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NECC manufactures custom reference cables for musicians stateside and globally

Local musicians who value realistic, earthy sound quality have a local source for their equipment: Northeast Minneapolis-based Northeast Cable Company (NECC).

Founded in 2012, the company designs and handcrafts reference cables for instruments, microphones and amplifiers. Its wares can be used in live and studio settings. According to Jake Gilbertson, NECC’s operations manager and an engineer by training, the cables are designed for musicians who need “unique, durable, and flexible” cables that won’t wear out with regular use.

Unlike many larger companies, NECC focuses exclusively on these cables – it doesn’t manufacture accessories or other equipment. NECC takes a bespoke approach to its products, creating each order to customer specifications and executing a thorough inspection—“by a real human”—before shipment. Additionally, the XLR (microphone) cable is made to avoid tangling and the patch cable made rigid for stability.

Reliability is a key objective. Larger manufacturers take a quantity over quality approach to cable manufacturing, forcing musicians to go through cables faster and make needless replacement purchases. By outlasting their inferior counterparts, NECC’s cables significantly reduce a major expense for prolific musicians.

Even patch cables, which are notorious throughout the industry for their tendency to wear out, get this treatment. Gilbertson and his colleagues took the “time to figure out what would make these cables last forever,” according to NECC’s website, and developed “the most durable and reliable patch cable on the market.” Despite a higher manufacturing cost, musicians reap long-term benefits because they don’t have to buy replacements as frequently.

Sound quality is also essential. NECC’s cables are designed to minimize feedback and interference, creating a studio-quality listening experience even in sub-optimal settings. All of NECC’s products include features that make this possible, including double-Reussen shielding (which clarifies sound by allowing the cable to lie flat on the stage or floor) and a proprietary ULTRA-FLEX cord jacket that minimizes crimping when the cable is moved, stretched or wound back on itself. The cables’ contacts are gold, a superior material for the purpose.

NECC cables also aim to create a sound that’s as natural and “clean” as can be. “All of the properties of sound are tied up in each cable’s copper strands,” says Gilbertson. “By manipulating the individual strands, you can change how your instrument performs.” Whereas many cable companies sell sound- and even genre-specific cables—rock, acoustic, and so on—NECC’s products can be used by musicians of all stripes.  

And they are. Though still small, NECC already has a nascent, global dealer network, with outposts in Bend, Oregon; New York City; Brantford, Ontario; and even Japan. Up-and-coming musicians from Minnesota, Tennessee and California are regular customers. Twin Cities residents can find its stock cables at Twin Town Guitar in Uptown, American Guitar Boutique in Plymouth, and Lavonne Music in Savage, or order custom cables directly through the company’s website.

Crux Collaborative and the power of rebranding

Crux Collaborative, a user-experience consulting firm based in the southwest Minneapolis, is dramatically changing its approach to business, staff and clients as part of a bold rebranding effort.

During the past year, the firm formerly known as Eaton Golden has adopted a flatter management model, a more collaborative approach to internal problem-solving, and a culture of “trust and even friendship” between clients and employees, says co-principal Mahtab Rezai. She calls the experience overwhelmingly positive, with new clients and new staffers energized—and surprised—by Crux’s highly personal, yet results-driven, approach to its work.

Recently, says Rezai, an increasingly tech-savvy population and a growing volume of digital points of customer-vendor contact created a “sea change” in user experience best practices, from a proscriptive, top-down approach to a more user-friendly, even nurturing one.

“Almost everything we do now is complex and interrelated,” she says, including how we access and communicate information. Crux specializes in improving user experiences for “complex, data-driven, transactional experiences,” Rezai says, which “aren’t optional and haven’t historically provided a lot of choice to the user.”

Ultimately, the goal is to render these experiences—like using a health exchange, executing online financial transactions and accessing employee benefits—more “humane,” making it easier and more natural for people to complete essential, boring tasks in the digital space.

Rebranding has helped Eaton Golden/Crux Collaborative process and take advantage of this shift. Sadly, a tragedy accelerated the process.

In early 2011, principals Emily Eaton and John Golden lost their young son to cancer. Rezai, a former colleague of Golden’s who was already in talks to take a new role with the company, immediately took over day-to-day management of the firm while the parents grieved. Eaton eventually sold her interest to Rezai and left the company completely to write a book about coping with grief.

Rezai still has her operational role. Golden and Rezai are now equal partners. But Crux is no longer “two leads plus a support staff,” says Rezai. Nearly every important decision, including the company’s new name, arises through consultations with rank-and-file staffers. In a larger company, this might produce friction, but Crux is small enough to function as a single team.

