This article on Outstate MN Innovation written in partnership with Great North Ventures. Read more about innovation in other Minnesota regions: Central.
One may react in disbelief when told the amount of flourishing innovation in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but recent developments show it to be true.
With dedicated economic development associations paired with state funding, blossoming startups aiming to change the way we look at ordering food, and virtual academies looking to accelerate growth, there’s really no direction but up for the Northwestern Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota region.
And the statistics bear this out. Since the mid-1800s, the area’s population has grown every decade. The median age in the region is 31.6 years, making for a population that can seize and drive innovation and entrepreneurship given the catalysts.
A Creative and “Weird” Community
“The entrepreneurial history goes back a lot of time, there’s lots of success stories,” said John Machachek, chief innovation officer of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation.
Describing his position as interesting, with lots of variety, he said there really are not a lot of jobs like his. “There’s lots of ecosystem builders, but not as many that focus on relationships, and being the friend of the entrepreneurs,” Machachek, who currently works with approximately 90 startups, said.
This goes along with the community, which he described as friendly, collaborative, and creative. “Fargo-Moorhead is kind of a weird community, but a good weird,” he said. “We’ve fostered a lot of creativity and ‘can-do’ people. It’s not your normal Midwest mindset.”
In addition to the plethora of state resources and programs — the Grand Farm initiative, the LIFT program, and Growth Initiative Fund — Machachek has worked with Emerging Prairie to share resources with entrepreneurs in the region.
“There’s been a good thing between us and Emerging Prairie [since 2012],” he said, mentioning additional programs for small businesses such as Innovate North Dakota, a four-phase grant program of a total of $40,000 per recipient.
Greg Tehven, co-founder of Emerging Prairie, would agree that it’s an exciting time for startups in the region. “I think entrepreneurship is alive and well in Fargo-Moorhead, and has been for a long time,” he said. Tehven will be hosting the 5th annual Prairie Capital Summit in Fargo on September 23, 2021.
Formerly a world traveler and founder of a national nonprofit, Tehven “fell in love with Fargo” after returning to his hometown. He and three other founders — including Jake Joraanstad of flourishing agtech startup Bushel (which has now raised $75M) — originally built out Emerging Prairie as an online content blog to tell the story of entrepreneurship, but ended up turning it into an entrepreneurial support organization.
“[Turns out] bringing entrepreneurs together was more important than writing about them,” Tehven said, of Emerging Prairie. It organized and sponsored the largest “1 Million Cups” chapter in the nation until 2020. It now runs StartupBREW Fargo, a weekly event that highlights entrepreneurship; organizes one of the biggest TEDx events in the country; and was previously very involved in Startup Weekend Fargo.
Real estate, manufacturing, agriculture, and hardware have all done incredibly well in the region, Tehven explained. “I think people overlook the successful outcomes we’ve had here,” he said. Both he and Machachek mentioned that local DNA sciences company Aldevron recently sold for $9 billion.
“[They] overlook the vibrancy of our downtown — there’s a really high energy and youthful environment,” Tehven said, echoing Machachek’s sentiment of a collaborative and creative spirit, which has been noticed by Great North Ventures.
“The startups, ecosystem leaders, and energy are all outstanding in Fargo-Moorhead, so it’s easy to get more involved in supporting the community,” said Ryan Weber, managing partner of Minnesota-based Great North Ventures.
“We’ve found opportunities for founders there to participate in our free Greater-MN gBeta St. Cloud Startup Accelerator programs and it’s been exciting for us to participate in conferences and founder retreats in the Fargo-Moorhead area.” (Weber will be delivering a keynote at the upcoming Prairie Capital Summit, linked above.)
Impacting a Billion People
One of these creative spirits in this area is Brian Larry, founder of the rapidly-growing platform Where’s My Food Truck.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life,” he said, as he gave details of previous companies in technology such as a Wi-Fi loyalty program. Once he figured out an opportunity with contactless ordering during the past year of untraditional dining experiences, he found his niche.
What started out as a platform that tracks user data every time a QR code is scanned at a food truck has now scaled to a full operation that not only helps people book food trucks, but functions as a booking site for food trucks. “We do a bunch of marketing and advertising for free for the food truck industry, and it’s more of a partnership,” Larry explained. “Once the customer pays them, it pays me.”
He was able to build out the concept with a $40,000 Innovate North Dakota grant, and in the past nine months, it’s grown immensely.
