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Minnesotaís Entrepreneur of the Year advocates values-based business practices

If you're a bicycle commuter, you owe a debt of thanks to Steve Flagg, owner and founder of Quality Bicycle Products (QBP). Flagg, who in September was named the University of Minnesota's 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Carlson School of Management, not only leads one of the country's largest bike distribution centers, but uses his company as a vehicle for promoting cycling as an alternative to cars.

From its launch in 1981, QBP has fueled rapid growth by serving as the go-to source for hard-to-find bike components. From a one-man operation, it's grown to employ some 450 workers who service 5,000 independent dealers around the country.

Equally important, says Flagg, is his company's commitment to advocacy. "We have a full-time advocate on staff," he explains, whose job it is to work with politicians and community organizations to build trails and generally support the cycling community. "Our values are deeply integrated into our business."

Given Flagg's focus on cycling, it's not surprising that these core values extend to environmentalism. "We have a strong environmental ethos," he says. QBP operates out of a Bloomington warehouse that earned one of the of the nation's first LEED Gold ratings for a warehouse.

The headquarters sits adjacent to the Hyland Lake Park Reserve bike trail system, with commuter links to Minneapolis. QBP rewards employees who commute by bicycle with a four-dollar-a-day bonus.

While the company's been hit by the downturn, they've maintained positive growth--a fact that Flagg attributes at least in part to being a values-driven business. "There's a huge payoff," he says. "Not only are you doing the right thing, but at the end of the day, you get lower turnover and more motivated employees."

Source: Steve Flagg, Quality Bicycle Products
Writer: Joe Hart


Latuff Brothers Body Shop: Any color you want so long as itís green

When you think of environmentally friendly businesses, you probably don't think of auto body repair shops. But a chat with Pete Latuff, president of the family-run Latuff Brothers auto body shop in St. Paul is enough to dispel your stereotypes of the industry. In the past five years, the company has introduced a number of environmental innovations--and it's saving them money.

"We saw the trend of going toward green," says Latuff, "and we thought it would be a good way to go."

The business began by introducing a low-emission paint system. "Our licensing is all based on emissions, so there's a cost factor there," explains Latuff. The new paint reduces emissions by 58 percent. It also cuts drying time by 30 percent, resulting in a significant reduction in energy use. Not long after, Latuff went to a paperless office, introducing further savings.

What began as a trend- and cash-savvy business strategy has taken hold as a principle, according to Latuff. "As we get more and more down this road we start thinking about it more and more, too," he says. "We've moved away from plastic bottles now, too, and put in a water cooler with paper cups. We're always thinking about different ways to reduce our trash and try to recycle everything we can."

This kind of self-examination "has made us a more efficient business," Latuff says, while reducing the environmental footprint of the operations. Good for business, and good for the planet--that goes some distance toward taking the sting out of your next fender bender.

Source: Pete Latuff, Latuff Brothers
Writer: Joe Hart


Minnesota Cup names division winners; Grand prize announced Sept. 13

Six division winners are in the running for the Minnesota Cup grand prize. The winners of the sixth annual entrepreneur competition were announced last week. Each will receive $20,000, except for the student division winner, which gets $5,000.

"This year's Minnesota Cup winners are behind some of our state's most innovative new business ideas," Minnesota Cup co-founder Scott Litman said in a statement.

The winners are:

     GeaCom, a Duluth company developing a device to help doctors and patients communicate across language barriers

    BioMatRx, a Twin Cities company that provides tissue engineering products, equipment and information to the dental industry
 
    EarthClean, a Minneapolis startup that is commercializing a non-toxic, biodegradable firefighting gel (See our previous coverage)

    Go Home Gorgeous, a Twin Cities company that provides postpartum recovery treatments to reduce the stress associated with childbirth
 
    Springboard for the Arts, a Twin Cities organization that connects artists with skills, contacts, information, and services

    Blue Water Ponds, a Twin Cities company that provides pond restoration services using barley straw and pond weed harvesting

A grand prize winner, to be named on Sept. 13, will win another $20,000. An awards ceremony is scheduled for 5 pm, Sept. 13 at the U of M's McNamara Alumni Center.

Source: Minnesota Cup
Writer: Dan Haugen

Chopper College retools class offerings, focuses on E85 ethanol bikes

Tommy Creal rolled into town two years ago on a custom-built chopper with a full tank of ambition.

This fall, the young entrepreneur is retooling his business in hopes of finding the right gear.

As a teenager, Creal started a popular bike-building bootcamp in Chicago. After moving to Minneapolis in 2008, Creal decided to relaunch Chopper College as a "green" technical institute.

