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U of M Launches Product Design Program to Grow Local Talent

MSP proudly hosts “major product design companies like Target, 3M, Medtronic, General Mills, Cargill,” says Dr. Barry Kudrowitz, McKnight Land-Grant Professor of Product Design at the University of Minnesota. However, he adds, “They’re all hiring their product designers from other states.”

Kudrowitz and the U of M are changing that, as Kudrowitz has helped spearhead the new Product Design major that the college introduced this fall and he’s excited to see how it develops with time.

Product Design is similar to engineering, he says, but with more creativity and humanistic skills. “There is a need for a different kind of designer, someone that can do the technical stuff and the artistic side of things,” he explains. Product Design will bring a new type of designer to the workforce, he says, one that has the technical skills to make a product work, but is also a dynamic and creative team player.

Kudrowitz was inspired by programs in northern Europe, having worked as a visiting researcher in the Netherlands and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The U of M recruited him after he earned his Ph.D. at MIT, where he developed a Toy Design class that he’s brought to the U of M as part of his new program. He also teaches the intro course, Creative Design Methods.

Product Design began as a minor in the graduate school before moving to the U’s undergraduate program a few years ago. As more students signed up for the classes, the U was also approached by local businesses to develop something in tune with their needs.

“We had a handful of town hall meetings where we would get several dozen industry representatives sharing what they think the major should be,” Kudrowitz explains. “They all want to hire people from this program.” While there is industry support, the U has been careful that it maintains an educational focus while cultivating tomorrow’s designers—who will hopefully stay in the Minnesota workforce.

Local companies are involved in the classroom, leading development ideas and sponsoring design concepts, but for Dr. Kudrowitz it’s about using that experience to show how design works at a fundamental level, whether that’s starting with a toy or making a specialized manufacturing product. It’s about building a portfolio and experience for students in a hands-on environment that mixes engineering, anthropology, business and industrial design.

In his U of M Toy Design class, the emphasis is on process while using a product that everyone understands. “We could call the class Product Design,” he says. “We just happen to be making toys because it’s naturally fun to design something for play.” But whether designing a toy or a medical device, he says, his classes teach the same business lessons.

In the 2016-2017 school year, the Product Design program is only open to transfer students who have changed majors, about 30 in total. Kudrowitz expects about 40 new students will be accepted when the program opens to incoming freshmen next year.
 

Northside Achievement Zone: A bottom-up approach to community empowerment

Minneapolis’ most ambitious antipoverty and community empowerment network just got a big boost. In early October, Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) received $6 million in combined grants from Target and General Mills — $1 million per year for three years from each company. These funds will help replace a federal grant that is ending.
 
NAZ has a revolutionary mission: to coordinate and empower “more than 40 local organizations and schools...working in radically new ways to permanently close the academic achievement gap and end poverty,” according to a Fallon-produced promotional video. Partner organizations include early childhood program providers like the YWCA and Minneapolis Public Schools; public, charter and private K-12 schools; expanded learning/mentoring programs like Plymouth Youth Center; health, housing and career organizations like Washburn Center for Children, Urban Homeworks and Twin Cities RISE!; and higher education institutions like Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Minnesota.
 
NAZ is broadly modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, an antipoverty and childhood education network in New York City. But its huge partner network and bottom-up approach to empowerment make NAZ arguably the most ambitious initiative of its kind anywhere in the U.S.
 
NAZ specifically seeks out the most vulnerable, hard-to-reach families, many of whom face housing insecurity, chronic joblessness and other obstacles. Ideally, each participating mom enrolls her child before birth, signing a commitment to make college a top priority for the little one. She and her partner, if present, pair with a coach responsible for building a customized support plan with the family’s input — complete with “specific, individualized goals that make sense for that particular family,” all framed in terms of college-readiness, says NAZ communications director Katie Murphy.
 
The typical NAZ family works with various partner organizations to find suitable, stable housing, stay on top of their healthcare needs (including mental health, a big issue for new moms), improve financial literacy and enroll in parenting classes, among other things. As they grow, kids tap into these networks too; North High School, for instance, has NAZ academic coaches who work with students on site.
 
