Wanted- More Wet Lab Space for Minnesota's Life Science Entrepreneurs

Last week, Life Science Nexus was privileged to tour the Worthington Biotechnology Advancement Center (BAC) and developing wet lab space with Worthington Regional Economic Development Corporation (WREDC) Executive Director Abraham Algadi. 

Click here to access our previous story about the BAC wet lab incubator. 

The BAC and associated incubator have a great opportunity to begin to fill a gaping hole in our life science startup space in Minnesota.  It’s no secret.  We in Minnesota have precious little wet lab space for our life science entrepreneurs.   

But what is the real utility of a wet lab space?  How can it spur innovation and entrepreneurship?  What can the Worthington BAC incubator bring to the table?

The Worthington Bio Science Conference wrapped up last week with a panel discussion surrounding the BAC lab build-out, what needs to happen to complete the space, and what value the lab would add to the community.

This expert panel was led by non-longer “homeless” life science entrepreneur Goutham Vemuri, Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) Project Development Director Harold Stanislawski, and AURI Senior Director of Science and Technology Rod Larkins.

Lack of access to a wet lab space is a major barrier to success for life science entrepreneurs.  Unlike some other science disciplines such as robotics, life science companies require critical infrastructure and equipment like centrifuges, fume hoods, and sub-zero freezers to generate intellectual property.  A life science startup is not really something that can be launched out of a basement.

Minnesota has very limited wet lab space for non-institute associated scientists, especially outside of the Twin Cities area.  AURI is stepping up to fill these gaps at their Crookston and Marshall facilities in western Minnesota.  Vemuri himself found a great home to make progress on his proof of concept at the AURI Marshall facilities. 

The 2000 square foot wet lab area being build in Worthington will provide space and infrastructure for the “homeless researcher” in southwestern Minnesota, helping to build up the entrepreneurial community in the city.  The lab space has great potential beyond this application.  The area could also be used by the larger companies in Worthington, like the animal vaccine developer Newport Laboratories, for processes such as product validation.  Training and other STEM outreach initiatives could also take place using the lab equipment.

The WREDC and city of Worthington continue to bring the BAC wet lab closer to a concrete reality.  The community is motivated and pointed in the right direction.  We at Life Science Nexus and across the state look forward to watching this story unfold.


Minneapolis-based LogicStream Health Leverages Health Informatics and EHRs to Improve Health Outcomes

The expanding Minneapolis-based company LogicStream Health developed a clinical process measurement platform to improve the quality of patient care and lower overall costs to healthcare systems.  The LogicStream Intelligence Platform reduces unnecessary variations in patient care and helps healthcare systems quantitate and improve best practices.

“Being able to measure the process of care is a key to clinical quality improvement.  That may seem self-evident since if you can’t measure a process, you can’t improve it.  However, despite its importance there is a significant gap in this area at most health systems,” explains Dr. Dan Rubin, Chief Medical Officer at LogicStream Health.

But what exactly is process of care and how can it be measured? 

Let’s say you need to have a knee replacement surgery to relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis.  There are many different pieces of care surrounding that surgery, beginning even prior to the day of operation.

First, you go through pre-operative assessments, dredging through your current medications and dosages, including a list of medications you might have been taking to prepare for surgery.  Then comes the actual surgery.  Lastly post-operative procedures occur, including prevention of any hospital acquired conditions.

What dictates this process of events and how do care providers know what protocols to follow when administering the care?

It boils down to Electronic Health Records, or EHRs.  In a nutshell, EHRs are the updated, 21st century version of the paper patient chart.  These digital EHRs are much more fluid and up-to-date than their predecessors.  They contain all the patient’s medical records and personal history and allow that information to be shared in a secure, seamless manner with all the patient’s care providers.

But EHRs go beyond this little snapshot of individual medical information.  Healthcare systems have built best care practices, or exact protocols detailing the steps to patient care, into the EHR.  These best practices have similarities regardless of the healthcare system.  But even when the best care practices are in place the problem lies in the human component.

“Obviously humans are fallible when it comes to following process and remembering to take every last step. …What’s challenging for [the healthcare systems] without LogicStream is really to measure how well these things are functioning and whether they are working as intended to drive outcomes,” explains Dr. Rubin. 

