as curatorial services and placement… as exhibitions are becoming an art form in themselves. These days, it’s all about the experience.”

One ALP alumni launched from the program into high-profile commissions. In early 2012, local artist Elizabeth Simonson displayed her “systems-based” installations at BMW of Minnetonka’s Gallery One—an off-site ALP exhibition space. That same year, she built on a commission for the Walker Art Center’s lobby with a $25,000 fellowship grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Simonson “set the benchmark for our program,” says Ridgeway, but there’s nothing stopping future ALP participants and residents from notching their own victories. Ridgeway describes ALP’s corporate sponsorship model as a classic win-win-win: Artists get funding and market exposure, corporations get the positive PR that accompanies art patronage, and business districts or neighborhoods gain valuable physical assets.

“What’s been most beneficial [about working with ALP] is just getting our work out there,” says Twin Cities artist Booka B (aka Adam Booker), a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University who is showing new work with Lindsay Splichal, a recent graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, beginning March 6 in Gallery One. But creating art is just one piece of the puzzle, he adds: “You also have to connect with the community.”

Traditionally, companies that invested in art curated permanent collections that would eventually “gather dust,” as Ridgeway puts it. The rotating installations or exhibitions put on by ALP’s visiting or resident artists, in contrast, feel like organic additions to offices, building lobbies, and other public spaces, he adds.

ALP has also hosted an exhibition at International Market Square and is currently working with potential tenants of Nicollet Avenue’s 9’s on the Mall. “We hope to build a sustainable model for this type of partnership,” Ridgeway says.

Sources: Ron Ridgeway, Art Leadership Program; Adam Booker
Writer: Brian Martucci

WholeMe launches line of healthy products

For most people, a diabetes diagnosis is a wake-up call. For WholeMe co-founders Mary Kosir and Krista Steinbach, it was a business opportunity.

In the mid-2000s, Kosir’s husband developed adult-onset Type I diabetes—an unusual, but not totally unheard of, condition that progresses differently than the age-related insulin resistance we know as Type II diabetes.

The news forced the family to eliminate gluten, grains, and most dairy products from its diet. Kosir embraced the new restrictions, sharing experimental cereal and bar recipes with friends, neighbors, and associates at her local CrossFit gym.

That’s where she met Steinbach, the former pastry chef at Minneapolis’ Bachelor Farmer. Steinbach was coming off a lifestyle change of her own: In 2011, she’d competed in (and won) a 30-day “food challenge” that required contestants to eliminate refined sugar, gluten, grains, and certain other substances from their diets. By the contest’s end date, her chronic gastrointestinal issues had vanished and her energy levels were higher than they’d been in years.

“The challenge taught me how much food impacted my daily life,” she says, “and pushed me to learn more about nutrition.”

The two women had a lot in common, so they officially joined forces in early 2013. Kosir’s first creation, the energy-dense DateMe bar, was already making waves—“Everyone was telling me to start selling them,” she says—but Steinbach brought years of culinary expertise to the table. In addition to the DateMe bar, the duo created the WakeMe cocoa bar and EatMe cereal.

And so WholeMe was born. Thanks to their CrossFit connections, the co-founders had a ready-made market of active, health-conscious clients. Kosir and Steinbach also have stocking arrangements with gyms across the metro area, and they’re looking to find other places, like yoga studios and food co-ops, that attract a similar clientele. “We want to be closer to our customers,” says Steinbach, not tucked away on a shelf at a big-box store.

WholeMe’s bars and cereals are made from whole foods that haven’t been treated or altered in any way. “Our goal is to create relatively simple products where taste comes first,” says Kosir. “At the same time, we need to be mindful of what we’re putting in our bodies.” She’s quick to note, wryly, that WholeMe’s only preservative “is a refrigerator.”

Kosir and Steinbach think they’ve found a sweet spot for their products. “There’s lots of room to grow in this segment,” says Kosir. Many “healthy” foods don’t taste very good, she argues, and most tasty foods aren’t that healthy.

The two women hope WholeMe’s simple promise—healthy, delicious food for all—resonates beyond Minnesota’s borders. Less than a year after their official launch, they’ve already shipped to gyms and stores in North Carolina, California, and Hawaii. Their burgeoning e-store puts the rest of the world at their fingertips. In March, they hope to make some new friends at the Natural Foods Expo West in Anaheim, California.