“When it’s time to meet with their academic coaches, students can just walk down the hall,” says Murphy.
 
NAZ’s new grants could help the organization reach a long-held goal — to impact 1,000 families and 2,500 kids, representing 40 percent of Northside families with children under 18 — as early as next year. NAZ is already most of the way there: At last count, the network had about 870 families and nearly 1,900 kids.
 
By 2020, says NAZ President & CEO Sondra Samuels, NAZ is poised to impact 1,700 or more families per year. That number includes families actively engaged with partner organizations, plus those who’ve “graduated” and no longer need to tap NAZ’s services.
 
Graduated parents and older students often assume mentorship or advisory roles within the NAZ structure. With preexisting social networks and ample reserves of community trust, says Murphy, current and past participants are NAZ’s most effective on-the-ground recruiters. When NAZ hires family coaches, they look exclusively at their roster of enrolled parents.
 
NAZ is so confident in its approach, and in the power of community-driven family empowerment in general, that it hands out T-shirts — to toddlers—proclaiming their expected college graduation year. For parents used to hearing that their kids won’t amount to much, or that they need to have “realistic” expectations, something as simple as a T-shirt can inspire belief in what’s possible.
 
“NAZ addresses the achievement gap by striking at the heart of the belief gap,” says Samuels, “and coupling the power to inspire with a proven system that provides our families with a ladder out of poverty.”
 
Though today’s NAZ takes a holistic approach to antipoverty work, its predecessor organization did far more targeted work. Founded in 2003, the PEACE Foundation was a “grassroots movement across race, class and geography [with] the common goal of significantly reducing violence in North Minneapolis,” according to NAZ’s website. The PEACE Foundation enjoyed ample community support, but stakeholders worried that it wasn’t doing enough to address the root causes of violence, including what Samuels calls “a direct correlation” between poor educational outcomes and violent crime.
 
“In recognition of the clear link between poverty, the educational achievement gap and violence, the PEACE Foundation was already moving toward” an approach that included support for families and early childhood education initiatives, says Samuels. “When we heard about the Harlem Children’s Zone, we realized that it was possible to pull all the levers that hold the people back and empower the community to change.”
 
“We’ve been told that what we’re trying to do is unrealistic,” she adds. “But we remind ourselves that every great advance” — women’s suffrage, marriage equality, putting a man on the moon — “was also ‘unrealistic’ once.”
 
 
 

Vidku's Flipgrid video sharing is disruptive tech force

In February 2015, Minneapolis startup Vidku raised $17 million in a 17-day Series A funding round led by Arthur Ventures, a Fargo-based venture capital group. The speed and size of Vidku’s fundraising effort was unusual: According to data from CrunchBase, the average Series A raised $6.9 million in 2014 and it often takes months to close a successful round.
 
So it’s no surprise that MSP’s investors and innovators sat up and took note of Vidku’s breakout success. CEO Jim Leslie attributes his company’s achievement both to the far-reaching capabilities of Flipgrid, its core “asynchronous video sharing” product, and the boundless belief of Vidku’s 35-plus employees.
 
“Our investors weren’t interested because they knew who [Vidku’s leaders] were or trusted us to execute,” says Leslie, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who ran a handful of successful firms (and sold his most recent venture for a cool $100 million in 2011) before joining the Vidku team. “The passion of our entire team regarding Flipgrid’s future possibilities was infectious — our investors got as excited as we were” about Vidku and Flipgrid.
 
Users believe in Flipgrid, too. According to Leslie, the product has hosted more than 3 million video shares since its January 2014 launch, spreading chiefly through word of mouth. (Vidku has no formal marketing operation to speak of, though that may change in the future.)
 
Flipgrid admins, typically classroom educators, populate “grids” with video or text questions, prompting video responses from student users. Everyone with access to the grid can see and share the responses. There’s no limit to each grid’s capacity for questions and responses, though admins are limited to a specific number of grids per year — typically five to 10, or roughly one per class for full-time educators.
 
Though Flipgrid was originally designed for educators, Leslie is quick to point out that about 20 percent of the platform’s volume is devoted to non-educational use. Private businesses and government agencies use Flipgrid as a collaborative tool, while wedding planners and religious institutions leverage it to create more social events and environments.
 