Once a best practice is standardized and built into the EHR, healthcare system teams usually need to tweak and improve these protocols to obtain the best outcome possible.  They also need to measure the level of best practice compliance across care provider teams.

Healthcare systems use the LogicStream Intelligence Platform to pull information from the EHR, analyze that information, and determine if their best practices are- or aren’t- working to drive the expected outcomes.  The LogicStream Platform makes any iterations and improvements to these best practices and compliance measurements possible.  Without LogicStream, these healthcare systems are basically “flying blind” and have no discreet way to measure their clinical process.

For example, LogicStream was used by one client to standardize care in order to prevent catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTI), a common hospital acquired condition. LogicStream standardized the catheter use process, controlling which patients actually had catheters inserted and standardizing the process of catheter removal.  LogicStream reduced the number of catheters in use, decreased the rate of UTIs, and minimized unnecessary costs to the health system.

The eighteen person LogicStream team of informaticists and healthcare experts has clients “in every geographic region of the US,” says Dr. Rubin.  This growing company graduated from the TreeHouse Health accelerator in December and transitioned into a new space in the North Loop region of Minneapolis to continue the development process.

It’s a very exciting time for LogicSteam Health and other companies operating in health informatics- the crossroads where “clinical medicine, workflow, data, and the EHR all come together.” 

“I think we’re on the verge of a revolution around informatics where the pace at which we can impact and improve care is really starting to increase. …We’ll be able to standardize what happens on a much larger scale and much more effectively.  All this is really due to these key disciplines coming together and being brought to bear on the problem of unnecessary variation of care,” emphasizes Dr. Rubin.

Exploring the Ethics of Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT) in Pediatric Patients

On March 8th, Dr. Stacy Kahn from the University of Chicago spoke regarding the ethics of Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT) in pediatric patients during a three-part lecture series hosted by the University of Minnesota Consortium of Law and Values.

Kahn opens up her case study

Assume you are a physician. You have a 13-year-old female patient with ulcerative colitis. There is discomfort and blood streaks in the stool, signs of early ulcerative colitis.  The patient's mother put her on a dairy and gluten-free diet along with various vitamins and natural supplements to aid in easing the condition.

Mom wants to do an at home FMT and is convinced, based on videos and books, that she can treat her child. After much deliberation about the risks the mother says, “Thanks doctor, but I’m going to do FMT anyway.” 

As a physician, what do you do? Do you call child protection services? Do you give information about FMT and stool banks despite the treatment not being FDA approved and still in clinical trials with not enough data to support or invalidate its efficacy? Do you let the parent go on with the decision? These are all ethical questions around FMT and the field of pediatrics.

What is FMT?

FMT stands for Fecal Microbiota Transfer where bacteria from the gut in the form of feces is transplanted into a patient to recolonize the damaged tissue. FMT is often performed via colonoscopy, nasal tube, or orally in a pill.  The process is currently a treatment for GI conditions like irritable bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn's Disease.  FMT also has the potential to treat other diseases associated with non-GI microflora including: psoriasis, acne, asthma, diabetes, and obesity. Despite the recent media attention, FMT is not new. The first FMT in the states was conducted in the 1950s for a disease similar to recurrent ulcerative colitis, although there are historical accounts dating back to 4th Century Chinese “dragon soup”.  FMT is FDA allowed but not approved and lacks many of the typical clinical and animal studies. There are also concerns about intellectual property, regulations, and safe practices among other things.

FMT and pediatrics

Now it’s important to consider the ethical pillars of medicine:

Beneficence: duty to do good.

Non-Maleficence: duty to not do bad/cause harm.

Autonomy: respect for patient's individual rights and self determination.

Justice: to treat all equally and equitably.

But when it comes children the pillars don’t quite fit. Children don’t have autonomy; they have a legal guardian or parent to advocate and speak on their behalf. Doctors need consent from a guardian and assent, approval, and understanding of the procedure from the patient.

Also children’s metabolism of drugs and foods are different due to differences in blood volume, hormone secretion, and activity levels. So dosing matters. The problem is that most drugs being studied and two-thirds of drugs sold on the market don’t use clinical studies involving children or have never been tested for children. We don’t know the efficacy of the drugs prescribed nor the safe and effective dosage, which is very concerning for both parents and physicians.