So far, the experience has been transformative. Even experienced employees had never seen a rebrand go so smoothly. Morale has spiked. Clients are happy, too: Crux just posted the strongest first quarter in its 10-year history. Last year, with the transition in full swing, the company made Minnesota Business Magazine’s “Top 100 Businesses to Work For” list, a major achievement.

Will Crux’s new approach to business translate into a bigger workforce and a national client pool? For now, Rezai is cautious about such plans.

“Growth is not our objective,” she says. “Excellence is.”

The company has eight full-timers, with room for just a handful more. And since it doesn’t have a business development division or send out RFPs—“We’ve found that they’re a waste of our time”—the firm relies on word of mouth to attract new clients. Crux is picky about accepting new work, essentially “prequalifying” clients before pitching or consulting with them.
“The ability to judiciously say ‘no’ has taught us how to say ‘yes’ when it’s clearly right,” says Rezai.

By choice, Crux also focuses on companies in the banking/finance, medical device, health insurance and benefits administration subsectors—niches heavily represented by Twin Cities businesses. As Rezai puts it, “we stick to what we’re good at.”

 

FOCI fundraises for new mobile glassmaking workshop

FOCI Minnesota Glass Center for the Arts based in Northeast Minneapolis, the state’s only nonprofit glassworking nonprofit, has launched an ambitious crowdfunding initiative to fund the purchase of a new “mobile hot shop.”

The project aims to raise $50,000 to fund the purchase and retrofitting of a vehicle that will carry a fully functional glass studio to schools, community centers and special events around the Twin Cities. Individual donations for this “mobile teaching facility on wheels” are tax deductible and can be made through FOCI’s Go Fund Me page.

In the past, FOCI has done mobile glassworking demonstrations at the St. Cloud State Lemonade Festival and the Swedish American Institute. According to Bryan Ethier, FOCI’s board chairman, the new shop would be a closed trailer with several benches to accommodate glassworkers and an open design to accommodate crowds of spectators.

The mobile hot shop would replace a smaller, less user-friendly mobile shop that contained a single furnace and “glory hole” for reheating glass. Outside spectators had to stand around it or use seating provided by the demonstration venue.

Ethier expects the initiative to enhance FOCI's visibility and reach. The organization’s old State Fair headquarters was demolished to make room for the Heritage Square project. FOCI’s now-defunct satellite shop at the Renaissance Festival formerly anchored its outstate presence.

“The only way we can provide demonstrations now is with a mobile studio,” says Ethier. FOCI’s 120 members, who are proficient in the art of glassworking, typically monopolize the company’s main location.

The new mobile shop will also solve accessibility challenges at FOCI’s headquarters. “We’re located on the basement level of a building with a non-functioning elevator,” says Ethier, making handicapped accessibility impossible.

The organization’s location in an industrial area of Northeast isn’t convenient for visitors without cars, so the shop will facilitate demonstrations in more transit-friendly locales. Eventually, FOCI would also visit suburban and rural schools whose students can’t afford to travel to Minneapolis.  

Michael Boyd, FOCI’s artistic director, started Foci as a private studio in 2004 and converted the organization to nonprofit status in 2010. Foci now provides educational services for students and glassworking novices of all ages. It also rents space and supplies to its member artists. In addition to the mobile hot shop, FOCI plans on opening a new studio space at the State Fairgrounds’ West End Market project.

New Fusion program addresses shortage of tech workers

In less than a year, a partnership between Advance IT Minnesota and Metropolitan State University has produced Fusion, an “IT residency” program that will officially launch during the 2014-15 academic year. Fusion places students in various technology degree programs with local employers—ranging from cutting-edge startups to Fortune 500 firms—that need flexible, entry-level IT labor. The program has already accepted applications for the coming year’s roster and is in the process of vetting applicants.

Unlike a traditional internship, which typically runs a single academic semester, each participant’s residency lasts 18 to 24 months—roughly tracking their last two years of college. Students are paid for their time, typically less than 20 hours per week, with projects assigned by their employers and paychecks issued by their school.

Fusion currently has 40 open spots, but Bruce Lindberg, executive director of Advance IT Minnesota, hopes to grow the program significantly in time for the 2015-16 academic year by expanding the program’s enrollment at Metro State and creating an identical residency program at Mankato State. By next year, enrollment could increase twofold, with further growth possible.

“If employer demand and participation grow beyond the capacity of those two partners,” says Lindberg, “we will look to expand by involving other academic partners” around the Twin Cities and outstate areas.

With a projected deficit of nearly 10,000 tech workers in the state by 2020, Fusion aims to accelerate the development of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s high-tech workforce while making it easier—and less risky— for employers and prospective employees to find one another. Currently, the rapidly growing and changing industry suffers from “skill mismatch,” where employers struggle to find candidates who can keep pace with changing job requirements and competencies.