It doesn’t hurt that they have a cheeky, catchy brand campaign and an experienced chef. They plan to expand their “gear concept” with more merchandise options, like T-shirts and hats, says Kosir. They expect WholeMe’s “beta testing” arm, branded NewMe, to produce seasonal or limited-release products exclusively for online sale. If a NewMe creation is well received, says Steinbach, it could become a permanent addition to the lineup.

Ultimately, Kosir and Steinbach would like to see WakeMe, DateMe, and EatMe—and whatever else they dream up—in the likes of Whole Foods, Lund’s, and Byerly’s.

Their ambition doesn’t come cheap. To cover their travel expenses and fund WholeMe’s ongoing expansion, they’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign that aims to raise $40,000 by February 24. To encourage participation, Kosir and Steinbach plan to give donors dibs on the first-ever NewMe creation.

Source: Mary Kosir
Writer: Brian Martucci

Punch Pizza gets SOTU shout out for raising "wage floor"

“And Nick helps make the dough…only now he makes a lot more of it.”

With those words, spoken by President Barack Obama during last week’s State of the Union (SOTU) address, Nick Chute became the Twin Cities’ most famous pizza maker. Moreover, Chute enjoyed those moments of fame while seated with Punch Pizza co-owner John Sorrano behind the First Lady during the joint session of Congress.

Why did President Obama showcase Chute, and his bosses Sorrano and John Puckett, during the State of the Union? Because in a notoriously low-margin industry, Punch’s owners have taken a bold risk, raising the company’s “wage floor” to $10 per hour.

The President devoted several minutes of last week’s address to “honoring the dignity of work,” as he put it, noting that the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is about 20 percent lower than the wage floor during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

In a recent press release, Punch’s owners characterized their decision to raise workers’ wages as a simple business calculation. “As we continue to grow Punch,” Sorrano stated in the release, “we recognize that only the most dedicated employees will position us to compete and maintain the highest quality food and the best service in the market.”

Puckett also underscores the importance of investing in the things that matter most to a business, regardless of how those investments might affect margins in the short-term. Punch has been around for 18 years, he notes, “and we aim to get 10 percent better each year. We’ve invested in real prosciutto, authentic marble for our customer areas…and now we’re investing in our people.”

Previously, the company started most entry-level employees at $8 per hour, so a bump to $10 represents a 25 percent hike across the board. Puckett isn’t sure how long it will take for this “investment” to pay off, but he does know how much it’ll cost: $3 million over the next decade, assuming Punch stays at its current size—which it won’t.

Although there aren’t any plans to franchise the business or mount an aggressive expansion, Punch’s co-owners plan to open one new store per year for the foreseeable future. With nearly 300 current employees across eight stores, that translates to roughly 30 new hires per year.

As a private company, Punch isn’t required to make detailed financial disclosures, but the wage raise “will result in a significant hit to our profit in the short to medium term,” says Puckett. “Ultimately, we’d rather be higher-quality and less profitable than lower-quality and more profitable.”

By making work worthwhile for entry-level employees, Punch’s co-owners hope to make their managers’ jobs easier. Well-compensated cooks and servers are more likely to prioritize work over other obligations, the thinking goes, increasing the chances that bosses can put schedules together without too much arm-twisting.  

And employees who earn a living wage tend to stick around for longer, learning valuable skills that improve the customer experience and create a deeper talent pool from which to draw management candidates. Over time, the whole enterprise runs more smoothly and boosts its reputation among diners, who may even feel comfortable paying a little more for Punch’s irresistible Neapolitan pies.

It’s too early to tell whether other business leaders in traditionally low-wage sectors will follow Punch’s example. While political handicappers are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a federal minimum wage hike—Obama’s goal is $10.10 per hour—not every SOTU attendee was as thrilled as Chute. Any legislation would have to make it past Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has always been cool to the idea.

Sources: Punch Pizza release, John Puckett
Writer: Brian Martucci

Truhealth MD: a delicious "therapeutic intervention"

Patients at risk for heart disease know they need to eat better, but cooking nutritious meals is time-consuming. Also, truly beneficial foods often don’t taste very good unless they’re well prepared. According to Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, a practicing cardiologist, her new company Truhealth MD aims to solve both issues.