Creal's Chopper College partnered with Minneapolis Community & Technical College on a catalog of 40 courses last year aimed at gearheads interested in building alternative-fuel motorcycles.

The demand wasn't what he hoped for, so this fall he's scaled back to two one-weekend workshops that will teach participants how to build a bike that runs on E85 ethanol.

Creal's E85 bike-building workshops will be open to 48 students each. Over the course of three days (Oct. 8-10 or Nov. 12-14) students will help build a pair of motorcycles from scratch.

Meanwhile, Creal is keeping busy on the side by building custom choppers for local organizations, from the Minnesota Wild to Life Science Alley.

If the workshops suggest there's interest in ethanol-powered choppers, Creal says the next phase for Chopper College will be developing a gasoline-to-ethanol conversion kit to sell.

The lower than expected enrollment for last year's classes hasn't soured Creal on the Twin Cities. Instead he says he's struck by how much support there is for businesses here.

"People are lending hands everywhere, opening doors for us, and I'm just trying to figure out how to give back, because everybody's been giving to us," says Creal. "You can trust me on this: it's not like Chicago where everybody's out for themselves."

Source: Tommy Creal, Chopper College
Writer: Dan Haugen

EarthClean raises $765K for rollout of TetraKO non-toxic firefighting gel

A Minneapolis cleantech startup is loosening the nozzle after raising at least $765,000 from investors to roll out its non-toxic, biodegradable firefighting gel.

EarthClean recently disclosed that it was about a quarter of the way through a $3 million round of equity financing. The company's product, TetraKO, is a low-cost, environmentally safer alternative to conventional firefighting foams.

"We've had a couple of fire chiefs tell us that they understand it performs better, but quite frankly if it was just as good as foam they'd buy it because of the environmental aspects," says EarthClean CEO Doug Ruth.

TetraKO is a patented dry-mix product that, when mixed with water, forms a non-toxic gel that sticks to surfaces and suppresses flames. It was developed over the past decade by a Woodbury volunteer firefighter and a trio of former 3M and H.B. Fuller chemists and engineers.

Ruth acquired their patents and founded EarthClean a couple of years ago. The company is getting ready to manufacture its first 10,000 pounds of the product in the next two weeks and will have it available for commercial sale within four weeks.

It's hitting the market at a time when there's growing concern about the pollution left behind by chemical-based foams and gels. Minnesota health officials last year were investigating potential drinking water contamination in 15 cities. And a federal judge in Montana ruled last month the U.S. Forest Service is breaking the law when it uses harmful chemical retardants on wildfires because they can hurt fish and wildlife.

EarthClean's product is certified as non-toxic and biodegradable and offers a safer alternative, says Ruth. "It's a game-changing technology that really could change the way the world fights fires."

(Also: EarthClean is a division finalist in the 2010 Minnesota Cup competition. See our update here.)

Source: Doug Ruth, EarthClean Corp.
Writer: Dan Haugen


Minneapolis Biomass Exchange adds two directors to its board

The Minneapolis Biomass Exchange had added a pair of new directors to its board, giving it new expertise in the areas of cleantech and finance.

Doug Cameron is founder of Alberti Advisors and previously worked for Piper Jaffray, Cargill, and Silicon Valley cleantech venture firm Khosla Ventures.

Rajesh Aggarwal is a professor of financial markets and institutions at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

The Minneapolis Biomass Exchange is a web application where buyers and sellers of biomass fuel can post for-sale and want ads for fuel crops. Biomass is a term for plant-based materials such as wood chips or corn stover that can be burned as a fuel. (For more on the Minneapolis Biomass Exchange and its business model, see our previous article on the company here.)

Cameron says he's been interested in biomass for most of his career, specifically with its logistics and how we can use more of it in a smarter way.

"The Minneapolis Biomass Exchange was interesting from that standpoint, but also I was just very impressed with the people behind it," says Cameron. "It was a pretty easy decision for me when they asked me if I would be interested in a board seat."

In his new role with Alberti Advisors, Cameron plans to spend about a third of his time working with "small, exciting, interesting, emerging companies," another third working with financial organizations like venture funds and capital firms, and another third working with larger corporations that also have an interest in cleantech.

Founder/CEO Kevin Triemstra said Cameron and Aggarwal provide knowledge and experience that will help the company reach its goals.

Source: Doug Cameron, Alberti Advisors
Writer: Dan Haugen

DriveAlternatives iPhone app helps drivers find alternative fuel stations

Drivers looking to kick their gasoline habits can now get directions on their iPhones.

A new iPhone app by Minneapolis-based DriveAlternatives lets users search for and get directions to the nearest alternative fuel stations and carshares anywhere in the country.