Perceptions and concerns of the treatment

But the concerns are not felt in the same way across the parties involved. Patients are frustrated with the slow rate of drug development, physicians, and pain.  The constant effort for effective treatments is exhausting. Patients are desperate for any type of relief. FMT, in the patient’s perspective, is believed to be natural and therefore safer than western medicine practices and pharmaceuticals. The books and articles out on the market give patients a false sense of security by restoring autonomy over their own health. There is a general lack of data regarding the efficacy of the treatment and a risk that at home treatments will worsen the condition.

Doctors, on the other hand, are concerned about the ethics and efficacy of the treatment. There’s no data to support the benefits or assess the risks, making it difficult to prescribe despite patient requests. Being able to reconcile all these concerns starts with open conversation about FMT and the concerns.

Moving forward

More research needs to be conducted about FMT and its effects. International Review Boards and local research institutions need to coordinate with larger research institutions to effectively disseminate information and document findings. This keeps physicians up-to-date with treatment research to better serve their patients.

But most importantly, patients need to be involved in the conversation. The risk of adversarial conversations is likely to inspire patients to go rogue with high risk and poorly informed self treatment.

Rochester Entrepreneurial Groups Help to Drive the Future of the City

Last Wednesday, BioAM held the very first Community Connections event, where seemingly disparate entrepreneurial and community-based groups met at the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator to network and build bridges.  By the end of the night, the amount of connectivity between these groups and the opportunities we have to help each other grow was very clear.

Rochester is changing.  All cities change.  But the growth in this part of the state will be highly accelerated in the upcoming years with the Destination Medical Center (DMC) Initiative and Journey To Growth.  We all have such a unique opportunity to shape this re-development and paint the future of Rochester, something that’s not too common today. 

We have the chance to ensure that entrepreneurship plays a vital and lasting role in the community.  And that starts right at the grass-roots level with like-minded, risk-taking individuals in Rochester’s entrepreneurial and community-based groups, like those present Wednesday night.

Here’s just a sampling of the flavors of the new Rochester:

BioAM- This group was originally formed to fill the life science entrepreneurial hole in Rochester.  BioAM holds three meetings per month to connect and encourage Rochester’s life science innovators including the Biobusiness Builders Lunch, Science Café, and various speaker series.  Click here for group contact information.

e-NABLE Rochester- This innovative group uses 3D printers to create experimental synthetic hands for those in need.  The group just held an Open House Printathon last Friday at the Limb Lab.

Shout2.0!- This entrepreneurial group meets once a month to discuss business development issues and to bounce around ideas.  Their next meeting is Tuesday April 12th at 7AM.

Rochester RESTful Responsive Web- This group is based on learning by doing and uses a RESTfull (Representational State Transfer) software based style to work through example applications. 

Rochester Entrepreneurial Network- This is an original Rochester meetup group.  REN is a group of entrepreneurs who believe that a strong innovation network is key to driving economic development in Rochester.

PyRochesterMN- This group of Python Programming enthusiasts meets monthly to discuss anything related to Python. 

Southeast Minnesota WordPress Group- This group meets on the second Monday of every month to talk about the website creation platform WordPress.  Their next meetup is Monday April 11th at the Minnesota School of Business.

For Starters- This group is one of the oldest tech-focused meetups in Rochester.  The group next meets April 20th at the Northeast Whistle Binkies location.

The Commission- This group provides a platform and voice for the young professionals of Rochester that works to develop and implement sustainable programs in the city. 

#WinWithSocial- This group meets every Wednesday at noon to discuss Hootsuite and social media techniques, tips, and trends. 

Rochester Jaycees- This national, non-profit group is celebrating 80 years of leadership, fellowship, and community involvement.  Their next event is a service event April 12th at the Channel One food bank.

UX Design Meetup- This group meets every Thursday evening at Café Steam to discuss User Experience and Interaction Design.

K-LUG- The Rochester Linux Users Group has been around of over ten years.  They old technical meetings once a month at Rochester Community and Technical College.

Minneapolis Team Designs Card-Sized Epinephrine Auto-Injector to Increase Carrying Compliance in Severe Allergy Sufferers

A Minneapolis team has developed a slimmer, sleeker alternative to the EpiPen to increase carrying compliance and ensure that life-saving medications are on hand in emergency situations.  AdrenaCard brings peace of mind to food allergy sufferers and proves that perseverance, research, and product design pay off in the end.

