The EDA Center | at the University of Minnesota  
Commentaries on Greater Minnesota

Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.

 

Commentaries
Looking for a Good Idea
July 2010
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
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The names are familiar to many Americans: Polaris, Marvin Windows, Arctic Cat, Digi-Key, Christian Brothers and Central Boiler. Others, such as Mattracks are just beginning to brand themselves across the nation. Together, they represent a cluster of businesses in Northwest Minnesota that employ thousands of workers. They are an economic developers dream; just the kind of businesses they want to recruit and develop in their communities. These are businesses that bring high levels of capital investment, thousands of first-earner incomes and substantial tax revenues.

Yet the reality is that none of these businesses were recruited to northwest Minnesota. Rather, they simply started out with an interesting idea and were encouraged by friends and family. They often started in a garage, pole barn or shack; but their founders had the drive and determination to never give up. They are in reality, a historical artifact of their region the same way that the Mayo Clinic is a historical artifact in southeast Minnesota. The truth is that there was nothing particularly special about Rochester, Minnesota that allowed the Mayo Clinic to grow into the world-renowned organization it is today. Nor was there anything special about Warroad, Minnesota that allowed Marvin Windows & Doors to blossom there. Instead what was truly special were the people who came upon a good idea and didn't let go of it.

I note this because now that the Minnesota economy has stalled a bit, local and regional economic development organizations are being looked upon to come up with more innovative strategies to move their regional economies forward. For example, in southwest Minnesota some development organizations have identified the renewable fuels and energy industry as their focal point. Blessed with the assets of quality soils and a strong west wind, there's much to be said for that strategy. Similarly, after a year-long study, the Southern Minnesota Regional Competitiveness Project is mobilizing its resources around its identified assets in healthcare, biosciences, manufacturing, high technology, food and agriculture. And in southeast Minnesota along the Highway 52 corridor, a unique partnership anchored by the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic hope to make the corridor a biotechnology juggernaut. But regardless of the region or the sectors, the approach seems somewhat similar: identify regional assets; examine potential economic opportunities and try to craft a coordinated strategy to maximize the probability of success.

Now contrast that approach with the IDEA Competition in Northwest Minnesota (IDEA stands for Ingenuity Drives Entrepreneur Acceleration). Sponsored by a dozen regional organizations and facilitated by the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, the approach is based upon the observation of what has worked in northwest Minnesota for decades; and that is simply stated: bring us your best ideas. It is not bound by specific industries or service sectors, but rather by two questions: first, is there a promising breakthrough idea; and second, is the entrepreneur truly committed to developing their business in northwest Minnesota? That's it.

Each year dozens of entrepreneurs and start-ups bring their best ideas to the selection committee comprised of business executives, finance organizations, business professors, foundation executives and economic developers. And through an iterative process they select the entrepreneurs and breakthrough ideas they hope will become the next Marvin Windows & Doors. This past May, five new entrepreneurs were selected, each receiving an initial $10,000 award. But of course, the real prize is not the $10,000, but rather it's the regional recognition and the connections to financiers and resources to assist in the commercialization and development of these new business start-ups.

As Wade Fauth, Vice President of Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation noted, "The type of innovative thinking that drives business creation often comes down to the vision of a single individual. This strategy focuses on uncovering some of the most promising ideas and providing them with the support needed to be successful in the marketplace."

Finding the next Polaris, Schwans Foods, Taylor Corporation, Digi-Key or Cirrus Design is never easy. In fact, some might argue that it is nearly impossible. But in Northwest Minnesota they appear to be taking a very different approach. Instead of trying to second guess the industries or products of the future, they are using a strategy steeped in the history of their region. Simply put: Invest in those people with the best ideas and have the drive and determination to never give up.

Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at gelle045@umn.edu

This document was prepared by the University of Minnesota, Crookston under award number 06-66-05709 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

 
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