“Flipgrid is a growing, powerful and highly effective technology tool that’s getting stronger all the time,” says Leslie. Following Vidku’s “design first” imperative, “we’re constantly developing new ways for users to participate.”
 
Vidku’s development activities have accelerated since the company spun out from an eight-person University of Minnesota team led by Dr. Charles Miller. Miller’s team is responsible for designing and building out Flipgrid’s base technology and critical elements. Leslie and co-founder Phil Soran, also a wildly successful tech entrepreneur, caught wind of Miller’s innovation and offered to form a private company capable of turning Flipgrid into a disruptive technological force.
 
“We were only interested in [spinning Flipgrid out of the U and forming Vidku] if [Miller’s] entire team was on board,” says Leslie. He didn’t need to worry: The response was an enthusiastic “yes.”
 
For Flipgrid’s core team and the U itself, the transition to private enterprise has thus far been smooth. All eight team members remain on staff at Vidku, generously compensated for their efforts and diligently working on the next big thing.
 
Perhaps more importantly, the U is a major shareholder in Vidku; Vidku’s success is quite literally the U’s success. Such public-private synergies, wherein universities drive innovation and investors provide the capital necessary to bring transformative ideas to market, are commonplace in established tech centers like Boston and Silicon Valley, says Leslie, but less so in MSP.
 
“A strong public-private linkage is the hallmark of a healthy entrepreneurial community,” he says. “We’re on the cusp of that here” in MSP.
 
In addition to Flipgrid, Vidku also offers a video-based assessment tool called Avenue. “Whereas Flipgrid is suited for discussions” and other forms of knowledge and experience delivery, Leslie explains, “Avenue is ideal for more formally assessing knowledge.”
 
Vidku’s team also handles development work for Passport, a language-learning application initially developed by St. Paul-based EMC Publishing. Though Vidku doesn’t own Passport, Fligrid and Passport are kindred spirits with the same lofty goal: reducing friction and improving knowledge delivery in the classroom.
 
Later this year, Vidku plans to launch an application that offers a “significant enhancement” to Flipgrid’s capabilities, says Leslie. The new update “is the first tangible fruit of our intensive development efforts” since spinning off from the U, he adds, though he’s mum on the software’s specifics.
 

U of M entrepreneurs launch Lionheart Cider

Seven recent graduates of the University of Minnesota, who met in the Carlson School’s Entrepreneurship in Action class, are taking the course’s title to heart. Within weeks of coming together last fall, the group had hatched an idea for a homegrown premium hard cider brand called Lionheart Cider.
 
Thanks in part to ample startup funding secured through Entrepreneurship in Action, Lionheart was a student division semi-finalist in the 2015 MN Cup — a huge leap for a concept that has yet to see its first birthday.
 
Lionheart closed its first production round last month and is now on shelves in about 120 liquor stores in MSP and surrounding areas, with Artisan Beer Company handling distribution. The suggested retail price on its 16-ounce can 4-packs is $7.99, which co-founder Anna Lin says is “affordable” relative to other premium craft cider brands.
 
Co-founder Jason Dayton, one half of an avid father-son home cidermaking team, developed Lionheart’s “not too sweet” recipe. “Lionheart is designed for people who find popular brands like Angry Orchard to sweet,” Lin says.
 
Lionheart’s co-founders aren’t typical startup types. Some were finance and business majors, but others focused on journalism (like Lin), agriculture and music during their undergrad years. All are first-time entrepreneurs “who don’t always know what we’re doing,” says Lin, who admits that the group has quibbled over plans and tactics.
 
“But the difficult periods present the greatest learning opportunities,” she adds.
 
Some Lionheart co-founders do have entrepreneurial pedigrees, including Lin herself. Lin’s father, a former truck driver, worked his way into the fueling industry shortly after China’s economy liberalized in the 1980s. He now owns a thriving gas station business. Not to be outdone, her mother runs two coffee shop franchises in China.
 
“[My parents’] hard work is why I’m here in Minnesota, speaking a second language fluently, meeting amazing people,” and learning firsthand what it takes to be an entrepreneur, says Lin.
 