“Many graduates face the frustrating reality of employers asking new grads for two to three years of experience…which they usually don't have,” says John Fairbanks, a third-year Metro State student who applied to the program this spring. “[T]hrough the Fusion program, I will graduate with a degree and have substantial experience to back it…allowing me to enter the job market more quickly and with real-world experience to solve real-world problems.”

The idea for Fusion developed out of conversations between Lindberg and Marty Hebig, Maverick Software Consulting’s founder and president, in January 2013. Lindberg and Hebig, whose company helps firms avoid offshoring by hiring low-cost, U.S.-based student IT workers for special projects and ongoing work, helped recruit other local business leaders to the cause. He also helped them build a compelling case for an IT residency program. In January 2014, Metro State approved the program and began publicizing it to students.

Employers and managers who wish to learn more about Fusion can attend an information session, hosted by Advance IT Minnesota, at MCTC’s campus on June 17 between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. RSVP through Bruce Lindberg at Bruce.Lindberg@metrostate.edu or 612-659-7228.


 

Artist-designed mini golf, now in St. Paul

As part of the redevelopment at the Schmidt Brewery site, Blue Ox Mini Golf is leveraging a $350,000 grant from ArtPlace America and the proceeds from an ongoing GiveMN campaign to fund its new course on West 7th Street. The course sits amid the site’s 260 residential units and multiple commercial spaces, all of which are part of a $120 million project that’s wrapping up early this summer.

The course “will add art each year in the form of new holes, amenities and supplemental programming,” according to the Blue Ox website. All will be designed and installed by local artists. The course’s permanent features are also artist-designed, creating “multiple points of entry for everyone from committed art-ophiles to the random passerby on the way to the bus stop.”

Blue Ox is taking a page from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which has constructed several art- and architecture-focused mini golf courses in the past 10 years. Like its St. Paul counterpart, the Walker’s Artist-Designed Mini Golf regularly incorporates new artist-commissioned holes, examples of which include a foosball area replete with garden gnomes and a “gopher hole vortex.”

Although Artist-Designed Mini Golf is only open during the warm season—May 22 through September 1 this year—its most popular holes enjoy permanent status amid the newcomers. Blue Ox, which will shut down each fall and reopen in late spring, will also recycle perennially popular holes.

The similarities between Blue Ox and the Walker’s course aren’t accidental: Blue Ox’s Christi Atkinson previously served as the Walker’s course director, and Jennifer Pennington, the initiative’s marketing director, is married to the designer of one of the Walker’s most engaging holes. The Walker’s current Sculpture Garden course’s $12 or $18 tickets (for 9 and 18 holes, respectively) include free admission to the museum. This has been a winning formula, with long waits for tee times on weekends and nice evenings.

The St. Paul course presents an additional design challenge thanks to strict historic preservation guidelines to which future artists will be beholden. Each hole has to incorporate themes or design elements that harken back to the brewery that once occupied the site.

Blue Ox doesn’t have a world-class art museum to keep golf-averse family members occupied, although the as-yet-unnamed restaurant tenant of the site’s soon-to-be-renovated keg house could keep visitors fed and watered.

But Blue Ox does double the number of artist-commissioned mini golf holes in the Twin Cities, providing visibility and recognition for installation artists in St. Paul. And as the entertainment centerpiece of the Schmidt redevelopment, the course promises to draw families and local residents who previously sped by the disused site on their way to downtown St. Paul or the airport.

 

Mobile markets bring fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods

A recent city-ordinance change has paved the way for mobile grocery stores. Now the Wilder Foundation’s Twin Cities Mobile Market, a repurposed Metro Transit bus that cost the foundation just over $6,000, can distribute fresh produce on St. Paul’s East Side and the North Side of Minneapolis.

Both neighborhoods are considered “food deserts” because the corner shops and independent markets that provide residents with groceries lack fresh produce and other wholesome items.

“[Low-income] people living in these neighborhoods are already at higher risk for obesity and diabetes,” explains Leah Driscoll, the Wilder Foundation program manager in charge of the project. “Living in a food desert makes these problems worse.”

Many residents of these lower-income areas also lack reliable transportation to supermarkets in adjacent city neighborhoods or suburbs, further constraining their shopping options.

The ordinance change, which requires each food truck-like mobile grocery store to stock at least 50 individual fruits and vegetables in at least seven varieties, replaces an older ordinance that had restricted mobile grocery sales to areas around senior housing complexes.

The new law permits mobile grocery stores to set up in commercial, industrial and apartment complex parking lots between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. They can’t locate within 100 feet of traditional grocery stores and farmers’ markets without explicit permission from owners or operators. They also can’t sell certain items, including tobacco products and alcohol.