The startup claims to have built the nation's largest database of its kind, compiling information from government and industry sources, as well as some 10,000 phone calls to fuel stations. The app's database covers biodiesel, E85 ethanol, hydrogen, compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, and electric vehicle charging stations, as well as carshare locations.

CEO Kavi Turnbull started thinking about the problem five years ago while he was working for statewide DFL political campaigns, which tried to fill up on ethanol or biodiesel whenever possible. Turnbull's job included finding these types of fueling stations and relaying the information to staff out on the campaign trail.

It turned out to be a tricky and at times frustrating task. The Department of Energy hosted a searchable database on its website, but at the time much of the information was outdated or incorrect.

"I was just sick of bad data," says Turnbull.

Turnbull went on to earn an MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While studying there and interning at a venture capital fund he developed the business plan for DriveAlternatives.

The app is free to download. The company plans to make its money selling advertising and sponsorships to alternative fuel stations. The number of such stations is projected to surge from around 15,000 today to more than 1 million five years from now.

The app will count on crowdsourcing from users and station owners to help keep the database up to date. Turnbull expects the early adopters to include fleet operators, especially government agencies that require employees to use ethanol or other biofuels when available.

Source: Kavi Turnbull, DriveAlternatives
Writer: Dan Haugen

ReGo Electric Conversions offers a glimpse of the future of hybrids

A south Minneapolis garage this week gave supporters a sneak peek at its new business, and a glimpse of what might be the future of the automobile.

ReGo Electric Conversions will open for business Aug. 19, but it hosted an open house on Monday for partners and curious neighbors to take a look. Its shop is located under the same solar-panel-covered roof as Mulroy's Body Shop, at 3920 Nicollet Ave. S. in the Kingfield neighborhood.

The company will convert gas-electric hybrid vehicles into plug-in hybrids, which contain an extra battery that can be charged off an ordinary electrical outlet.

Co-founder Shayna Berkowitz says a few years ago she was looking for someone to convert her Toyota RAV4 to an all-electric vehicle. When she couldn't find any shops in town that could do the job, she thought there might be an opportunity.

Gas-to-hybrid-or-electric vehicle conversions are an expensive proposition, more than $40,000 per vehicle. The market for them doesn't exist today, but Berkowitz believes it will someday, and that ReGo will be ready when it arrives. Meanwhile, Berkowitz and her business partner, Alex Danovitch, believe there's enough work to keep them busy converting hybrids to plug-in hybrids.

The company has 11 employees. Over the past two years they've developed a process for winterizing and installing existing battery technology into gas-electric hybrid vehicles. The extra battery allows a hybrid car to travel at higher
speeds and longer distances on battery power alone, which can help save money and reduce emissions. The conversion process takes about 24 hours and costs around $5,000. One of ReGo's first customers is the city of Minneapolis, which is paying to convert one of its Priuses to a plug-in hybrid for Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Berkowitz points to the war in Iraq, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the growing issues of global warming and air pollution as reasons why ReGo couldn't be starting up at better time.

"People have really made a commitment to hybrid vehicles, which have been the best option available for people who want to move toward a more sustainable transportation sector," says Berkowitz. "We're in a place now to be able to offer people a next step with those hybrids."

Source: Shayna Berkowitz, ReGo Electric Conversions
Writer: Dan Haugen

Minneapolis, St. Paul announce partnership to seed, grow green manufacturing

Minneapolis and St. Paul announced an economic development partnership last week aimed at boosting green manufacturing in the region.

Thinc.GreenMSP is a marketing and resource-sharing plan aimed largely at growing demand for products from local green businesses in the two cities.

"We think if we grow the demand for for their products, they'll stay and grow," says Cathy Polasky, economic development director for the city of Minneapolis.

The plan lays out five strategies. The first two involve getting the cities to adopt similar green buying and green building policies. Minneapolis requires its departments to buy green office and cleaning products whenever possible, but St. Paul does not. Meanwhile, St. Paul requires both government and city-funded projects to meet certain green building requirements, but Minneapolis only does so for government projects.

Other strategies include establishing a program to recognize green business leaders in both cities, exploring a potential green industrial park or parks, and creating programs and networking opportunities to help green entrepreneurs finance their businesses. The latter may involve helping new business owners network with private investors or tailoring existing city finance programs to better fit green businesses.

Polasky says the partnership will also include working with the private sector. She cited the city's recent work with the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce to create a green business-to-business networking group.

"We think we have a solid green environment here already," says Polasky, "and so we think that we have a good starting point to be competitive."