Up to 16 million people in the United States are at risk for anaphylactic shock- a potentially fatal allergic reaction that occurs rapidly after exposure to certain proteins or toxins.  Currently, the EpiPen is the standard of care to mitigate this reaction. 

The EpiPen delivers a measured dose of epinephrine into the body.  Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, stimulates the heart, and increases blood flow to elevate breathing levels and relieve anaphylaxis symptoms long enough for a patient to get to a care center to receive further treatment.

Epinephrine is highly effective in temporarily relieving symptoms of anaphylaxis.  The problem lies in the method of drug delivery.  The EpiPen is bulky and highly inconvenient to carry.  Of the 16 million people at risk for anaphylactic shock, less than 25% actually own an EpiPen or other auto-injector to deliver epinephrine.  Less than 50% of this device-owning population carries the pen at all times, creating a 90% or 14.6M patient care gap.

“We found that two biggest issues with the products on the market today are their cost and the carrying compliance,” says Tyler Ebert, AdrenaCard CEO and Co-Founder. 

The average EpiPen on the market today costs $260.  Most doctors prescribe at least two of these devices, amounting to $520 of total expense.  EpiPens and other auto-injector devices are reimbursable by insurance.  However, most patients have high deductible healthcare plans and end up paying a lot of this cost out-of-pocket. 

The AdrenaCard team of Tyler Ebert and Chris Kuehn set out to improve upon this standard of care while students at the University of Minnesota (UMN).

Tyler Ebert was drawn to the UMN specifically to study entrepreneurship and has a background in restaurant development and food counseling.

As a food counselor at the university, people would often come to speak with him about their food allergies.  Even though they realized the importance of the device, many would not have their auto-injector on them.  Tyler dug into the details surrounding auto-injectors and discovered the high rate of non-compliance in device carrying and the massive market for auto-injectors.  In 2014 alone the auto-injector market had $1.3B in sales and continues to grow.

The idea of an improved device to deliver epinephrine was compelling from a clinical, personal, and business perspective.  Most importantly, Tyler wanted to improve the situation for these food allergy patients.

Tyler formed a partnership Chris Kuehn, who had logged time in medical device innovation at both Boston Scientific and Precision, Inc.  AdrenaCard was born.

“[…] what we created is a device that delivers the same life saving medication [as the EpiPen], with a form factor that is the size of a credit card,” explains Tyler.

The slimmer, smaller size of the AdrenaCard auto-injector allows it to be easily carried in a pocket, wallet, or attached to a key chain, making the device more likely to be on hand in case of emergency.

The AdrenaCard delivers the exact same drug as the EpiPen.  However, the AdrenaCard has a beautifully improved form factor and design because the team invested extensive time and effort to understand severe allergy patients and their lifestyle.

The pair initially struggled to gain traction and raise their first round of seed capital in the Twin Cities area due to a crowded market and especially busy time of the year.  They sought out partners beyond the Twin Cities area and found a great resource base in Alexandria, Minnesota.

Alexandria and the expertise of central Minnesota often gets overlooked.  But this self-sustaining area has real expertise in contract manufacturing of scientific and medical devices, which they export around the world.

The AdrenaCard team linked up with their now lead investor, UMN Reagent and serial entrepreneur Thomas Anderson, who introduced them to the greater Alexandria community.  Within this group, the AdrenaCard pair found people “[…] who would not only invest in us, but sat with us as advisors and mentored us.  They helped to build us,” explains Tyler.

AdrenaCard raised their first round of capital with this amazing partnership in Alexandria.  To date, this is the largest amount of seed funding raised by undergraduate students in the history of Minnesota.  The team is currently raising a Series A to get them through FDA clearance as early as 2017.

AdrenaCard also found a great partner for product development in Minneapolis-based Worrell Design, a company that specializes in medical device design and human factors.  Working with Chris Kuehn, the Worrell team has brought the AdrenaCard device to the level it’s at today.

AdrenaCard recently competed in the US National Competition of Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, which attracts top student entrepreneurs from about the world.  The team ranked as the #2 student-owned business in the country for 2015, garnering AdrenaCard national recognition.

The AdrenaCard team proves the value of hard work, dedication, and perseverance in reaching your goals.  They have brought national media attention not only to themselves, but the to the great work being performed in the Twin Cities entrepreneurial scene as a whole.

