Job summit highlights small-tech wizardry

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 25, 2011 - 9:14 PM

Gov. Mark Dayton said he was optimistic about the state's ability to innovate.

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Gov. Mark Dayton

There were gee-whiz innovations and high-tech jobs for the taking at the Governor's Job Summit in St. Paul on Tuesday.

A dozen fresh-faced tech firms showcased engineering jobs and "over-the-top" products that included James Bond-like spyware, fire retardants made from corn and plug-in conversion kits for cars at the summit's "Innovation Hall."

Recon Robotics in Edina, TLC Precision Wafer Technology and ReGo Plug In, both of Minneapolis, and EarthClean of South St. Paul were among firms handpicked by Gov. Mark Dayton to showcase their products and growth potential.

Dayton said that the state was at a "critical juncture" but that he was "very optimistic" about the state's ability to innovate. He said that there are hundreds of workers in China working for "M3," a Chinese company that mimics products made by Maplewood-based 3M Co. "They can copy but can't innovate," Dayton said.

As if to prove he could, Andrew Borene, ReconRobotics director and general counsel, tossed what looked like a rubberized dumbbell halfway across the hall. He grabbed a large remote control and, in seconds, the dumbbell morphed into a tire-wheeling daredevil that scooted around people and tables while transmitting live video of what its camera captured.

The $13,500 device has turned the four-year-old ReconRobotics into a mini commercial success. Human resources director Christina Dowling is interviewing people now. Within a year, she needs to add another 10 engineers and sales and service workers to the current 36-member staff. Finding new hires with the right skill set was proving a challenge. Recon has military and law enforcement customers in 30 countries so finding the right employees is critical, Dowling said.

Former Medtronic CEO Bill George told summit attendees that the state needed more small, nimble and inventive companies. They would develop into the state's next 3M or Medtronic, he said. George recommended that the state partner with U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, 3M and other private ventures to fund a Minnesota Innovation Center at the University of Minnesota.

Familiar themes surfaced at the summit, such as getting businesses capitalized, finding skilled workers and hand-wringing over whether Minnesota can still create innovative, world-class companies and game-changing products.

"This summit is to spur innovation and let people know that if we invest properly these are the types of businesses we can produce here," said Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. "We are looking for innovation, and these [firms] are a demonstration that it's alive and well in Minnesota."

Doug Ruth, founder and CEO of EarthClean, just signed a $4.3 million contract to provide a South Korean distributor with a corn-starch-based powder that extinguishes fires in seconds. The deal was signed during Dayton's trade mission to South Korea this month.

As a result, Ruth needs to hire two more chemical engineers and 15 other workers by next year. He has eight full-time workers now but wants 25 by December 2012. He said his need for specialized chemical engineers means he will never stop interviewing.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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