In addition to the requisite variety of fresh fruit and veggies, Twin Cities Mobile Market will also stock other staples, including bread, dairy products, meat, canned goods, and other non-perishables at costs competitive to places like Cub Foods. Before selecting sites for weekly visits—“public housing high-rises, senior buildings, community centers, and churches” will get the highest priority, according to the foundation—Wilder must secure at least 50 signatures from locals interested in using the market.

Driscoll is working closely with local community leaders to ensure that “we’re actually wanted and needed in the neighborhoods that we select—we don’t just want to show up,” she says.

Twin Cities Mobile Market, which Wilder unveiled on Monday at a “sneak preview” event hosted by Icehouse, isn’t the only mobile grocery truck set to take advantage of Minneapolis’s ordinance change. Urban Ventures, a faith-based organization headquartered in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, is putting the finishing touches on a repurposed refrigerator truck that will begin making grocery sales around South Minneapolis, and eventually the North Side, later this summer. The truck, whose wares will include healthy helpings of local produce, will accept EBT and carry a nutrition specialist to help customers make healthy buying decisions.

 

MARS Lab and Google's mapping initiative for smartphones

Earlier this year, Google selected the University of Minnesota’s MARS Lab as its primary academic partner for Project Tango, a high-profile indoor mapping initiative that has been compared to Google Maps. The selection came with a $1.35 million grant and a directive to explore—and expand on—the possibilities of a prototype smartphone capable of creating 3D maps of indoor spaces. Google’s only other academic partner on the project, Washington, D.C.’s George Washington University, has a much smaller role.

According to Google, the current prototype device is a “5 inch Android phone containing highly customized hardware and software designed to track the full 3D motion of the device as you hold it while simultaneously creating a map of the environment.”

The phone can take up to 250,000 spatial measurements per second to create an intricate map of its surroundings.  While this technology isn’t yet available as an app on regular smartphones, part of MARS Lab’s charge is to create apps and APIs—mobile development platforms—that enable the app to be scaled down and included with non-specialized devices. Within a few years, some form of the technology will be available for download like any other Android app. The U of M lab will have played a central role in making that possible.

A major challenge will involve surmounting the technology’s requirement for two independent cameras. It’s unclear whether future versions will be able to work with a single smartphone camera, or whether devices that use it will need to have at least two vision sensors. A strict non-disclosure agreement, breach of which could jeopardize the lab’s funding, prevents MARS Lab director Stergios I. Roumeliotis from getting into such specifics about Project Tango.

A video released last month by the MARS Lab team shows the prototype’s capabilities. Although the current version produces a somewhat slow, abstract representation of its surroundings, future iterations will create near-lifelike interior maps. Google and MARS envision three broad areas in which 3D mapping can play a role: virtual/augmented reality video games, internal navigation in unfamiliar buildings (rendering directions in malls and corporate edifices all but obsolete), and navigation aids for the visually impaired. But innovation probably won’t stop there: In a recent interview, Roumeliotis argued that “the list of potential future applications is endless.”

In addition to Roumeliotis, two MARS Lab alums who have since taken positions with Google—Joel Hesch and Esha Nerurkar—are leading the development charge. The building blocks for the project were actually laid about a decade ago, when the MARS Lab team helped create the internal navigation system, known as VINS, for NASA’s Mars landers. A loss of NASA funding for the project proved to be a blessing in disguise, as Roumeliotis’s team found that the system worked just as well for earthbound mapping and navigation.

Indeed Brewing dramatically expands distribution

Indeed Brewing Company, Northeast Minneapolis’ biggest craft brewery by volume, is partnering with J.J. Taylor Distributing Company—also based in Northeast—to expand its distribution footprint across Minnesota. The partnership, which officially began on May 1, will see Indeed enter or expand in southern Minnesota markets like Rochester, Owatonna/Faribault and Mankato.

According to Indeed marketing director and co-founder Rachel Anderson, Indeed will be available in virtually every major Minnesota market by the end of the year.

The J.J. Taylor partnership represents the last big link in Indeed’s in-state distribution chain. Dahlheimer Distributing already sells Indeed beer in east-central Minnesota, and D & D Beer Company handles distribution for points north of St. Cloud. Indeed also self-distributes in Duluth and Hudson, Wisconsin, the only out-of-state market currently served, and has no plans to stop. According to Anderson, the company envisions a hub-and-spoke network that penetrates deep into Minnesota’s vast rural hinterland, with self-distribution representing a key strategy for ensuring coverage.

Indeed’s partnership with J.J. Taylor, and two recent expansion initiatives, are born out of necessity. Indeed has roughly doubled its production capacity during the past year, from 6,000 barrels to between 11,000 and 12,000 barrels, and it’s still not at capacity.

“We could make more,” says Anderson, “but we’re trying to grow responsibly.” The brewery just finished adding production capacity, in January, and plans to expand its capabilities again this summer, with the installation of a new fermenter.