In the near term, Lionheart’s team is looking forward to soliciting customer feedback on its original cider recipe and growing its Minnesota account base. But Dayton and the rest of the group are already mulling new flavors and styles within the “not too sweet” universe, plus an expanded distribution footprint.
 
“We eventually hope to have several varieties and distribute in multiple states, perhaps even nationally,” says Lin.
 
Lin herself may not take part in Lionheart’s long-term growth. Her current visa expires next year, and she’ll have to find work in journalism or a related field — and a sponsorship from any potential employer (Lionheart may not count) — to qualify for a longer-term work visa that allows her to stay in the United States. Given federal work visa caps and intense competition from highly qualified candidates, Lin knows she might not make the cut — though she’s eternally optimistic.
 
Regardless of how Lionheart’s leadership team — or the company itself — looks in three years, the experience has already been immensely rewarding for Lin and her colleagues. “It’s an amazing blessing to be able to come [to the United States] and work on a project like this,” she says. “I never would have hung out with or spoken to any of [my colleagues] were it not for Lionheart.”
 

Macalester embraces 100 percent solar initiative

St. Paul’s Macalester College is aiming to be the first higher education institution in MSP to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources. In mid-April, the college announced a partnership with SunEdison, a leading builder of solar generation infrastructure, to purchase a share of the output of a soon-to-be-constructed community solar garden in rural Dakota County. The deal permits Macalester to offset up to 120 percent of its campus consumption.
 
According to the college and SunEdison, the solar garden should be mostly built out by the end of the year and will be operational sometime in 2016. As soon as the facility is reliably generating enough electricity to offset consumption on Macalester’s campus, the college will be functionally carbon-free (or better). The agreement will remain in force for 25 years, guaranteeing Macalester’s carbon-free status for a generation.
 
“Given our projected consumption patterns and the expected rising trend in electricity rates over the period of the agreement, we believe that the savings over the term of the agreement could be in the millions of dollars,” said David Wheaton, Macalester’s vice president for finance and administration, in a recent release.
 
Wheaton estimates that the partnership will cut the college’s power bills by 50 to 67 percent over the life of the agreement, though the exact savings depend on long-term pricing for carbon-intensive energy sources. It costs more than $1 million annually to power Macalester’s roughly 50-acre campus at current prices. Colorado College, a similarly sized institution near Colorado Springs, has saved more than $1 million per year since switching to solar.
 
Macalester also recently applied for a state grant to fund the installation of solar panels on the roof of Markim Hall, a building on campus. Those panels would supply some of the energy used on that part of campus and would help make up any deficit if output at the SunEdison garden dips temporarily.
 
Given the clear financial benefits — not to mention the cachet of being a sustainable trailblazer — other MSP higher education institutions may soon hop on the solar bandwagon. Just down Summit Avenue from Macalester, the much larger University of St. Thomas has committed to carbon-neutrality by 2035, and may push that timetable forward if circumstances dictate. Even the University of Minnesota, a far larger institution, has made noises about going carbon-neutral. Such moves could be a boon to Minnesota’s solar industry, which employed about 1,000 people last year, not to mention MSP companies like SimpleRay Solar.
 
Macalester’s ambitious 100 percent-solar initiative was made possible by the passage of a solar-friendly law during last year’s legislative session. Though Xcel Energy, Minnesota’s largest utility, recently warned the state utility commission that the law was promoting the growth of “utility-scale” solar installations that could have unintended consequences for the state’s energy grid, the commission isn’t bound to act on Xcel’s recommendations. Macalester officials have expressed confidence that the college can make good on its 100 percent-solar commitment in the still-unlikely event that the SunEdison deal falls through.
 

The Brandlab boosts diversity with new curriculum

 
The BrandLab, an innovative nonprofit supported by MSP’s biggest creative agencies, is actively broadening creative-industry networks to introduce young people from diverse backgrounds to the dynamic world of advertising and marketing. With more than 600 students enrolled in The BrandLab's classes this semester and with ambitious plans for growth, the organization is wrapping up a curriculum revamp that will make its lessons even more engaging to MSP’s brightest young minds.
 