Truhealth MD is a Minneapolis company whose four employees manufacture and market its line of health food products. The company’s offerings include heart-healthy pancakes, oatmeal, bars, smoothie mixes, and “anytime sprinkles”—fiber-rich flakes that mix well with yogurt, fruit, and granola.

“[In large part], heart disease is a nutrition-related problem,” says Dr. Klodas. After 18 years as a cardiologist, she’s identified four common nutrients that at-risk patients often lack: antioxidants, omega-3 acids, fiber and phytosterols, a broad class of steroid that may lower “bad” cholesterol.

The trick, she says, is “supplying clinically meaningful amounts of these nutrients in a delicious package…and turn every meal into a therapeutic intervention.” While other “healthy” foods, like FiberOne cereal and Clif bars, may contain sufficient doses of fiber and omega-3 acids, few contain significant quantities of phytosterols. This is largely an issue of ingredient cost, says Klodas, and it’s a major point of distinction for her products.

Meanwhile, the taste issue basically solves itself. “We tend to forget that real, wholesome, nutritious foods actually taste good,” says Dr. Klodas. 

Many of the company’s customers report impressive reductions in their LDL and triglyceride readings within weeks of beginning a twice-a-day regimen.

Robert Kirscht, a Twin Cities-based sales director in his late 40s, is a typical case. Kirscht’s job duties—“I’m traveling and entertaining clients about half the time,” he says—make it difficult to eat right or exercise regularly. A family history of heart disease doesn’t help either. Last spring, his longtime physician confronted him with an especially bleak blood-work report and issued an ultimatum: Take a cholesterol-lowering statin drug or else.

“I wasn’t comfortable with that choice,” says Kirscht. “So I asked for 30 days.” He started using Truhealth’s products—“I usually sprinkle the ‘anytime flakes’ on my granola [in the morning] and have a cranberry or chocolate bar in the afternoon,” he says—and began to feel better almost immediately.

When he returned the next month for a round of follow-up tests, Kirscht’s doctor was thoroughly impressed. Among the highlights: his triglyceride reading dropped from 150 to 99, his LDL dropped from 155 to 118, and his HDL rose from 45 to 53. The only drawback, he says, is that he has to hide his “delicious” stash from his two teenage daughters.

Truhealth MD’s products aren’t endorsed by the FDA, and Dr. Klodas stresses that they’re just one component of a healthy lifestyle—albeit a powerful one.

Patients who truly commit to cooking heart-healthy meals, exercising regularly, and making other smart choices, says Dr. Klodas, may see even better results than Truhealth’s meal-replacement regimen can promise. “But those people are rare,” she adds. “[Our products] make dietary advice actionable…and help our customers think about what other lifestyle decisions they might be making.”

What types of decisions? Consider a hypothetical customer who, every day for a solid year, replaces a plain bagel and Snickers bar with single servings of Truhealth pancakes and chocolate bars. To absorb comparable amounts of phytosterols and antioxidants, said customer would need to consume a ton of broccoli and 150 pounds of kale over the same period. For many, that’s not an appetizing prospect.

After all, says Dr. Klodas, “Who wants to eat 150 pounds of kale?”

Source: Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, Truhealth MD
Writer: Brian Martucci

SimpleRay Solar maximizes sunny business potential

For Geoff Stenrick, owner and president of the Saint Paul-based SimpleRay Solar, sunshine is much more than a mood-lifting respite from winter’s bitter chill. It’s a way of life.

In 2006, Stenrick quit his job as a Saturn salesman and channeled his longtime fascination with renewable energy into a nascent solar panel business called SimpleRay Solar. He enrolled in a comprehensive training course in solar technology, installation techniques, and parts engineering, then signed on with three U.S. distributors and began selling their equipment through his website.

His timing couldn’t have been better. While SimpleRay’s early customers were often hard-core environmentalists committed to green living, the launch of California’s rebate program, in 2007, drew building contractors onto the site. Similar incentives followed shortly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other East Coast states. Still, Stenrick’s gig remained low-key through the late 2000s: After his daughter’s birth, in 2009, “I would have to send emails and work on the website while she napped,” he says.

