The annual Twin Cities Startup Week — a gathering of Minnesota tech firms and investors — has grown so large so fast that local business and political leaders are starting to ask: Could it be the foundation of something even bigger?
Since its start with 15 events in 2014, Twin Cities Startup Week has mushroomed this year to more than 200 events, nearly all of them free, throughout next week at almost 100 locations around the metro area.
In addition, three other sizable conferences for innovative businesses and entrepreneurs will happen in the Twin Cities next week. All are taking advantage of — and adding to — the crowds drawn to Startup Week activities.
“We all have the same mission: Let’s highlight Minnesota in the best way possible,” says Nels Pederson, managing director at Beta.MN, key organizer for Twin Cities Startup Week.
On Wednesday, Pederson joined about 30 other people gathered at a meeting hosted by Synapse Minnesota, an ideas firm led by journalist Steve LeBeau and entrepreneur Sarah Moe, to compare notes for developing a bigger event akin to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
“This is about innovation in the broad sense,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said at the beginning of the meeting. “I really look forward to building out this regional coalition and to do even more.”
Synapse also invited arts organizers to the meeting, including Jasmine Russell, whose firm Monicat Data attracted dozens last month to a daylong creative technology summit at a Minneapolis theater. Jatin Setia, founder and executive director of the Twin Cities Film Fest, described how that event has grown over the past decade to attract 15,000 people annually.
Douglas Hegley, chief digital officer at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, reeled off a list of agenda-setting arts groups, from the Minnesota Dance Theater to the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, whose work he believed would be amplified by the development of a broader regional event focused on innovation.
Nothing was settled at Wednesday’s event beyond the exchange of ideas. LeBeau said he organized the meeting to get people talking beyond their normal circles. “We have to be diverse because that’s how you get to see more angles of life,” he said.
Twin Cities Startup Week was already starting to expand beyond the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who focused on smartphones, web and data businesses in its first four years. For instance, one of the new conferences happening next week is called Food Ag Ideas and will spotlight new developments in food and food processing. It is a spinoff after being a “track” of about eight events inside last year’s Startup Week.
Another new conference, called the Manova Summit, will focus on health innovations. It was developed by the Twin Cities-based Medical Alley Association and, backed by sponsors like Walmart and the Mayo Clinic, will occupy the Minneapolis Convention Center for the first part of the week.
Later in the week, the convention center hosts the Blacks in Technology Conference, a first-ever national gathering designed to raise the visibility of black people in high-tech.
To build on the momentum Twin Cities Startup Week has generated, several economic-development executives in the Twin Cities this past year visited South by Southwest and other tech conferences, said Meg Steuer, a former Beta.MN executive now working for Greater MSP, the regional economic development group.
She said the visits include smaller meetings focused chiefly on investors and the giant event called Collision, which combined what had previously been 16 distinct conventions. It was held in New Orleans this year and will be in Toronto next year.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Dakota Crow, vice president of innovation at U.S. Bank and organizer of a local group of tech execs at big firms called the Minnovation Collective, said: “If you’ve been to South by Southwest or Collision, you’ll know that they are not really about innovation. They’re about creativity.”
As successful as Twin Cities Startup Week has become, Crow suggested it’s about “halfway” to what could be developed in the region.
“The innovation that’s coming out of Minnesota is really staggering,” he said. “There’s something to build on here.”