The BrandLab has a simple yet ambitious goal: To boost diversity and inclusion in the creative industries through education and network building. According to Ellen Walthour, The BrandLab’s executive director, MSP’s advertising and marketing agencies — from big players like Olson and Carmichael Lynch to smaller, independently run outfits — should be every bit as diverse as the clients they represent and the consumers to whom they market.
 
“The ad industry is trying to break out of traditional modes of hiring, which tend to be network-based and thus less diverse than the talent pool as a whole,” says Walthour. “The BrandLab’s goal is not to eliminate personal networks from the equation, but rather to broaden and reframe them to include a more representative range of perspectives.”
 
According to Walthour, the industry’s long-term success could turn on its ability to attract and retain diverse talent. “Our region’s demographics are rapidly shifting,” she says. In Hennepin County, children of color account for about one in two births, and nearly 20 percent of the county’s college grads are people of color.
 
The industry recognizes the need to adapt to this new demographic reality. On April 22, more than 200 advertising professionals, Fortune 500 executives and media types packed into Brand New Workshop for “Moving Beyond Representation to Full Inclusion,” the latest panel discussion in The Brandlab’s Fearless Conversation Series. Panelists from General Mills, Cargill and Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch offered frank, occasionally uncomfortable answers to MPR host Tom Weber’s questions about racial and ethnic diversity in MSP’s creative industries.
 
Judging by the probing queries and nuanced answers, diversity and multiculturalism clearly weigh on the minds of MSP’s advertisers, marketers and commercial artists. The consensus: Though creative workplaces are slowly becoming more diverse, full inclusion is more elusive than would appear from the increasingly multicultural TV, print and digital ads produced by many local agencies.
 
The BrandLab may have the solution. Founded in 2008 by John Olson, the late principal at the legendary agency Olson, the organization hires professional instructors to teach elective marketing and advertising classes at local high schools, including St. Paul’s Johnson Senior High. Volunteer helpers, who are often creative-industry professionals, share real-world experiences and techniques to add context and perspective.
 
These classes cover industry history, ethics, culture and theory. One highlight: An engaging, if uncomfortable, lesson on “extraordinarily racist and sexist ads from the early 20th century,” says jabber logic principal Amee Tomlinson McDonald. Along with Emily Ronning, The BrandLab’s curriculum design director, she’s spearheading the organization’s curriculum redesign. By confronting advertising’s ugly past, The BrandLab’s multicultural students gain a visceral understanding of what they’re up against — and why they need to lend their voices and talents to the conversation.
 
These awkward ads are just one example of Tomlinson McDonald and Ronning’s revamp, which shifts the focus from traditional pedagogy (think half-hour lessons) to a more interactive, engaging model.
 
“It sounds cliched, but kids really do have short attention spans,” explains Tomlinson McDonald. “We’re using 30 to 60 second videos, real-world case studies, digital images” and other varied media “to keep kids engaged.” J. Crew’s YouTube page proved a particularly effective teaching tool, she mentions.
 
Students also dive deep into key agency roles: copywriting, graphic design, video production, project management, and even positions like accounting. By the end of the semester, they’re knowledgeable enough to put together mock projects for actual clients, whose employees hear pitches, critique work, and sometimes adopt aspects of a draft campaign.
 
The new curriculum is “in beta” in all of The BrandLab’s classrooms this semester. After some tweaks and improvements, a more finalized version will roll out for the next school year, though Walthour notes that The BrandLab’s curriculum is “always looking for ways to improve and adapt.”
 
The BrandLab doesn’t rely solely on classroom instruction. Throughout the semester, heavily programmed field trips to MSP-area agencies give students the chance to interact with creatives in their natural environments — and, possibly, get a sneak peek at their future workplaces.
 
On an April 21 trip, for example, Carmichael Lynch, Colle+McVoy and Olson each hosted 20+ Johnson Senior High students for two hours of tours, informational videos, Q&A time and — of course — a Pizza Luce-catered lunch. At Carmichael Lynch, students engaged fearlessly with agency staff and appeared genuinely surprised at the creativity that pervaded the building. (After passing by a midday yoga class in the agency’s lobby, one bright-eyed young lady remarked, “I had no idea people would be having fun at the office.”)
 