Because of generous rebate programs, falling manufacturing costs, and end-users’ increasing demand for panels and accessories, things are much busier now. In 2011, Stenrick hired his first employee, a car-industry colleague. His company’s 2012 revenues were sufficient to earn a spot on the “Inc. 500” list for 2013. Last year, after several additional hires—SimpleRay now has seven employees—he moved into a permanent office on Raymond Avenue, in the Creative Enterprise Zone on the Central Corridor’s Green Line.

Stenrick’s team doesn’t just sell solar panels out of this new space: As part of a transaction, SimpleRay’s in-house engineering and design professionals often help clients plan and optimize their arrays.

The most exciting development, though, may be Minnesota’s recently passed “Omnibus Energy Bill,” an aggressive renewable-energy law that requires “all utilities in the state [to] procure 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar generation by 2020,” according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. By the end of the decade, predicts Stenrick, this requirement could boost in-state solar panel sales by a factor of 40.

Already, the law has dramatically increased the likelihood that the Aurora Solar Project, a planned cluster of about two dozen solar arrays in the state’s eastern half, will be built. SimpleRay doesn’t typically sell to utilities—it prefers small and medium-sized commercial and residential contractors, although it will soon contribute to a one-megawatt array in the area—but the increased demand that accompanies large-scale utility projects is sure to reduce panel costs and render the technology competitive with fossil fuels.

“A solar system works like a furnace,” says Stenrick. “You don’t need to replace it every five years. Instead, you’re basically prepaying for your power over the 20-plus-year lifespan of your system.” Thanks to industry-standard warranties that guarantee efficiencies of at least 80 percent over a 25-year span, this leads to dramatic long-term savings.

Even in Minnesota, with its short winter days and frequent cloud cover?

Yes, says Stenrick, noting that Minnesota gets more sun than many solar-friendly East Coast states—and far more than Germany, the world’s reigning solar energy leader. “On average, Germany gets about as much sunlight as Seattle,” he says, “and look at what they’re doing over there.”

Stenrick doesn’t minimize the obvious environmental benefits of solar power—“It’s better than blowing up a mountaintop for coal,” he half-jokes—but he’s more interested in touting the cost side of the equation. In California, solar power is already cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and the Omnibus Energy Bill suggests that Minnesota isn’t far behind. Eventually, Stenrick believes, the tax credits and rebates that currently support the U.S. solar industry will be obsolete.

“The whole idea of where you get your power from [will] totally change by 2030,” says Stenrick. “We hope to ride that wave.”

Source: Geoff Stenrick, SimpleRay Solar
Writer: Brian Martucci

CoCo starts new school for "inspired and dangerous"

For some time now, CoCo has set the standard for creative and professional collaboration in the Twin Cities. The coworking space recently opened its third location, in Uptown, and now boasts well over 100 startups, creative firms, designers, and developers in its membership rolls.

Two of CoCo’s founders, Kyle Coolbroth and Don Ball, have launched a brand-new project, Jump! A School by CoCo. The school aims to actively develop participants' creative ambitions rather than passively providing a place for them to play out.

“Since starting CoCo four years ago…we've seen many [business owners] succeed. We've also seen many fail,” says Ball. “It's really sad to see the pain that someone goes through when they can't make their dream a reality.”

Part motivational seminar, part team-building exercise, and part business incubator, Jump! aims to give entrepreneurs a head start and reduce the likelihood of “preventable failure.” Ultimately, says Ball, the school can fill a gaping need in the region’s creative economy.

“I'm not sure what else is like Jump! school,” says Ball, although he identifies the School of Life in London and Chris Gillebeau’s World Domination Summit as kindred spirits. “[Currently], entrepreneur education focuses on skills—how to program, design, manage a business, pitch to investors, and so on. All of that is important, depending on what you're up to. But are you up to the right thing? We didn't see anyone helping people figure out that fundamental question.”

Jump!’s mission—to give anyone wanting to launch a radical career shift, charity, business, or other special project the self-confidence, motivation, and practical tools necessary to take the plunge into the startup world—is embodied in three course offerings. The first, Springboard, is a 90-minute crash course in Jump!’s philosophy and approach. The $50 class, which will happen at least once per month through June, promises to “leave [attendees] inspired and dangerous.”

Intrigued Springboard attendees—or truly motivated folks who want to dive right into an intensive curriculum—can sign up for FlightPlan, a two-day, $500 marathon that encourages attendees to strip away external expectations, outgrow learned responses to stress, and discover “what truly activates [their] passion and imagination.”