Avian Influenza- One Year Later, What have We Learned?

It’s been a little over one year since the first case of HPAI (Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza) H5N2 was confirmed in Minnesota.  This infectious strain of avian influenza popped up in a commercial turkey flock in Pope Country in central Minnesota last March.  The last two cases of HPAI H5N2 were reported on June 5th, nearly three months to the day afterwards.  These twelve weeks of infection took Minnesota’s economy through the wringer, causing an estimated $647.2M hit to poultry production and $171.7M in lost wages, salaries, and benefits according to a University of Minnesota Extension study. 

Since this time, the smoke has cleared and settled.  But has Minnesota fully recovered and are we better prepared if this pathogenic AI strain returns to the region?

Avian influenza (AI), or the bird flu, is caused by infection of birds with AI type A viruses.  Wild birds harboring type A virus can serve as pathogen reservoirs, shedding the virus in saliva, nasal secretions, and feces.  At risk birds become infected after exposure to shed virus or by contacting surfaces contaminated with virus.

AI type A viruses exist in two flavors: low pathogenic AI (LPAI) and highly pathogenic AI (HPAI).  This classification depends on the virus’s ability to cause disease and mortality, although both LPAI and HPAI infections can spread rapidly among birds.

Infection with LPAI typically results in no observable disease or very mild symptoms, such as ruffled feathers or a slight drop in egg production.  LPAI might even go undetected in domestic birds. 

HPAI infection, on the other hand, is highly pathogenic and causes severe disease with high mortality rates.  Infection with these viruses typically results in sudden death, lack of energy and appetite, decrease in egg production, swelling, coughing, and sneezing.  HPAI can quickly diffuse through and decimate a domestic flock of birds.

Wild birds can naturally carry native strains of AI.  These viruses are usually of the low pathogenic, LP, variety, but still can spread to domesticated birds.  Birds infected with LPAI typically show no symptoms.  However, LPAI H5 and H7 strains can mutate into HPAI, then becoming a large problem.

In December 2014, the USDA detected HPAI H5N2, H5N8, and H5N1 strains in domestic and wild birds in the United States, including in the Mississippi flyway- an avian migratory path that follows the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to breeding grounds at the river headwaters in Canada. 

Infected birds were ultimately detected in a widespread path across the US, including: Arkansas, California, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

AI type A viruses rarely infect people, and pose little to no threat to human health.  Proper handling and cooking of infected eggs and meat to an internal temperature of 165F will even kill off the virus and make the food safe to eat, according to the USDA.

The real threat of these HPAI strains was more bird-on-bird directed, particularly toward domesticated poultry.

HPA1 H5N2 blasted Minnesota’s turkey production economy, especially in the central and southwestern parts of the state.  Nine million birds were affected- including five million turkeys and four million egg laying hens- according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, impacting at least 110 separate sites.  The trickle-down down effects were felt for months, impacting industries even indirectly connected to turkey production.

Once a Minnesota turkey production site tested positive for HPAI H5N2, it was out of service for months.  If HPA1 was detected in one bird in a barn, the whole flock in that space was depopulated and destroyed to prevent further viral spread.  Poultry carcasses went through an unpleasant composting process inside affected barns for at least twenty-eight days to destroy any virus present in the birds.  The area was disinfected and scoured for at least twenty-one days.  Infected farms had to be completely eradicated of virus before being repopulated and resupplied with new poultry. 

Even the restocking of farms was not a straight forward process.  Egg and poult- or baby turkey- production was down at several frequently used poultry suppliers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, delaying production ramp-up at cleansed farms.

Layoffs and cut hours weighed down Minnesota’s turkey industry for the spring and summer.  Trickle-down effects also reared their head in seemingly unattached markets like truck transportation, restaurants, hospitals, and general merchandise stores, according to a University of Minnesota Extension report. 

All 110 HPAI infected Minnesota farms were disinfected and re-stocked by December 2015.  Farmers apprehensively waited for a possible return of HPAI H2N5 with the fall wild bird migration, but Minnesota’s turkey passed through that point unharmed.

One year after the first outbreaks occurred in the state, have we learned any information to better prepare Minnesota’s economy against another round of infection?

Researchers are still no closer to addressing how HPAI H5N2 reached Minnesota’s domestic birds in the first place.  Many conflicting theories continue to circulate.

