The people of Minnesota’s original startup industry — farmers and other food innovators — are reaching for the spotlight that has been shining on techies for the past few decades.
As thousands of tech entrepreneurs and investors gather this week for the fifth annual Twin Cities Startup Week, a group of food company founders and executives have put together their own conference, called Food, Ag, Ideas Week, alongside it.
“There has never been a better time to be thinking, working and innovating in food and agriculture, and I think now is the time for Minnesota to actively take its place in that conversation,” said Lauren Mehler Pradhan, director of Grow North MN and organizer for the event.
Both events grow out of the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Cup competition, the state’s biggest money contest for new ideas and investment that concludes for 2018 on Monday evening. Twin Cities Startup Week was designed to grab some attention for a corner of the high-tech world that is overshadowed by places like Seattle, Austin, Texas, Boston and most of all, Silicon Valley.
The new food innovator conference, which spun out of events from last year’s Twin Cities Startup Week, is aimed at bringing back some luster to Minnesota’s deep talent pool, history and, organizers hope, its robust future in the food industry.
Speakers and panelists range from General Mills’ Chief Executive Jeff Harmening, who kicks off the week with a keynote address, to Meg Moynhian, who has developed farmer mental-health programs at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, to Pat Christie, founder of Conservis and a leader in the agriculture-technology startup community.
There also are events about the health of school lunches, competition in craft brewing, the emergence of the hemp industry and development of self-driving tractors.
“All these topics were selected because Minnesota is a leader in all of them,” Pradhan said. “The people who are leading these efforts speak at national conferences all the time and are rock stars in other parts of the country. I want to make them rock stars here.”
Minnesota’s food and ag boosters can’t count on anyone else to elevate the state’s reputation for them, said Pete Speranza, business development lead for 301 Inc., the venture-capital arm of Golden Valley-based General Mills.
“There’s this Minnesota Nice attitude, which is respectful, but no one goes out of their way to talk about the great things going on here,” Speranza said.
He travels around the country scouting the best new ideas in food and knows which cities are known as food hubs — places like Boulder, Colo., Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. He thinks Minneapolis-St. Paul as a region, and Minnesota as a state, offer a more complex array of food and ag perspectives than better-known food hubs such as Boulder.
“We probably have the deepest history in food but aren’t as well-known around innovation,” Speranza said. “How do we get to the next 150 years? It’s with talent.”
The mission of Grow North is to connect the state’s food and ag entrepreneurs with one another and with Minnesota’s vast pool of food-related resources, including companies like Schwan’s and founding partner General Mills, university food researchers and government agencies.
Minnesota innovators from across food and agriculture have spent the past few years figuring out ways to better work together. The connections aren’t always obvious. Rhys Williams never would have thought Land O’Lakes and the Good Acre, a nonprofit food center offering training, market access, storage and kitchen space to independent farmers, would benefit by working together.
“I was a small organic vegetable farmer in southwest Minnesota for a long time and I had no access to these food companies here,” said Williams, executive director of the Good Acre. “We are all basically doing the same thing but at different scales.”
Now, he finds himself in meetings with representatives from Minnesota’s Fortune 500 food companies looking for ways to help one another.
Minneapolis-St. Paul has the most food scientists of any U.S. metropolitan area, according to Greater MSP, the regional economic development group. This depth of technical knowledge is one of the reasons San Francisco-based Brandless Inc., a new online consumer marketplace, agreed to open a second headquarters in Minneapolis.
The founders of Brandless courted Rachael Vegas away from Target Corp. to become the company’s new chief merchant, but she wasn’t willing to relocate to the Bay Area. She made a case that the Twin Cities’ experienced workforce would be an asset to this growing e-commerce business, which includes a significant number of food products.
“I’m one of those unique people who stayed here even though I’m not from here originally,” Vegas said. She and her husband came to the Twin Cities in 2003 as a dual-career couple due to the presence of so many corporate opportunities. The plan was to stay five years, she said, “but now we have two kids who are true Minnesotans.”
Brandless employs more than 30 people at its Minneapolis headquarters, with plans to hire more.
The food and ag industry employs 84,000 Minnesotans, said Peter Frosch of Greater MSP, and there are 6,000 open positions in the sector within the region today.
“What is really unique about the food and ag sector here is how many dimensions we have,” Frosch said. “It’s one of the most important sectors in the region and the state of Minnesota. There’s a lot of opportunity, a big base, and it’s growing.”