Graduates of FlightPlan may move on to Solo Club, a practical, immersive experience that runs for 90 days and results in the creation of a formal business plan or creative project. More detail about this offering will emerge as Jump!’s student body grows.

Where does this all lead? Ball and Coolbroth haven’t even taught a class yet—the first Springboard meeting is scheduled for January 20—but the future looks bright. The Twin Cities area has no shortage of creative talent, and Jump! has no direct competitors. Should the school pan out, there’s also nothing stopping Jump! from exporting its model to other creative regions.

“We want to help people zero in on what is truly motivating because it comes from deep inside,” says Ball. “If you build your life's work on that foundation, then you're much more likely to be successful in that work. And everybody from customers to partners to investors [gravitate] to people who are coming from a place of power and authenticity.”

Source: Don Ball, co-founder, Jump! A School by CoCo
Writer: Brian Martucci

Hackmobile snags top prize from Ford

Last month, a team from Twin Cities Maker, a nonprofit organization that runs a community workshop known as the Hack Factory, snagged the $10,000 grand prize in the Ultimate Maker Vehicle Challenge. Ford Motor Company and Make Magazine sponsored the contest. 

The challenge was to reinvent the Ford Transit Connect commercial vehicle to equip makers on the go. Ten teams around the country participated in the contest, by invitation from Ford. 

“Makers were given an imaginary budget and certain build constraints, while being encouraged to define what is 'ultimate' to them as a blueprint for a potential vehicle,” the Ford website reads. 

The public voted for standout designs in an online platform during the first round, which lasted nearly a month. From there, judges from Ford and Make evaluated several finalists. The Twin Cities Maker’s Hackmobile, as the group calls it, rose to the top.  

Now, Ford plans to build the vehicle that came from team members Jon Atkinson, Becca Steffen, Riley Harrison, and Michael Freiert, according to Twin Cities Maker materials.

The Minneapolis-based team created a vehicle that “centered around the idea of a maker or artist being able to fabricate anything they needed out of the back of a vehicle,” a statement from the group reads. 

In some ways, the Hackmobile builds on an idea the group already had for a trailer, which it could bring to events, Freiert says. “When Ford invited us to participate, it seemed like a good opportunity to create what we’d been dreaming about over a beer,” he adds.  

When the Twin Cities Maker team members put their heads together, they decided that everything within the vehicle should perform multiple functions. It wasn’t about cramming things into the vehicle. “It wasn’t [like the game] Tetris, with components in it. It was a more unique storage and work surface solution all in one,” he says. 

The resulting vehicle combines a woodshop, welding, and electronic studio. It also has 3D printing capabilities along with storage for supplies. 

The work surface folds away like a Murphy bed while a single tool has several heads that allow for different uses. “I don’t think anyone else had the deep multi-purpose” aspect, he says. In the mobile workshop, someone could “knock together an Adirondack chair,” as just one example, he adds.

However, the Hackmobile is aimed more at coarse work than finishing work. “The Hackmobile isn’t an artist’s studio on wheels,” he says. 

Now, the group is deciding how to put the cash prize to best use. That could mean creating a Hackmobile-like trailer for the group or starting a tool lending library, among other possibilities. “We need to look into what’s viable. We’ve got a lot of projects we haven’t been able to get off the ground yet,” he says.  


Source: Michael Freiert, founding member, TC Maker 
Writer: Anna Pratt 






Saint Paul toymaker encourages creativity with Play from Scratch

When Jeff Freeland Nelson turned eight years old, his parents gave him a cardboard box filled with tape, string, and wire. “I thought it was the best present ever,” he says. As a young child, he was always making toys out of odds and ends.

Nelson grew up to build a resume that includes theater and public policy experience. But he always thought, "Why doesn't someone make a business out of this?" he says, meaning a box of bits that would spur children's creativity.  

In 2012, he acted on that impulse and launched the Saint Paul-based toy company, Play from Scratch. Right away, the toy company found success with several items, including the World Famous Box of Boxes, Enormous Tube of Tubes, and One Giant Box, which are sold at various local retail shops. More recently, the company introduced YOXO, a kit containing cardboard pieces that come in Y, O, and X shapes. 