The virus was originally thought to have spread from wild, migrating birds, especially ducks and geese.  The MN Department of Natural Resources (DNR) churned into full gear last year and collected over 6200 samples from wild birds, detecting only two cases of HPAI.

That’s a lot of poop for very little information.

The MN DNR has since scaled down their sampling efforts, a point of contention with some of the state’s turkey producers.

Poor biosecurity practices may have helped the virus to spread between farms.  According to one theory, actively tilled fields near poultry barns may have generated air borne virus from infected wild bird droppings, which then infected domestic poultry.  If migratory birds were the viral reservoirs in the first place.

Another idea is that a low-pathogenic virus may have incubated, undetected, in layer hens, and at some point mutated into pathogenic HPAI H5N2.

A vaccine protecting domestic birds against several AI H5 strains, including H5N2, is still being developed.

Join us at the Worthington Bio Science Conference Thursday April 7th for a dinner panel discussion around avian flu, including innovative research, management practices, and market impact of the outbreak in Minnesota. 

Local experts Jeff Barber, of TM Farms, Dr. Jill Nezworski, of Blue Horse Veterinary, and Dr. Carol Cardona, Professor in the UMN College of Veterinary Medicine, will lead the discussion.

Rochester's Premier Youth Startup Weekend Begins this Friday March 18th

What’s the best way to foster a community culture of entrepreneurship?

Rochester’s entrepreneurial community believes that encouraging young enthusiasts to pursue commercializing their own ideas is one vital answer to that question.

To that end, Rochester’s Journey to Growth Partnership is hosting Rochester’s first Youth Startup Weekend on March 18th-20th at University Center Rochester. Youth Startup Weekend is free to attend and is targeted to high school and middle school students.

Interested students may register here.

The event will follow the recognized Startup Weekend format in which teams of budding entrepreneurs put the “Lean Startup” model into practice. The top ideas proposed at the beginning of the event are taken “from pitch to prototype” in just three days.

Rachelle Oribio, Techstars++ Program Director and event co-organizer, urged students and adults to expect engagement and creativity from young participants, saying: “I think we underestimate the creativity and capacity for teenagers to produce on par [with] adults. Back in November, a group of middle school and high school ladies pitched at Global Entrepreneurship Week, and they were as good as any adult that pitched that night. At Startup Weekend in Iowa City last year the ages ranged from 12 to 71.”

Ms. Oribio emphasized that this event and the skills it helps young participants develop can have a significant impact for both students and the community. Youth Startup Weekend helps the next generation adapt to the ongoing “culture shift” and develop the tools to succeed in a society in which staying with the same employer for decades is no longer the norm.

“Our city needs workers who can solve problems and think outside the box. We need people to build businesses in town. Events such as these open people up to the process of building their own startup.”

Youth Startup Weekend organizers are currently planning for at least 50 attendees, and additional student participants as well as adult mentors are encouraged to attend. Journey to Growth is hosting the event in partnership with sponsors Techstars++, Mayo Clinic Ventures, SBDC Minnesota, and Rochester Community and Technical College.

Let's Open the Conversation about Mental Illness and Entrepreneurs - with NAMI SE ME (Part 2/3)

Welcome to Part 2/3 in our series on mental illness in entrepreneurs. 

In our last article, we talked about how mental illness rates- particularly those of depression and anxiety- are higher in founders than in the general US population.  Entrepreneurs may also possess innate character traits that can exacerbate or predispose them to develop mental illness.  But no one is talking about these alarmingly high rates or speaking openly about mental illness in our startup communities.

We’re here to break the stigma associated with mental illness and open up this conversation with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s Southeast Minnesota affiliate (NAMI SE MN).

NAMI is the nation’s largest grass roots mental health organization, based on peer-to-peer support.  There are state NAMIs and local affiliates- such as NAMI SE MN- all across the country.  Many NAMIs were founded by parents with affected children coming together in an organic manner, because they couldn’t talk about their child’s mental illness in any other setting.  Nobody else quite understood like a parent in the same position.

“[NAMI’s] mission is to improve the lives of individuals affected by mental illness through education, support, research, and advocacy,” explains Courtney Lawson, Executive Director at NAMI SE MN based in Rochester.