Source: Cathy Polasky, City of Minneapolis
Writer: Dan Haugen

Dero Bike Racks hopes to go tandem with David Byrne on product line

When musician David Byrne stopped in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago for a forum on bicycling, he mentioned on stage that he had a chance to visit local bike rack manufacturer, Dero Bike Racks.

We checked in with Dero co-owner Hans Steege last week to ask about getting a shout-out from Byrne, as well as how business has been lately.

The fifteen-year-old company has cruised through the recession. Steege said Dero hasn't had to lay off anyone from its Seward neighborhood shop, which has been busier than ever. He declined to share specific revenue numbers, only that they've averaged double-digit growth in recent years.

What are the factors behind its growth? "A big one, I think, is just kind of a sea change in the way that Americans are looking at bicycling as a form of transportation," says Steege.

As for Byrne, Dero's relationship with him predates the musician's most recent visit. Steege and others from Dero visited Byrne in New York last year to pitch manufacturing a line of Byrne-designed bicycle racks. "It's not a done deal yet, but we're hoping it works out," says Steege.

Even though it wasn't their first meeting, it was still a rush to have the former Talking Head pay a visit. "He's a really interesting, mild-mannered guy. Very humble and super creative. It was a lot of fun to have him walk around our shop, look at our stuff and give us his two cents."

Dero's customers include cities, schools, corporate campuses, and homeowners. It recently started rolling out a system it calls the Dero ZAP, a solar-powered check-in station for tracking and rewarding students or employees who commute by bicycle.

Source: Hans Steege, Dero Bike Racks
Writer: Dan Haugen

NewWater's atrazine filter advances in two regional entrepreneurship contests

The U.S. EPA announced in the fall that it will re-evaluate its regulation of the pesticide atrazine after studies linked low exposure to the chemical with reproductive problems.

It was fortunate timing for a pair of recent University of Minnesota graduates, who a few months earlier started developing a filter to remove atrazine from drinking water.

Their company, NewWater, got another boost last week when it was named a semifinalist in both the Minnesota Cup and Cleantech Open entrepreneur contests.

The technology is based on research by two U of M professors, microbiologist Mike Sadowsky and biochemist Larry Wackett. NewWater co-founders Alex Johansson and Joe Mullenbach met the researchers last spring through an entrepreneurship class at the Carlson School of Management.

Since then, Johansson and Mullenbach have been trying to turn the professors' basic research into a product for municipal water treatment plants to remove more atrazine than is possible with current filters. They're currently developing a prototype and working on a licensing arrangement with the university.

Atrazine is one of the most widely used pesticides on the planet. Current limits on atrazine in drinking water are based on the cancer risk, but recent studies suggest lower levels of the chemical, levels that are currently allowed in drinking water, may cause birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems.

If the EPA lowers the threshold for how much atrazine it allows in drinking water, Mullenbach believes NewWater will have a potential $3 million market for their filter product, which uses bacteria enzymes as the active ingredient instead of carbon.

"We provide a lower-cost solution that is capable of treating to much more stringent drinking water standards," Mullenbach said.

NewWater won a seed grant in January from the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota. It's also applied for federal Small Business Innovation Research grants.

Source: Joe Mullenbach
Writer: Dan Haugen

TV parts recycler ShopJimmy.com to open UK facility to keep up with demand

A Bloomington television recycling company expects good reception when it opens a new location in England next month.

ShopJimmy.com buys damaged televisions cheap from retailers and distributors, then strips out the parts that still work to sell to consumers, repair shops, and warranty companies.

Owner Jimmy Vosika started the company in January 2007 as a hobby while he was still working for his father-in-law's appliance recycling company.

"I basically bought a broken plasma TV off ebay for $200 and then sold it for $700 later that week for parts," says Vosika.

Since then, his company has grown into a 55-employee operation with facilities in Bloomington and Lino Lakes that process between 1,200 and 1,500 televisions a week.

The company's employee count will grow by 10 next month when it opens a location near Oxford, England.

"We're getting so much demand every day from overseas companies," says Vosika. But shipping to Europe and elsewhere from the Twin Cities often costs much more than the actual part.

The Oxford facility will mirror the company's Twin Cities operation. Workers will take apart televisions from ShopJimmy's suppliers, test the parts, then sort and catalog everything so it's ready to sell online.

Vosika believes the company's European operations will eventually eclipse its U.S. business because of greater demand and the ability to ship around the world more affordably.

Source: Jimmy Vosika, ShopJimmy.com
Writer: Dan Haugen

Solarflow Energy installs 32-kilowatt solar PV system on Seward Co-op

A south Minneapolis solar installer marks another milestone this week with the celebration of a new 140-panel, 32-kilowatt photovoltaic system on the rooftop of the Seward Co-op.

