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Cargill and Ecolab announce new Farm to Fork Techstars class

 Ecolab CEO Doug Baker (middle) and Cargill CEO David MacLennan (right) at Techstars Farm to Fork 2018 Demo Day. Photo: Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune

Ecolab CEO Doug Baker (middle) and Cargill CEO David MacLennan (right) at Techstars Farm to Fork 2018 Demo Day. (Photo: Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune)

The second class in Techstars' Farm to Fork Accelerator Program starts this week in St. Paul, Cargill and Ecolab announced Monday. 

Eleven startups from across the U.S. and as far away as India and Israel, were selected to participate in the second annual business accelerator designed specifically for food and agriculture entrepreneurs, with a strong bent toward those that are "tech-enabled."

Techstars, a Boulder, Colo.-based business development organization, has more than 40 different accelerators around the globe all aimed at kickstarting good ideas through mentorship, while the sponsoring companies are hoping to learn from the younger, nimbler startups. 

"Solving the greatest food and sustainability challenges the world faces today requires partnership and fresh, innovative ideas," Justin Kershaw, Cargill's chief information officer, said in a prepared statement. "Having the brightest minds in food and ag tech in Cargill and Ecolab's backyards provides an amazing opportunity to infuse startup energy into our company, while also helping bring critical solutions to scale. It's truly a win-win." 

St. Paul-based Ecolab and Minnetonka-based Cargill are the primary backers of the Farm to Fork Accelerator Program. This is the second of a planned three classes that run during the summer months, culminating in a demo day in October where the partipating companies pitch their concepts during Twin Cities Startup Week.

"While we're here to mentor these startups, we're also learning from their approach to problem-solving and are excited to help bring their energy to the Twin Cities startup community," Katie Peterson, Ecolab marketing vice president and Techstars program lead, said in a prepared statement. "Their passion and innovation, combined with the global scale and reach of Ecolab and Cargill, can help solve the challenges of safely feeding the world's population."

This year's class includes Contain, Conversight, EcoPlant, Food for All, Imago AI, Magic AI, Otrafy, Phood, PurPics, Trackter and Transparent Kitchen. 

More details about each company can be found on the Techstars blog.

Whether it's called agri-food, food tech or farm to fork, said Brett Brohl, Techstars managing director of the program, people are increasingly paying attention to this space. 

"Our focus for the program continues to be tech-enabled startups, software, hardware & IoT, that want to solve big problems in the food world," Brohl wrote in a blog Monday. "This year’s class truly represents technology that will impact the industry from farms all the way to the fork."     

Last year's program included nine startups that had access to hundreds of leaders in food, ag and tech. One company, Traive, announced at the end of the program it was moving its headquarters from Boston to the Twin Cities. 

Jeff Tollefson, the former venture capitalist and nonprofit executive, will lead MHTA

Jeff Tollefson

Jeff Tollefson, the former venture capitalist, has been named CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA). Tollefson also ran for about a decade the Twin Cities office of Genesys Works, a job-training nonprofit that collaborates with industry. 

Tollefson, 57, succeeds Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who resigned after eight years to lead Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Tollefson, through his work with Genesys Works, also served as chief growth officer for the Houston-based nonprofit, and industry liaison.

 “MHTA must be a respected thought leader, convener and collaborator driving the success of Minnesota’s innovation economy,” he said. “MHTA is not operating to its full potential and I look forward to working with our board and industry partners to deliver higher levels of member value and community impact.  Areas of focus will include building the skilled tech workforce Minnesota companies need for future business success and renewed support of earlier-stage companies and entrepreneurs that are critical to a thriving, innovative tech economy.”

MHTA, through public policy and internships, also is engaged in workforce development for the employee-hungry tech trade.

“Jeff brings excellent experience building, growing and leading organizations, a demonstrated ability to catalyze teams around missions and strategies and great skill in developing and leveraging partnerships,” said Scott Singer, chair of MHTA’s board.

Tollefson at Genesys helped provide pathways to careers for thousands of low-income high school students through skills training and year-long internships. Tollefson credits the early success of the program to connections and credibility that MHTA provided for its Twin Cities launch in 2008. Genesys Works trains and places about 4,000 students annually in several cities. 

Twenty years ago, Tollefson was a partner in Crescendo Ventures, with offices in the Twin Cities and Silicon Valley. It raised more than $1 billion from investors and boasted a $1.2 billion “profit” in its portfolio when the tech boom busted in 2001-02. Some of the anticipated seven-figure gains disappeared for partners and investors.

"I had tried not to confuse brains with a bull market and I always thought of myself as fortunate ... to invest in a hot market," a reflective Tollefson recalled in 2012. "It sure seemed like easy pickings.You invest in a little communications company and 18 months later it goes public. It looked like life was going to be set financially. To have it all gone in several months was a shock."

Tollefson spent the next six years performing "triage," shutting down hopeless portfolio companies and continuing to invest in other firms that showed promise. He still made a six-figure salary, thanks to Crescendo's 2 percent management fee. 

"I was making money but never feeling like I was earning it," Tollefson said several years ago. "This was a terrible feeling.". 

The Genesys job proved a great way to revive his career and work with young people and industry on building a better economy.

The MHTA job paid nearly $240,000 in 2017.