NAMI focuses not only on those with a diagnosed mental illness, but also people who have mental illness but don’t seek treatment, which is a fairly high number.  About 56% of adults and 80% of children and adolescents with mental illness remain undiagnosed and untreated.  NAMI also supports friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors of those with mental illness. 

Every one in five US adults experienced a mental illness in the past year.  So when you think about it, pretty much everyone is touched by mental illness in one way or another.

“Ultimately, our over arching goal is to dispel the stigma and the myths that surround mental illness so people feel comfortable talking about it and get the help that they need, when they need it,” says Courtney.

There is a certain stigma associated with mental illness. 

Often we think someone with a mental illness can’t function as a member of society or hold down a job.  We think the mental illness will be blatantly obvious to everybody this person comes into contact with.

“There’s a myth that [mental illness] comes from a personal weakness or is characteristic of bad parenting or some character flaw, when really it’s a biological brain disorder.  It’s a medical condition like any other medical condition.  Yet we look at it completely differently,” says Courtney.

Sharing stories of personal experience with mental illness form a major part of NAMI’s mission.  Courtney herself is very open about her diagnosis with bipolar disorder.  She finally received the correct diagnosis at 32 years of age, after being symptomatic for close to a decade. 

Growing up, she had a strong support base and parents in a long term marriage who encouraged effective communication skills.  There’s this assumption that if you have good family support and people to talk with, you shouldn’t need therapy.  You should just be able to deal with it, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Courtney says, “I learned skills in therapy that I apply every single day, because it teaches you to use these tools in interpersonal communication and in our relationships, and how to communicate our needs and resolve conflict.”

How do we dissipate this stigma associated with mental illness?  The most important way might be to just open our eyes.

“It’s really hard to be stigmatizing of someone when you think you have never met anyone with mental illness.  It is easy to build up this image in your head of what they look like.  But when you meet someone who is functioning well and is happy and productive and is a valuable member of the community and says, ‘I’m a person that lives with mental illness’, that is really what breaks down the stigma,” Courtney emphasizes.

43.8 million- or 18.5%- of US adults experience a mental illness in any given year.  It’s safe to say that we all know someone who is or has been affected by mental illness.  And that person may very well be ourselves.   

Successful founders and entrepreneurs coming forward and saying, ‘Yes I have been affected by mental illness’ continues to chip away at this stigma.  Cheezburger founder Ben Huh penned an emotional article expressing his suicidal thoughts after a startup failure.  Foundry Group investor and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld has been extremely open about his struggles with depression.  These leaders exposing their battles with mental illness and saying they are not invincible, and you can be both successful and have a diagnosed mental illness is just a start to break down these barriers and allow more founders to step forward for help.

NAMI runs many educational events to help break down this stigma and to dispel the misinformation associated with a mental illness diagnosis. 

All NAMI programming is led by a peer.  “If somebody goes to a support group for family members, or to a class for family members, they know that person facilitating or leading will also be a family member and share that experience,” explains Courtney.

The root of mental illness is complex and still not well understood.  There is a genetic predisposition for these diseases.  In addition, some studies uncovered a relationship between exposure to certain toxins in utero and mental illness.  Certain personality traits may also be associated with or exacerbate symptoms.  Defective neurotransmitter communication has also been observed in people with mental illness.

“[…] when we can show things like that, it lets people know that it’s not your fault.  It’s literally how you were wired,” says Courtney. 

When should you seek help for a potential mental illness? 

“The biggest thing I like to emphasize with warning signs is a change occurs.  A change from baseline,” says Courtney.  This can include a noticeable loss of interest in normal activities, changes in sleep schedules and eating patterns, or a pervasive change in mood. 

“I think we have a responsibility to each other, too, when we see those changes to ask what is going on and to listen in a way that’s supportive,” says Courtney.

The first step in seeking help for a potential mental illness might be right through your primary care doctor, who are increasingly performing depression and anxiety assessments during regular office visits.  Crafting a plan that involves some sort of therapy and medication through a professional care team is key toward managing a diagnosis. 

Managing a mental illness is not an easy road, but it can be done with patience and persistence.  “There’s kind of this misperception that you go out and you get a prescription and then you take the pill and you’re good.  Psychiatric drugs can be tricky to find the right one that works for the person.  Unfortunately, it can take a few weeks to know if it’s helping or not helping,” explains Courtney.