YOXO can be used to piece together household items -- such as paper towel tubes, cereal boxes, and silverware -- to create one-of-a-kind toys, company materials state. YOXO has been described as an “eco-friendly alternative to LEGO,” according to company materials. 

Nelson has brought home prototypes of toys for his children, who are two and five years old, to play with. “I didn’t tell them what to do. Almost immediately, they were making things,” including toys he’d never thought of, he says.

Nelson has been getting plenty of attention for his company. He even made an appearance on NBC’sToday” show earlier this month. “We can’t make them fast enough,” he says of the toys. He's also trying “to figure out what to do next and how to make sure as many kids have access to the products as is possible."  

Nelson hopes the toy line helps children to grow up to be creative problem-solvers. “Everyday I’m focused on that dream,” he says.  

In some ways, he's leading by example with toys that are made out of environmentally friendly materials.  

As he was formulating the concept for Play from Scratch, Nelson's wife, Alisa Blackwood, suggested making everything as sustainable as possible, he says. That value has shaped the toys in a big way. “Not only can you create a toy that’s fun and awesome, but it doesn’t have to be an eco disaster,” he says.  “You can make durable toys out of recycled wood pulp” that won’t end up in a landfill. 

Plus, almost everything that goes into manufacturing the toys is locally sourced, he says. 


Source: Jeff Freeland Nelson
Writer: Anna Pratt 




Groundswell hosts artwork from MMAA/Galtier School collaboration

During a two-week residency, a group of 33 students from St. Paul’s Galtier Community School collaborated with the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMAA) on a multifaceted art project called CuratorKids. The 4th and 5th grade students’ artworks will be exhibited at Groundswell, a nearby coffee shop, from Dec. 16 through Jan. 19. In the spring of 2014, the childrens' artwork will also be exhibited by MMAA.    

MMAA developed CuratorKids to address “the shortage of art education in our public schools by offering a program that brings art and practicing artists directly to the kids,” MMAA  materials state.

Through the program, students examined a handful of artworks from the museum’s collection, according to Heidi Swanson,  technology integration specialist at Galtier. Students then wrote poems about the museum pieces. The following week, students responded to the artwork in a different way -- by making mixed-media collages. In their collages, Swanson says, "They made artistic choices relating to color, objects, and emotion.”   

Diana Johnson, a consultant to the program, says the museum pieces became “source material" for the students. “These kids really were responding emotionally and aesthetically" to the museum works, she says, which they "turned into their own work."

After the residency wrapped up, the students recorded podcasts of their poems and videos of their collages. Their poems can be listened to online here.  

Johnson hopes the project helps the students gain confidence in artmaking, as well as in academic subjects. The school hasn’t had an art program for a number of years. But CuratorKids shows students that “they can do things they didn’t know they could," she says. "If they stick with it, they can surprise themselves and see that the world around them cares and is interested in them."   

As if in response to that sentiment, a group of school volunteers pitched in $300 to frame the collages for the coffee shop exhibit, according to Swanson. At Groundswell, the students’ recordings will be accessible online via QR codes that can be scanned by smartphones.  

Swanson hopes the residency inspires students’ ongoing creativity. Through programs like CuratorKids, she says, "We hope to build a bridge to our community and create opportunities for our students to share their successes beyond the school walls." 


Source: Heidi Swanson, technology integration specialist, Galtier Community School
Writer: Anna Pratt 















EO survey shows "It's a good time to be an entrepreneur"

A recent survey from the Entrepreneurs Organization of Minnesota found that entrepreneurs are in a good position to hire more workers. More and more, entrepreneurs are also feeling confident about where the economy is headed--and it's up.

The organization, a chapter of a larger network of entrepreneurs around the globe, collected feedback from 72 Minnesota companies that achieve $1 million or more in revenue each year. 

Kevin Burkart, president of the local chapter, says the bottom line is that, “It’s a good time to be an entrepreneur.” 

The annual study is a strong economic indicator. “Small business owners are significant drivers of many economies,” he says. 

As much as 71 percent of entrepreneurs across the state are poised to hire more full-time workers, the study found. Likewise, 62 percent plan to bring on more part-time workers in the next six months. The consensus among survey participants is that the economy is steadily improving. 