The BrandLab cultivates and focuses such sentiments in hopes of transforming curious students into the next generation of passionate creative professionals. Each year, the organization places dozens of classroom alums in paid summer internships at local agencies. Whereas other organizations focus on supporting older college students who have already self-selected into creative majors, The BrandLab deals exclusively with high school students and college freshmen. “The goal is to captivate kids early, before they’ve really considered [and potentially dismissed, due to lack of professional support] marketing or advertising as a career,” explains Walthour.
 
After an intense “boot camp” that prepares them for a “real world” workplace, interns work 12 to 20 hours per week during the summer. Every Monday, they pair up with a “coach” — someone with academic or professional experience in marketing and advertising — for debriefing sessions, all held on the University of Minnesota campus. These sessions help the interns process their often intense summer experiences while providing additional instruction in advanced concepts like brand strategy and personal branding.
 
The BrandLab’s model is clearly successful. Many first-time interns return the following summer. The BrandLab alums often major in creative or marketing-related disciplines after heading off to college. As the organization’s first alums graduate from college, they’ll disperse into the creative workforce to build the broad, inclusive networks the industry needs.
 

College of Design students craft tap handles for micro-breweries

A novel partnership between several local craft breweries and the students in a College of Design class at the University of Minnesota produced innovative tap-handle designs, and laid the groundwork for future collaborations between creative students and the Twin Cities’ booming beer industry. Sarah Sheber, a fabric developer at Target, taught the Product Form and Model Making class. Her intention was to give students a window into the workings of the small, creative businesses reshaping the Twin Cities’ economy.
 
“I pursued smaller [breweries] purposefully,” she says. “I wanted students to have a chance to learn as much about [the breweries’] brands as they could, to see as much of the business as possible and understand the different roles that go into producing local brews. With a large company [like Target], individuals own a small piece of the process. With small companies, each member of the team needs to be flexible, to know the business and the brand, and be able to wear a lot of hats.” 
 
Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Northeast Minneapolis participated in the project. So did Mighty Axe Hops, which produces high-quality, locally grown hops for brewers in Minneapolis, St. Paul and elsewhere; and Excelsior Brewing, a suburban taproom and brewery.
 
Students produced multiple tap-handle designs for each business, some attempting improvements on existing designs and others completely reimagining the brands’ ethos. Breweries had the option to purchase finalized tap handles, which otherwise remain student property.
 
The collaboration had two overarching goals. First, Sheber wanted to students to experience the creative freedom and creative expression that inform commercial design projects. “The idea was to act like a client, providing support and feedback as students worked through each design,” says Matt Hauck, Fair State’s director of operations.
 
Not every design was practical. One student incorporated powerful rare earth magnets into a prototype, recalls Fair State CEO Evan Sallee, making it impossible to detach and move. “There was a lot of trial and error,” says Sallee, “but it was great to be engaged with talented students who are passionate about design.”
 
Some designs eventually solved problems of which Hauck and Sallee weren’t even aware. “The students we worked with put a lot of thought into the ergonomics of their final designs, something we’d never even considered,” says Sallee.
 
Sheber and her students unveiled the final tap-handle designs during a December 16 happy hour fueled, naturally, by free beer from Fair State and Excelsior. Sheber is already planning to bring back the collaboration for next year’s class, possibly with new brewery partners.
 
“We’ve had interest from brewers of all scales,” says Sheber, some of whom urgently need updated branding.
 
At Fair State, Sallee and Hauck may take a pass on using any of last semester’s designs. But they’re open to future collaborations that keep their branding fresh and distinctive.
 
The local craft beer community is largely chummy and supportive of new entrants, says Sallee. “But positioning among other breweries’ tap handles at bars is still important,” he notes. “You want your design to stand out in the right way.”
 

WAM recreating iconic photo with Green Line train

The Weisman Art Museum’s (WAM) Wanderlust event, on Friday evening starting at 7 p.m., was named for the museum’s fall exhibitions—all of which are related to travel or transportation. One of those exhibitions, “Trains That Passed in the Night: The Photographs of O. Winston Link,” has inspired an elaborate re-creation of a signature Link photo using a Green Line train.
 