As appetite for craft beer grows among suburban and rural drinkers, Indeed expects to utilize this spare capacity. “There’s still a lot of growth left in the state,” especially in smaller markets that are just getting their first taste of Indeed’s products, says Anderson. “We’re not yet at the point where we don’t have enough beer, but we do need to build volume in those territories.”

Indeed is currently Minnesota’s 5th or 6th biggest brewery, behind Summit, Surly, Fulton and Lift Bridge. Long-term, the company is interested in developing out-of-state distribution partnerships that could raise the company’s regional profile, but no concrete plans or timetables exist yet. For now, Indeed is focusing on filling in the gaps in its footprint and further boosting business at its already bustling taproom, which is open Thursday through Saturday and is “busy all the time,” says Anderson.

 

Corridors 2 Careers strengthens workforce development

Ramsey County’s successful Corridors 2 Careers pilot program—which connects economically disadvantaged residents of communities along the Green Line, including Frogtown, Summit-University and Cedar-Riverside, with workforce training resources and employers in the area—already has several notable successes.

According to the program’s exit report, more than 1,400 residents of Green Line neighborhoods participated in the initiative, and nearly 90 percent had no previous knowledge of workforce resources in the area. As a direct result of their participation, 65 local residents found gainful employment and an additional 47 enrolled in basic or continuing education classes.

The pilot project also encouraged local job applicants to obtain—and local employers to recognize—the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate, “a portable credential that demonstrates achievement and a certain level of workplace employability skills,” according to ACT. The public-private partnership between Ramsey County and Goodwill-Easter Seals will continue to push this certification.

Of the five-dozen employers that participated in the pilot project, more than half were unaware about local workforce development resources that connect prospective employees with willing employees in transit-served areas. At least eight hired Corridors 2 Careers participants.

Now, the project has blossomed into a larger partnership between Ramsey County Workforce Solutions, Ramsey County Workforce Investment Board and Goodwill-Easter Seals of Minnesota. At least nine workforce development organizations have already committed to support the partnership, which aims to increase the “alignment of workforce needs between the residents and employers” in the area, according to the press release announcing the partnership.

The Ramsey County Workforce Investment Board’s Alignment and Integration Committees will coordinate the activities of the participating organizations, including Goodwill-Easter Seals, which provides GED tutoring, job-specific skills training and job placement services to individuals who have been chronically unemployed, recently incarcerated, afflicted by homelessness, or who struggle with alcohol or chemical dependency.

Going forward, Corridors 2 Careers aims to connect at least 400 Green Line residents with job search assistance, and place at least 80 percent of those participants in entry-level jobs or job training programs. The goal is a “location-efficient economic development strategy” that encourages local employers to be more receptive to diverse residents’ cultural needs, refer rejected applicants to workforce development agencies, and create new, industry-specific employer clusters along the transit-dense Green Line.

With Goodwill-Easter Seals and the Ramsey County organizations acting as pillars for the initiative, local employers will be able to directly tap C2C for willing, well-trained workers, connecting unemployed residents who urgently need work and employers that require specific skill sets.

GiveMN launches enhanced fundraising system this summer

GiveMN, an online philanthropy platform launched by the Minnesota Community Foundation and based in downtown St. Paul, is partnering with Kimbia and Minneapolis-based Fast Horse to enhance its fundraising capabilities and improve the users experience. GiveMN’s new fundraising system will debut this summer, with the improved website rolling out in phases beginning later this year.

The partnership with Kimbia, announced earlier this month, comes after a rigorous RFP process that included several competing proposals. “We wanted a partner that was innovative and forward-looking,” says Dana Nelson, GiveMN’s executive director. Kimbia’s mobile-friendly technology integrates with “social media, partner websites, and personal webpages” and “enables donors to give in less than a minute,” according to its website.

GiveMN’s Fast Horse-led website redesign will build off Kimbia’s next-generation technology, with a responsive, “modern” user experience that’s consistent on big-screen desktops, tiny smartphones, and everything in between. The gradual rollout should minimize disruptions for current users, says Nelson, while encouraging newcomers to engage.

“With technology changing so rapidly, it’s hard to predict how people will access our platform in the coming years,” she explains. “We want to be out in front of that and create as many opportunities as possible for Minnesotans to engage with us.” The goal is to encourage donors to respond in real-time to “things that happen”—from unpleasant events like floods to fundraising drives for schools and churches across the Twin Cities and beyond.

“We want GiveMN to be the first place on the minds of local donors,” says Nelson, “whether they’re using their phones, tablets, desktops, or watches to give.”