Also, the vast majority of survey participants were optimistic about the prospect of starting a new venture in the next six months. 

That jibes with the national organization’s findings. The trend has been positive over the past few years, with a consistent increase in hiring, particularly in the U.S., according to Burkart. The findings relate to the potential evident in the “domestic rebirth in manufacturing in the U.S., with companies insourcing instead of outsourcing,” as costs overseas go up, he explains. 

From 2006 to 2010, survey responses went in the opposite direction. But entrepreneurialism tends to thrive in challenging economic times. “More people get laid off and they pursue those entrepreneurial ideas,” Burkart says. 

The next 5 to 10 years “are rich for the U.S. economy,” he says. “I think the future is bright for entrepreneurs and our annual indicator survey supports that conclusion.”  


Source: Kevin Burkart, president, StepStoneGroup and Entrepreneurs Organization of Minnesota 
Writer: Anna Pratt 












New mobile app development school strives to push local tech scene

Smart Factory, a new school for mobile app development located in Minneapolis’s Uptown neighborhood, is on a mission to deepen the tech talent pool in Minnesota. 

Jeff Lin of Bust Out Solutions, and Mike Bollinger of TechdotMN and Livefront, who are friends and colleagues, founded Smart Factory, which held its inaugural classes in October.   

The need for Smart Factory rose out of rapid changes in the web and mobile industry, Lin says. “Formal academic training can’t keep up” with the changes, he says, adding that some developers find it difficult to stay on the cutting-edge while working a full-time job. 

The tech scene is “already being pushed forward by market forces and people’s desires and interests. We hope to help that cause by training people directly,” he says.

Smart Factory's program is aimed at experienced designers and engineers who want to expand their skills, especially those related to web and mobile app technology. Companies can also send employees to the school to gain software development skills, as opposed to having to outsource those skills.     

Six-week classes, led by leaders in the field, cover Mobile UI Design, Ruby on Rails, Web Production, iOS Development, and Android Development. Students follow along with the lessons on their laptops. 

Class sizes are no more than 16 people, to ensure everyone gets plenty of individual attention, Lin says. Two mentor-teachers lead the classes, as well. “In programming and design courses, there’s a lot of hands-on activity, so it’s always good to have one-on-one time with teachers,” he says. 

Additionally, students are expected to spend another 10 to 15 hours on their studies outside of the classroom, according to Smart Factory materials.  

Lin hopes the school fosters collaboration within the local tech community. “We want to educate people about what we’re passionate about," he says. "It’s less of a competition and more of a collaboration. Collaborative competition is good too."

Although schools like Smart Factory are popping up around the country, few exist in the Twin Cities. With the opening of Smart Factory, Lin expects other schools to will launch within the next couple of years. 

Source: Jeff Lin, co-founder, Smart Factory
Writer: Anna Pratt 






New microgrants program aims to "Make It Happen"

A new microgrants initiative will spur ideas within the Jewish community, locally and internationally. 

The Minneapolis Jewish Federation is a community partner to the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, which is leading the program called, Make It Happen

Debbie Stillman, director of community partnerships and engagement at the federation, says the initiative has already stirred “lots of buzz in the community.” Often, people have good ideas, but not the means to “step into the game and to say, ‘I want to try this out,’” she says. 

That’s what the program is all about: “This isn’t aimed at organizations or meant to augment somebody’s operating budget. It’s meant for individuals to enter the game with an idea that they think is worthwhile,” she says, adding that young leaders can get involved in the decision-making process, as well. 

Projects might relate to cultural, educational, spiritual, or social aspects of Jewish life. For example, pop-up trucks, musical mash-ups, Shabbat dinners, and service projects are just a handful of the possibilities, according to program materials. “Selected projects will identify creative means of engaging, serving, and leading local Jewish communities,” a prepared statement reads.  

Schusterman will award $1,000 and $5,000 microgrants to 50 projects, which it will select on a rolling basis between now and December. At the same time, the Minneapolis Jewish Federation will separately dole out additional microgrants through the spring.   

Around 10 to 15 projects will be granted locally, depending on the scope of individual projects, Stillman says. 

Projects will be uploaded onto the website, which will double as a kind of idea share. “There are a lot of pluses to the platform as well as the microgrants themselves,” she says. "Organizations can look in their own communities and across the globe and if they see an interesting idea, they can execute it. They can see how it might work or how they can change it."  