His web app — which is now active in 35 cities across the nation — has the first smart menu with videos, now includes a texting and automated email platform, and includes a loyalty program. “It’s a brain for a business,” he said.
Once that QR code is scanned, Larry is not only helping food trucks get food to people faster and more efficiently, but he’s tracking demographics along the way so his clients can understand everyone who comes through the door.
Hoping to expand into the restaurant and coffee shop scene, Larry also designed a charity aspect of the business. Proceeds from T-shirts encouraging people to eat at food trucks — another marketing strategy — go to youth education programs in the community.
“My motto is to impact one billion people in a positive way,” Larry said, explaining that his “when we all do better, we all do better” mindset hit after COVID-19 ravaged the world.
Realizing in the past few years that the U.S. school system is flawed for many students, he wanted to give back to today’s youth. Larry mentioned ILT Academy as another organization that’s helping with education in underrepresented communities.
“ILT [Academy] is giving that entrepreneurial spark very early,” Larry, who has gone through one of their cohorts, said.
ILT Academy is a startup studio with a variety of programs aimed at delivering practical and extensive educational experiences to underestimated entrepreneurs. “Our mission is to find all of the regional and local entrepreneurs that are in silos right now,” said Nick Tietz, founder and CEO.
Originally started in Minnesota cities Red Wing and St. Cloud, based on a collaboration between Red Wing Ignite, Great North Ventures, and Launch MN. ILT Academy has now grown to 10 locations across the state, including the Fargo-Moorhead area. Beginning just a week before the pandemic last year, Tietz spoke on how going virtual wasn’t an option before — but has now allowed them to grow rapidly. “Now I can drive across the state in 10 minutes,” he said.
ILT was founded on the idea that there’s a ton of opportunity for innovation in areas that are overlooked because of size, resources, or lack of big companies that have come out of the region.
“[These spots] may not be the first places people go looking for talent and ideas, but there’s tons,” Tietz said. “[We thought], if we could teach them the skills to be an innovator, would they be able to turn these ideas into bigger, better companies?”
In the past nine months, ILT Academy has worked with more than 100 startups in Minnesota through their intensive workshops and two levels of cohort-style programs. Each program is focused on lean startup innovation, with the backbone being the lean canvas. “We start with design thinking to maximize founders’ ability to think critically about the problem they’re trying to solve,” Tietz said.
The difference between ILT and other organizations that support startups is that it’s made up of individuals who are founders at heart, he said. Programming is focused on getting to the bottom of questions like, “Is this a problem worth solving? And, “Do people want this solution from you?”
Tietz and his team are excited about their new presence in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and are highlighting it with an event on September 23 in Fergus Falls — in between St. Cloud and Fargo.
“The real purpose is to highlight the entrepreneurship that has come out of ILT,” he said, mentioning that state senators will be attending. “People still think there aren’t a lot of entrepreneurs in the area, but there’s some really talented people here and we want to highlight them.”
The Future of Fargo
ILT is excited to be bringing programming to the Fargo-Moorhead area, Tietz said — something that was made possible in part by Great North Ventures, who sponsored four scholarships that will make bringing additional talent to the cohort possible.
“[They] really have their act together, they’re really starting to build,” he said of the region. “I’m excited to work on making the Fargo-Moorhead area our second home.”
Larry from Where’s My Food Truck expressed similar sentiments. “As an entrepreneur, you really can’t ask for a better city to be a part of,” he said.
Bringing in revenue with his company from other states while creating jobs for youth here, he’s a great example of how helping entrepreneurs in turn spurs economic growth for the state. “It’s gotten to a point where the entrepreneur system is amazing.”
But it’s not stopping anytime soon. With a growing interest in so-called flyover states, a vibrant downtown, and three colleges in the area, this region has nothing but potential to grow.
“I think the future of the ecosystem is uniquely positioned to have a transitional impact,” Tehven said.
Featured image courtesy of Fargo-Moorhead.
About Great North Ventures:
Great North Ventures is an early-stage venture fund headquartered in Minnesota. The fund’s motto is “Execution Is Our North Star,” based on a belief that great startups can be built anywhere, but, to flourish, they need teams that can execute. The fund is led and supported by founders and operators that have scaled tech businesses from the idea stage to multiple IPOs with an aim at providing both capital and guidance to early-stage startups in support of strengthening their execution from idea to scale-up.