With Nelson at the helm, GiveMN launched in 2009, drawing inspiration from microlending platforms like Kiva and community-focused charities like DonorsChoose. The goal was to foster closer relationships between donors and recipients, “which felt really radical at the time,” says Nelson.

GiveMN has stayed lean: It maintains its own office in Lowertown, but leverages the HR and finance assets of the Minnesota Community Foundation. GiveMN now supports a wide range of Twin Cities-based organizations, from St. Paul’s Springboard for the Arts (which uses GiveMN as its exclusive online fundraising tool) to Shir Tikvah, a Jewish Reform congregation based in Minneapolis.

The Nathan Hale School PTA in Minneapolis uses the service as well. Whereas bake sales and other commodity-driven school fundraising events can have high overhead costs, says Nelson, 95 percent of every dollar given through GiveMN goes directly to schools.

 

Invention Expo moves to Twin Cities

The Minnesota Inventors Congress’ Invention Expo just wrapped up its first session in the Minneapolis Convention Center, after nearly 60 years of meeting in the small town of Redwood Falls. On May 2 and 3, hundreds of exhibiting inventors, investors and business leaders crowded into the center’s main hall to peruse the latest ideas and designs from the country’s brightest tinkerers, hardware whizzes and gearheads.

The continent’s “oldest annual invention convention,” according to its website, moved to the Twin Cities to take advantage of the local infrastructure. For Zachary Crockett, co-founder of Minneapolis-based Spark and an Invention Expo keynote speaker, the move was about connecting tech-savvy hardware and software experts, who tend to be younger and urban, with practical-minded tinkerers, engineers and designers who come from a “broader demographic” and often live in rural areas.

The exchanges of ideas, partnerships, and capital that result can be game-changing. Early on, Invention Expo’s participants often focused on clever, useful products that made discrete tasks easier—think late-night infomercials. Today’s attendees leverage cutting-edge technology to create products with far broader applications, from Bondhus Arms’ credit card-sized pistol (perfect for a post-“conceal and carry” world) to the Powerizer toolbox, which features a battery-powered charging station, USB outlet and three adapter connections to help users stay connected outdoors. Crockett’s Spark Core, meanwhile, is a node that connects everyday items and systems to the Internet via WiFi.

“Building hardware used to be hard,” says Crockett, “but the process has been democratized. You don’t need a $1 billion factory to make things anymore.” Open-source software (and, increasingly, hardware), coupled with coworking and other efficiency-enhancing trends, are making it easier for teams of three or four to develop, build, market and profit from innovative products.

Trevor Lambert, a University of St. Thomas grad who founded Lambert & Lambert (an IP and product-licensing firm) and Enhance Product Development (which turns invention ideas into marketable products), sees two value propositions for Innovation Expo participants.

First, the expo’s workshops and presentations educate novice inventors about the various aspects of product licensing and development, from pitch support with the “Pitch the Experts” panel (on which Lambert sat this year) to Crockett’s “Inventing Success” address, which discussed the potentially revolutionary impact of always-online devices.

Invention Expo, and events like it, also provides inventors with access to markets, whether through product-development experts like Lambert or direct contact with potential investors. With so many good ideas floating around, competition requires inventors to network relentlessly—something that many are less than comfortable with.

For Lambert and his team, that creates an opportunity. “We’re paid to know people,” he says.

 


Fresh from Grammys, Max Martin launches new line

Max Martin, a luxury shoe brand based in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis and recently featured in celebrity swag bags at the Grammys and Oscars, goes into production next month with its first full high-heel line. In addition to the Fall 2014 line, a Spring/Summer 2015 line is also in the works. If these two big releases prove successful, a more inclusive women’s shoe line—beyond high heels—could be on the horizon, along with men’s shoes and possibly accessories or other clothing items.

Max Martin got its start in 2012 after William Panzarella, founder of the Minneapolis-based Aegis Foundation (which helps “vulnerable, needy, underserved, and imperiled youth plan, prepare, and focus on education” according to the website), was seeking a sponsor for the foundation’s annual High Heel Dash on Nicollet Mall.

Panzarella noticed a proliferation of shoe brands with ties to celebrities. A longtime hip-hop fan, he immediately saw the potential for a hip-hop line that leveraged his connections to the music industry. Panzarella broadened the idea into a high-heel line that wouldn’t just appeal to musicians. He credits MC Lyte, a former president of the L.A. Chapter of the Grammy Association, with generating publicity about Max Martin among L.A.’s fashionable set, which has driven early sales. Panzarella donates a portion of Max Martin’s pre-season sales to charity.

Being featured at two national awards ceremonies, again thanks to MC Lyte, was a big step forward for Max Martin. For Panzarella, the marketing represented a significant investment, but “the press pays for itself,” he says. During awards season, the shoes were features on Entertainment Tonight and ABC News, as well as in local Twin Cities media outlets. Panzarella also hosted Minneapolis’ “official Oscar viewing party” at Muse. Proceeds from that event benefited the Smile Network and Aegis Foundation.