  
Source: Debbie Stillman, director of community partnerships and engagement, Minneapolis Jewish Federation
Writer: Anna Pratt 







"Creative Care" exhibition and events underscore art's healing power

The Twin Cities is home to a diverse arts and healing community – perhaps the largest nationwide, according to Jack Becker, who leads Forecast Public Art, a nonprofit public art consulting agency based in Saint Paul.

The Twin Cities, Becker adds, is “an arts-rich community, and we’re huge for healthcare and technologies devoted to medicine and bioscience and research into healing. These realms come together in a variety of ways.” 

Those intersections are the subject of an exhibit Forecast put together in collaboration with Hennepin County’s Multicultural Arts Committee. Titled "Creative Care: Art + Healing in the Twin Cities," the exhibition is at the Hennepin County Government Center’s gallery in downtown Minneapolis through Jan. 29.

The exhibition pulls together visuals from nine arts-healing organizations in the area. In addition, an opening celebration today, and related forums and performances, are in the works for the coming weeks. 

The exhibiton is “about the idea that art can have healing benefits,” Becker says, a notion that often goes unacknowledged in daily life.
 
As a part of the kickoff for "Creative Care," which begins at 11 a.m., representatives from the exhibiting organizations will be on hand. Some groups, including Illusion Theater, Hopewell Community Choir, and Wilder Band will also perform at the event while county commissioner Peter McLaughlin will make an appearance and T. Mychael Rambo will serve as its emcee. 

The show represents all different approaches to art and healing, from Hennepin County Medical Center’s Inspire Arts program to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Healing Arts Therapies.  

As such, the displays are just as diverse as the participants. People can meander through a labyrinth on the floor -- a meditative intentional walk on a path that leads to peaceful calm in the center-- or view snapshots, paintings, installations, and more.  

For those who are sick or depressed or are facing other challenges, art can “focus the mind for a period of time on something other than the problem, the ailment, the pain,” Becker says, and art does so in a holistic way. He adds that art can come in the form of a relaxing piece of music or a public memorial in a war-torn community, as just a couple of examples.  

Forecast also published a related directory that includes 40 local art-healing programs in order to “raise awareness and increase access to these programs,” he says. 

Source: Jack Becker, executive director, Forecast Public Art 
Writer: Anna Pratt 








TreeHouse "innovation center" opens in Loring Park

TreeHouse Health, an “innovation center” with an emphasis on healthcare IT and care coordination, opened its doors on Oct. 17. 

The idea behind the for-profit “innovation center,” based in Minneapolis's Loring Park neighborhood, is to help emerging, and larger more established healthcare companies, grow and solve industry issues, the TreeHouse website states. 

TreeHouse is in a position to do so, thanks to its six partners with extensive expertise in healthcare and investment. 

Jeffrey (J.D.) Blank, the company’s managing director, says TreeHouse can offer networking opportunities, office space, cash for startups, and other resources. Blank’s dad is Dr. John Blank, TreeHouse’s chairman of the board, who is also the president of Dalmore Investments, an angel fund in Minneapolis. “We offer access to customers, make introductions, allow them to leverage the relationships of our partners,” says J.D. Blank.      

Collaboration is key, he says. "We view an 'innovation center' as an ecosystem, an environment that supports entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, the innovators within a larger organization.” 

“We’re hoping to get small and large companies from every sector of healthcare,” all of which bring different views to solve healthcare issues, he says. “The industry is so broad and complicated that we think having every angle represented, creating a 360-degree ecosystem will help parties navigate the challenges.” 

Creating that ecosystem means “getting the right companies with the right mindset, that are willing to collaborate and contribute to the ecosystem at large,” he adds. 

As such, TreeHouse intends to cultivate a network of service providers and business professionals that can offer support to companies. TreeHouse intends to bring companies into the fold for six months to two years. “We think companies will see the value in it,” he says. 

Already, TreeHouse has signed on RiverSystems LLC, a startup that developed HomeStream, “a tool comprised of easy-to-use, computer-assisted capabilities designed to improve the quality of life for seniors and aging baby boomers,” a prepared statement reads. 
 

Source: Jeffrey (J.D.) Blank, managing director, TreeHouse Health 
Writer: Anna Pratt 





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