The re-creation is based on Link’s most famous photograph, which captured one of the country’s last commercially operational steam trains in the mid-1950s. The photo was shot at night, using flashes that illuminated the sides and top of the train, with a drive-in movie theater—replete with a symbolic airplane onscreen—in the foreground.
 
The recreated photograph will capture a specific Green Line train traveling out of the East Bank Station at around 7:15 p.m. The new image, overseen by well-known photographer and University of Minnesota assistant professor of photography Paul Shambroom, will feature a couple holding an iPad in the foreground, with the train negotiating a curved section of track in the middle ground.
 
Ten crews made up of MFA students and local photographers will set up lighting and other equipment (mostly donated by local companies) at various points along the route. Metro Transit will prepare the interior of the train with special lighting for better contrast. A radio-controlled system will ensure all the flashbulbs go off simultaneously.
 
“Paul really jumped on the idea when we pitched it to him,” says Erin Lauderman, WAM’s communications director. The completed photograph will hang in one of WAM’s galleries next to Link’s work.
 
The free Wanderlust event also includes “EXISTENTIA,” a performance art piece by Robert Niebor; Native Kids Ride Bikes, a traveling collection of lowrider bikes crafted by Native American kids from Michigan; and smoothies mixed using bicycle power.
 

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.


 

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.

MHTA unveils new innovation series

Minnesota will have yet another technology and business resource on Sept. 18th, when the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA) and Minneapolis-based awareness firm Innovosource partner to provide a new monthly innovation series.
 
Dubbed "A Break for Breakthroughs," the series takes the form of free webinars for MHTA members, with the first event covering the latest breakthroughs in flexible electronics, from films and displays to touch sensor integration.

To kick off the series, the first webinar will be shown both online and at CoCo Minneapolis in the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. Speakers have just been announced, and Innovosource's founder will moderate.
 
According to Andrew Wittenborg, MHTA's director of outreach, upcoming sessions will cover emerging areas that affect Minnesota's technology landscape most directly. For example, wearable devices and robotics are booming here, so they'll get coverage, as will nanotech, biotech, and stem cells.  Advancements in image processing and analysis are also slated to be discussed.
 
"We are particularly excited by this new partnership because it represents a key aspect of MHTA's mission to fuel Minnesota's prosperity through innovation and technology," Wittenborg notes.
 
He adds that the mission of the series is to help business leaders, R&D teams, investors, entrepreneurs, and others to learn more about emerging technologies and to build stronger relationships among the top players locally. "We will provide a greater level of awareness beyond the widely accessible information already available," says Wittenborg.
 
MHTA will also provide programming for Innovosource's Pardon the Disruption program, which connects high technology companies and investors to research universities and laboratories.
 
Source: Andrew Wittenborg, MHTA
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Minnesota Cup announces finalist round

The entrepreneurs vying for the grand prize in the heated competition for the Minnesota Cup just passed one more milestone, as 18 finalists were announced in preparation for the Sept. 11th award ceremony.
 
Now in its ninth year, the Minnesota Cup will award $40,000 to a grand prize winner who displays the most innovative idea in the state. The top three ideas in each of the six divisions (energy/clean tech, general, high tech, life science/health IT, social entrepreneur, and student) will advance to the finalist round, and compete for a share of prize money.
 
Finalists range in terms of innovation, and include aquaponics company Garden Fresh Farms, teacher-centered tech tool Kidblog, and medical device firm RxFunction. A list of finalists can be found here.
 
The competition is designed to bring out the best and brightest minds in Minnesota, and to help budding entrepreneurs to make connections within the business community.
 
Co-founder Scott Litman notes that the competition grows tremendously every year, and this spring, almost 1,100 people entered. More than 8,000 Minnesotans have participated in the Minnesota Cup since the competition began in 2005.
 
"We're proud to point to our successes, including last year's Grand Prize winner, PreciouStatus, which has raised more than $1.5 million in capital to date," Litman says, adding that other finalists have gone on to raise more than $60 million in capital, to support the development of their ideas, create jobs, and broker numerous business partnerships, collaborations, and distribution agreements.
 