Panzarella’s fall line includes a striking boot called “Leo,” an angular stiletto called “Betty,” and a classic high-heel called “Moma,” among others. The line’s goal: to prove that true luxury footwear can be made by American hands. The shoes are manufactured in Los Angeles and reportedly are easier on the feet than many other designer shoes, which make them easier to wear on the red carpet—and around town.

The American-made angle was present from the get-go: During Panzarella’s initial market research, he realized that virtually every high-end footwear brand is made in low-cost Chinese factories or, at best, Italian workshops. Spurred on by 2012’s Chinese-made U.S. Olympic uniform fiasco, he set aside his romantic notions of master Italian cobblers manning antiquated shoemaking equipment and resolved to create a footwear line made by Americans, for Americans.

So far, Max Martin’s raw materials, components, and production processes exceed the Federal Trade Commission’s “American Made” guidelines. Panzarella has “tentative plans” to move production to Minnesota in the future.

 

CoCo startups Kidizen and Docalytics win Google funding

In early April, Docalytics and Kidizen, two startups in the Twin Cities that utilize CoCo’s coworking facilities, headed to California to deliver pitches at the first annual Google for Entrepreneurs Demo Day. The event is a gathering for 10 early-stage tech startups from the seven cities in Google’s North American Tech Hub Network.

Both companies networked with tech industry heavier hitters. Both received funding commitments worth $100,000 from Revolution Ventures, a venture capital firm run by former AOL boss Steve Case.

According to those in attendance, Case was so impressed with the quality of the pitches—and the ideas behind them—that he made an on-the-spot decision to evenly divide $1 million of Revolution’s early-stage funding pool among the 10 entrants. At a frenetic post-pitch networking round, the other 60 or so investors in attendance connected with the startups’ principals on an individual basis about potential investments or partnerships.

“How cool is it that two startups out of Minneapolis-Saint Paul were part of this?” remarks Dug Nichols, CEO of Kidizen, an online marketplace for used children’s clothing, accessories, and knickknacks. “I have never been a part of such a truly talented group of startups at an event, and I've done a lot of these types of events.”

After the pitch round, he and Kidizen co-founder Dori Graff (Mary Fallon is the other principal) attended the hour-long networking event with investors. They spent the entire session “in constant conversation with a number of different VC firms,” says Nichols, “and we've had additional firms reach out to us after the event.”

Evan Carothers, one of Docalytics’ three founders, had a similar experience. Case’s investment was merely the most public of the company’s Demo Day wins: For Carothers, “getting up in front of a huge group of our peers, investors, and prospects…and tell[ing] them all about the solution Docalytics provides” was equally important, as was securing “the needed capital to really grow our team and product.”

Although it was widely known that prominent VCs would attend, Demo Day’s organizers framed the event more as an opportunity for entrepreneurs to pitch to industry experts and create connections that could lead to funding commitments, either at the event itself or down the line. No one expected Case to commit $100,000, and in such public fashion, to all 10 entrants.

Not that anyone is complaining. As Kidizen continues to gain users and increase its cash flow, Nichols is feeling the momentum. He plans to hire additional developers and marketing staff to grow the six-person firm.

On top of the Revolution investment, which got a wave of national press, Kidizen’s selection as “best new app” in the iTunes App Store’s lifestyle category has dramatically boosted its visibility.

Brian Martucci

Tenth Minnesota Cup for entrepreneurs adds category

In March, the tenth iteration of the Minnesota Cup officially opened to entrepreneurs across the state. The initiative provides mentoring to participants that pass the initial selection phase, as well as financial support for winners. The Cup accepts applications from nascent businesses in seven broad categories, including Food/Agriculture/Beverage, which is new this year and sponsored by General Mills. Melissa Kjolsing, the Cup’s director, ascribes the addition to a massive jump in consumables-related submissions last year. The entry deadline is 11:59 p.m. on May 9.

The Cup’s prize structure isn’t lavish, at least by the inflated standards of the venture capital business. Five of the seven division winners take home $30,000 in cash, with Student and Social winners receiving $20,000 prizes. The grand-prize winner gets an extra $50,000 when the contest wraps up in September. According to past winners, though, the money is almost beside the point.

“Starting anything on your own is difficult,” says Julie Gilbert Newrai, whose PreciouStatus software won the 2012 Minnesota Cup’s grand prize. But, she explains, the serial entrepreneurs, business leaders, and technology experts who donate their time as Cup mentors are “genuinely interested in helping [participants] win.” These veterans help their mentees craft better business plans, hone their investor pitches, and connect with potential partners, employees, and investors.