Solarflow Energy, which is based in the Lomgfellow neighborhood, is trying to prove a solar leasing concept. It received a $1.5 million grant from Xcel Energy two years ago to fund a 280-kilowatt pilot program.

The Seward Co-op is the latest of what will be about 30 installations for the company by the end of the year. The co-op plans to celebrate at a commissioning party from 4-6 p.m., Thursday, June 17.

The company is also kicking off a program with Minneapolis' Bryn Mawr neighborhood this week that will involve using neighborhood revitalization funds to convert 20 homes to solar electricity.

The arrangement eliminates the large up-front cost associated with solar electricity. Solarflow installs and maintains the systems for free, and customers pay a monthly bill for the electricity that's generated.

In order to qualify, customers need to go through a property assessment to make sure the site is suitable for solar, provide a $1,000 refundable deposit, and sign a long-term lease (15 years for residential and 18 years for commercial).

Solarflow Energy has half a dozen full-time employees and another eight to twelve workers who help as needed with installations.

The biggest challenge so far, says founder/CEO Gerardo Ruiz, has been finding financing. The market is interested, the equipment is increasingly affordable, and installation is straightforward. But capital is scarce.

As the Xcel Energy funding winds down, Ruiz says the company will seek out solar rebates and other state and federal incentives for solar installations.

"So far we consider everything to have been successful," Ruiz says. "We'll charge forward and keep moving."

Source: Gerardo Ruiz, Solarflow Energy
Writer: Dan Haugen

Minneapolis bicyclist starts business "pedaling" fresh produce to busy locavores

A Minneapolis bicyclist has started a new business delivering fresh produce.

VeloVeggies aims to serve busy locavores who don't always have time to shop the farmers market or pick up their weekly CSA shares.

For a $6 to $12 fee based on distance, Randall Dietel will pick up your produce and deliver it by bicycle to your doorstep.

"VeloVeggies is a sustainable, convenient option for people to add a little extra time to their lives," says Dietel. "It's a guilt-free convenience that does some good."

Dietel came up with the idea last summer after a friend at a co-op invited him to take home a box of CSA produce that was never picked up by the member who bought it.

He starting thinking about a CSA delivery service, and since he lives car-free and pedals 200 to 300 miles a week it was only natural that it would be a bicycle delivery service.

The green-canopied trailer attached to the back of his bicycle can carry 300 pounds. So far his cargo has been lots of leafy greens and radishes, but it'll grow heavier as farmers start selling more substantial produce.

Dietel is getting the word out by dropping fliers in CSA boxes around the city. He's also supplementing his income with other bicycle deliveries, including trips for a bakery and for catering businesses.

For now, VeloVeggies can only guarantee service to Minneapolis residents, but others are welcome to inquire. Dietel hopes to add a second rider and expand his delivery territory as business picks up.

Source: Randall Dietel, VeloVeggies
Writer: Dan Haugen

Minneapolis Biomass Exchange begins building new platform for biomass sales

A Minneapolis web startup is beginning work on a new platform to help farmers and foresters to sell leftover materials as a renewable fuel.

Since November, the Minneapolis Biomass Exchange has served as a sort of craigslist for buyers and sellers of biomass, a term for plant-based materials like wood chips or corn stover that can be burned to offset coal or other fossil fuels.

By fall, founder and CEO Kevin Triemstra expects the site will function more like a Priceline.com for energy crops. The company received a fresh infusion of investor funding last week that will allow it to begin building out new online bidding features immediately.

As utilities and other companies seek to cut their carbon footprints and comply with new regulations, there is a growing demand for biomass fuels. Finding a steady supply, however, has been a challenge for buyers.

Triemstra, a former software engineer, started the Minneapolis Biomass Exchange in July 2009 with the goal of providing a more organized marketplace for buyers and sellers to find each other.

So far, users have been able to post free ads and exchange messages, but all of the dealmaking has had to take place offline. The new features will allow buyers to make electronic bids on certain materials. If the seller chooses to accept a bid, the sale would be processed directly through the site, with the Exchange taking a fee.

The Minneapolis Biomass Exchange will also offer to arrange transportation for sales and assist sellers filing for federal renewable energy incentives.

"We'll explore any way that we can help facilitate the movement of biomass," Triemstra said.

Triemstra said he planned to hire local contract programmers to start work on the new features, possibly as soon as this week. He also expects further investment later this summer after the state's new angel investor tax credit takes effect.

Source: Kevin Triemstra, Minneapolis Biomass Exchange
Writer: Dan Haugen
63 green jobs Articles | Page: | Show All
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