Source: Scott Litman, Minnesota Cup
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

University of Minnesota launches record number of startups for 2013

The University of Minnesota is proving to be particularly adept at turning research into commercial efforts, and this year, it will set a record for the number of startup companies it's launched.
 
In the university's 2013 fiscal year, 14 startup companies were given a boost into the marketplace through efforts by the Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC). That's up from 12 last year, and it's likely that the momentum will continue into the next fiscal year. Already, five startups are on track to launch in the first few months of 2014 and another 19 technologies are in various stages of startup activity.
 
"Our continued success as a research institution depends upon our ability to transfer knowledge created at the university into the real world, where it can have a  direct impact on our society," notes Brian Herman, the University of Minnesota's Vice President for Research. He adds that the team at the OTC is doing an especially impressive job given the challenging economic climate of the past few years.
 
The OTC has been aided by the formation of a Venture Center, first opened in 2006. Since then, 52 startup companies have been created, and nearly 80 percent of those are still active. That success rate is notable, Herman points out, since a study done by Harvard Business School showed that 75 percent of all startups fail.
 
Also worth noting is the breadth of startups coming out of the university. In 2013, the range of products included a plastic bead that cuts off the blood supply to tumors, a smartphone-based breathalyzer, a handheld probe that can measure tension in soft tissues during orthopedic surgery, and a genetic test that assesses certain risks in dogs.
 
So, investors take note: when looking for the next big startup, it might be time to go back to school.
 
Source: Brian Herman, University of Minnesota
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Maverick Software Consulting recognized for innovative business model

Minneapolis-based Maverick Software Consulting boasts a distinctive business model that's getting noticed by award presenters.
 
The company just received the Innovative Partnering and Collaboration Award from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), as recognition for its efforts to link companies with entry-level IT staff sourced from colleges and universities.
 
Drawing on nearly 60 campuses across the Midwest, Maverick recruits, trains, and manages college students who work with companies that are experiencing a shortage of software development talent. The program also provides a supply of experienced IT professionals who've graduated from the program, and notes that Maverick "grads" typically find employment up to six months sooner than typical college graduates.
 
Started in 2006, the company's growth has been impressive, expanding from an initial staff of 10 student employees on one college campus to 130 employees on 25 campuses. Martin Hebig, the company's founder and president, notes that of the 325 students who've worked for Maverick, all have gone on to full-time employment at companies like Microsoft, Facebook, IBM, and Symantec.
 
He adds that receiving the MnSCU recognition is an honor, and made possible through academic and corporate partners that keep the program growing strong.
 
Hebig believes that the technology field in Minnesota will continue to heat up when it comes to hiring and retaining IT talent. "This is the year of the computer geek, nerd, tech diva, and so on," he says. "There are so many great things going on in the state right now to support this strong growth trend, and a lot of efforts to keep high-paying IT jobs in the state."
 
Source: Martin Hebig, Maverick Software Consulting
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Office of Higher Ed debuts a Minnesota college planner app

High school students and others looking at postsecondary education will have a powerful new app, thanks to the state's Office of Higher Education (OHE).
 
The agency recently unveiled the Minnesota College Planner, a mobile application that can be downloaded for free. The tool provides students with resources for exploring college options and managing tasks associated with applying to college. OHE will be rolling out a new website soon to promote the app, and is already sending a lively video introduction to students.
 
Students can start planning as early as 8th grade, with reminders set for events like ACT testing and FAFSA form completion. Colleges and universities are sorted according to size, location, price, and majors. App users can browse profiles, set up campus visits, and stay updated on changes like tuition increases or new majors.
 
The app also lets students address financial aid issues as they search for schools, simplifying a process that has traditionally been "more challenging than a few quick swipes on a phone," says OHE Director Larry Pogemiller.
 
"The mobile site has been designed for students, giving them the ability to have some control and help with their own college planning," he says. "For example, the planner [tools] guide them as to what classes they should be taking in high school to meet the entrance guidelines for their dream career, which can help keep their goals realistic and focused."
 
He adds that the app was developed as a way to help more Minnesota students prepare for college in an increasingly technological society.
 
Source: Larry Pogemiller, Office of Higher Education
Writer: Elizabeth Millard
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