Newrai is careful not to exaggerate how PreciouStatus’ win influenced the company’s prospects, but it clearly helped. In total, she ascribes more than $1 million in direct investment to her company’s post-win visibility. And that’s just part of the “Cup boost.”

As Newrai sees it, Cup participation does three things for entrepreneurs and their teams. First, it raises startups’ profiles within the state—and, by extension, within the national VC and angel investing communities, which are plugged into local startup scenes. Second, it subjects participants to a barrage of questions and criticisms from veterans who have tried, failed, and succeeded, often in quick succession. “You can’t buy that kind of confidence boost,” says Newrai.

Last but not least, Cup participation shapes and strengthens internal culture: Even if they don’t win, entrepreneurs and their employees derive a well-earned sense of pride and accomplishment from their efforts, validating the sense that they’ve built something valuable.

Minnesota Cup isn’t a radical idea. Businesses have long sought mentoring and funding from more experienced actors, after all. But the initiative dramatically simplifies the process for ambitious entrepreneurs who want to put their ideas in the right hands. The application process is digital and requires entrepreneurs to enter just a page’s worth of data. The competition is open to entrepreneurs at various points in the startup phase, says Kjolsing, from “people with good ideas” to principals of companies with $1 million in annual revenues.

Kjolsing echoes Newrai’s sentiments about the relative merits of money and mentoring. The Minnesota Cup “does provide seed funding, but money isn’t the biggest factor,” she says. “The exposure piece is critical.” Exposure, of course, often leads to investment. And the initiative’s list of sponsors reads like a who’s who of Twin Cities business—from United Health to Digital River—making it an invaluable networking opportunity.

Even entrepreneurs who have existing investor and mentor networks? “There’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to enter the Minnesota Cup,” Newrai says.

Sources: Melissa Kjolsing, Julie Gilbert Newrai
Writer: Brian Martucci

One Day on Earth gathers Twin Cities stories

Got big plans for April 26? Lu Lippold, the local producer for One Day on Earth’s “One Day in the Twin Cities,” has a suggestion: Grab whatever video recording device you can—cameraphones included—and record the audio-visual pulse of your neighborhood.

On the final Saturday of April, the Twin Cities and 10 other U.S. metros will host the fourth installment of One Day on Earth’s celebration of film, culture, and all-around placemaking. Founded by Los Angeles-based film producers Kyle Ruddick and Brandon Litman, One Day on Earth (ODOE) has a “goal of creating a unique worldwide media event where thousands of participants would simultaneously film over a 24-hour period,” according to its website.

The first event took place on October 10, 2010 (10-10-10); 11-11-11 and 12-12-12 followed. ODOE skipped 2013, but its organizers weren’t about to wait until 2101 for their next shot. Instead, they selected a spring Saturday—both to accommodate amateur filmmakers with 9-to-5 jobs, and to give participants in the Northern Hemisphere longer daylight hours to work with—for a bigger, bolder, slightly revamped version of the event.

For the first time, participants get 10 questions to inspire their creativity and guide their storytelling, from “What is the best thing happening in your city today?” to “Who is your city not serving?” The goal is to create a multi-frame snapshot of “cities in progress,” one that doesn’t simply answer the who-what-where of the places it covers.

As One Day in the Twin Cities’ point person, Lippold supervises local filmmakers and pitched the project to dozens of partner organizations, including the Science Museum of Minnesota and Springboard for the Arts to visual media companies like Cinequipt and Vimeo. (The McKnight Foundation and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative are the largest local sponsors.)

The upside? “[The event] is a great way to shine a light on all the hard work that our nonprofit community does,” says Lippold.

Lippold also works with a handful of local ambassadors, some of whom enjoy national acclaim. These include noted cinematographer Jeff Stonehouse, veteran documentarian Matt Ehling, and community-focused filmmaker D.A. Bullock. They’ll be contributing their talents—and stature—to One Day in the Twin Cities’ promotion and execution.

One Day in the Twin Cities could be seen well beyond Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Along with their counterparts from other participating cities, local filmmakers may see their work incorporated into a condensed, three-part series that Litman and Lichtbau will market to PBS affiliates around the country. No word on whether TPT will air the special, but TPT Rewire has agreed to publicize the event in the coming weeks.

The real stars of One Day in the Twin Cities, though, are its filmmakers. Even if you’ve never filmed anything in your life, says Lippold, you can contribute meaningful work. Thanks to an interactive map feature on ODOE’s main site, the work will visible to anyone who visits.

“If I were just starting out in video, I would see this as a huge opportunity,” says Lippold. Since all contributions are credited by name and location, each participant “instantly becomes a documentary filmmaker,” she adds.

Source: Lu Lippold
Writer: Brian Martucci

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