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The MOJO Minnesota "agitators" want investors to get risky--and innovators to get what they need

Any business gathering that features conga drummers obviously means to motivate. And that was just what a group of Twin Cities attorneys, advisors, entrepreneurs, and investors wanted to do when they launched the new "innovation advocacy force" called MOJO Minnesota in May--right around the time we were putting together the first issue of The Line. Besides a conga beat, that launch event featured a speech about success and failure by an entrepreneur who's experienced both, and games to hone participants' networking skills.

The mission: to amplify the voice of startups and entrepreneurs in the state while also injecting new energy, or "mojo," into the community. Since May, the eleven self-proclaimed MOJO "agitators" have been working behind the scenes, talking with policymakers and planning a series of events that will begin in the fall. The Line spoke with two of the group's founders about how they plan to use their energy over the months ahead.

The Line: What's your assessment of the launch event?

Marti Nyman: I thought it was well done. Getting the people that we're trying to reach into the same room and having them in the same conversation to explain what we're doing. There's just so much that can't be done via the website or e-mails or other kind of sterile media. So I think it was reflective of the energy. We're trying to be who we are. We have a commitment to stimulating entrepreneurship and innovation and doing it in a way that's unique to us, but also in a way that's going to get people to notice it, so it doesn't just blend into the woodwork. It was a really great start. Well organized. I saw a lot of really good connectivity. All the feedback that I got from people was that they got it, they understood it, and it was well received.

Angels, Investors, and the Pace of Change

The Line: What do you think of the response we've seen so far to the state's new angel investor tax credit (AITC)? MOJO was involved in lobbying the Legislature for the program, which allows a generous tax credit for investors or funds that put resources into new companies focused on high-tech or proprietary technology. How does the activity compare to what you envisioned when you were advocating for it?

Ernest Grumbles: In terms of the empirical data, I've just seen what Thomas Lee reported in MedCityNews. He reported that there wasn't very much activity compared to what he thought there would be, but I think it's going to take a little while. I've heard a ton of buzz about investors and startups trying to get in there as quickly as possible.

I've looked at the forms you use to apply for the tax credit. They're not hard to fill out. It's just a check-a-box thing, and there isn't a lot of gray area; either you meet these criteria or you don't. I know there's a ton of excitement about trying to utilize that credit, whether or not it took off like a rocket in the very first week. It's going to take a little while, given how information gets out about this stuff, but I think it'll soon be moving pretty fast.

Is the U of M Moving Fast Enough?

The Line: Now that the angel tax credit is in place, what are the next priorities on MOJO's policy agenda?

Grumbles: Tech transfer at the University of Minnesota is a hot-button issue, in light of some of the open dialogue between Rep. [Tim] Mahoney and the Office of Technology Commercialization at the University of Minnesota. Mahoney was one of the people we worked with on the AITC, and many of us have had deep connections to the University of Minnesota and different faces of innovation and entrepreneurship activity there. So we're looking to leverage that on this specific issue of tech transfer.

I think, frankly, the mission has to be to increase the level and amount of tech startups--and when I say tech, that's "big-tent" tech--coming out of the University of Minnesota. If you compare, the University of Michigan spins out about ten to 12 startups a year. The University of Florida puts out anywhere from 18 to 22 new enterprises. [The U, meanwhile, averaged five spin-offs per year between 1984 and 2004. Last year it created one and this year it plans three launches.]

I know the emphasis at the U, as even they've said, has tried to be more on quality than quantity. But with startups, it's like new restaurants. A lot of them have to be out there and fail so we can end up with the ones that come to the top and are actually going to take off. If you're already constraining the level and amount of stuff that's coming out, then you've dramatically reduced the chances of success.

So we would be looking for ways to engage with them and find ways to increase exposure and access to new technology at the U, and how to get it in the hands of finance and startup folks. We'd like to find ways to help them enhance the process of approaching and working with the U--how to get licensed and how to make that seamless. There are a lot of great folks at the OTC we're going to be excited to work with.

Another priority is the new enhanced R&D tax credit. It kind of came in as a sleeper thing alongside the AITC, but there were some really good improvements in there. If you go to our website under "Initiatives" you can find a nice set of materials, relatively recently released, including a white paper, a four-page summary on how to use the R&D tax credit.

Keeping MOJO's Mojo Working

The Line: I'm curious how you guys hope to maintain the energy you generated with the launch event and the tax-credit success.

Ernest Grumbles: One way is by maintaining our direct outreach, our "social work," if you will, with policymakers. We're trying to help them think differently about how they approach some of these innovation issues, and how they connect with startups and entrepreneurs. That's one-on-one. That's face-to-face-relationship stuff.

Nyman: I think the other thing is--and this has been acknowledged from the start--that what the area doesn't need is another fragmented effort to try to stimulate entrepreneurship. There has to be some form of outreach and connectivity to other activities that are taking place. There are going to be things that we are the right folks to lead on, and there are other things where it's going to be more appropriate to let someone else lead the change.

One of the unique areas where MOJO has established itself is in putting a lot of the activity that's happened at the legislative level into plain English. I have not seen any of the other groups really turn their energy and attention towards that, so think we're developing a bit of a presence around that--trying to translate legislative activity for the entrepreneurs so they understand it, as well as doing a lot of outward advocacy for the entrepreneurs.

I think there's a great inventory of things that we will be focusing on, but the challenge is that we've got finite bandwidth and we've got only so many resources. So we've got to be thoughtful about where we spend our time.

Grumbles: I agree one hundred percent with what Marti said about collaboration. Most of us have deep connections to a lot of the other groups in town and we see ourselves as an amplifier. We're looking to be additive here--not redundant. We want to be helping to bring together some of the other groups' efforts and then collaborate wherever we possibly can. And that plain-English point that Marti made, I think that is just critical. A lot of the website content of some of the state agencies is difficult to use.

There's plenty of work to be done, and I think the fact that we're keeping MOJO more in the strike-force mode as opposed to trying to grow it into a large-scale membership organization is one of the things that will help us stay effective. I think we'll be more effective as a SWAT team than we would if we tried to build a massive army.

What's Next?

The Line: What specific MOJO events can we look forward to in the coming months?

Grumbles: We're going to be having MOJO talks or get-togethers, probably starting in September, on a monthly basis through the end of the year and then on into the spring, with different "agitators" and/or people in the community with very tight, succinct presentations and active dialogue; quick blast sessions, start-of-the-day things on topics that are extremely pragmatic for startups; different issues of finance, business launch and other things like that. We want to find ways to deliver really high-quality and succinct content to people, and also continue to create  networking opportunities. There's an election coming up, we're planning a potential event around that that we think will be comparable to our launch event in terms of the activity level.

The Line: Thanks for your time, guys.

[Note: We didn't ask, so we'll have to wait and see if MOJO's next event includes conga drummers.]

This conversation took place on July 30, 2010, and has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Dan Haugen is The Line's Innovation/Jobs Editor. Contact him at [email protected].

Photos, top to bottom:

MOJO logo

Marti Nyman (l.) and Ernest Grumbles, two MOJO mainstays

Nyman: "What the area doesn't need is another fragmented effort to stimulate entrepreneurship."

Nyman is Board Solutions Lead at Integrated Governance Solutions, and Entrepreneur in Residence at the U of M's Carlson School of Management.

Ernest Grumbles is an attorney with the intellectual property law firm Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis.

Grumbles and Nyman. "We'll be more effective as a SWAT team than we would be if we tried to build a massive army."

All photos by Bill Kelley
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