Therapy is also key in the management process and helps to develop skills to better understand emotions and how to manage them.  Any stress outlet or method to maintain a healthy lifestyle also goes a long way to mitigate and relieve symptoms of mental illness.  For Courtney, maintaining a regular sleep/wake cycle and exercise helped with her diagnosis.

Beyond a professional team, there are other resources that can help. 

One startup support listening service, called 7 Cups of Tea holds live chat sessions administered by thousands of trained listeners.  These service providers can’t give medical or psychological advice.  They’re just present to listen.  But sometimes that’s all it takes.

Tech entrepreneur Cindy Gallop developed the hashtag #startupstress to talk openly about the stressful lifestyle involved in building a startup, which is used to relieve frustration via social media about the often chaotic entrepreneurial lifestyle.

The NAMI website is also an excellent resource.  This page lists all local NAMI affiliates, like NAMI SE MN, and contact information. 

NAMI recently developed the NAMI Air app, which can be used to directly connect to the organization.  More importantly, the app serves as a safe place to share feelings and thoughts about mental illness in an anonymous manner and get feedback and responses from others.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is another a vital resource: 1-800-273-8255.

If you or someone you know may be suffering from mental illness, please reach out for help.  We need to keep our founders, and all our loved ones, healthy to continue to drive innovation in Minnesota and beyond.


Let's Open the Conversation about Mental Illness and Entrepreneurs - with NAMI SE MN (Part 1/3)

Mental illness rates in the startup community are alarmingly high, yet we refuse to talk about it.

In a seminal survey conducted at UCSF last year, 49% of the 242 entrepreneurs questioned reported a mental health condition.  That’s much higher than the one in five US adults -or 20%- that experience mental illness in any given year. 

Depression was the number one reported mental illness in this UCSF founders cohort, affecting a whopping 30% of the entrepreneurs surveyed.  ADHD followed close behind with 29% and anxiety with 27%.  These rates were elevated compared with the general US population, where 6.9% report depression and 18.1% are affected by anxiety.

If unmanaged, these mental health issues may be fatal.  The startup world was rocked last year by the suicide of Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz at the age of only thirty-one.  Unfortunately, Heinz is not the only entrepreneur who has ended his life.  

Mental illness has a stronghold on the entrepreneurial world.  It’s time we started talking about it.

“Mental illness is really where some biology in the brain is not functioning right.  It actually breaks down to how neurotransmitters are communicating or not communicating.  There’s some really interesting brain imaging out that shows the differences between the brain of someone who lives with a mental illness versus someone who does not.  You can actually see those differences and activity,” explains Courtney Lawson, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) SE Minnesota. 

Entrepreneurism is often glamorized by this get-rich quick, travel the world, and work for yourself idealized lifestyle.  However, there is a mountain of pressure associated with running a business that can do some serious damage to the mental psyche.  It’s not all unicorns and Shark Tank.  It’s a meat grinder and some of us just don’t make it out. 

Being an entrepreneur is akin to riding a roller coaster without a seatbelt.  Often we, as founders, tie our self worth to our business.  Because really, our business is our baby.  We birthed it, and nurtured it, and want it to not only survive, but to thrive.  Our emotions are so tightly tied to the success of the business, we just ride the ups and downs and plummet from despair to sheer ecstasy sometimes over the course of an hour.

Entrepreneurship is lonely.  It’s often just you-alone- making your own decisions and your own mistakes.  Entrepreneurs often work long hours to build and grow their businesses, and seemingly dispensable time sucks like physical activity and time with family and friends go right out the window.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to think about anything other than your business.  It not only consumes all waking hours, but it creeps into your sleep.  It’s easy to second guess decisions and constantly worry about time demands.  There are enormous financial burdens involved in starting your own business.  Some entrepreneurs borrow from family members, max out lines of credit, or cash in 401Ks to finance their dreams.

Beside these already behemoth stressors, we all very well aware of the high rate of failure associated with startups.  A research project out of Harvard Business School found that 90-95% of startups fall short of their initial projections and 30-40% are eventually forced to liquidate their assets. 

We idolize unicorns- startups with valuation over $1B- and the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.  But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for these companies.  There were dark and desperate moments along the path to wealth and infamy.  However, these points rarely get touched upon and entrepreneurs often mask when themselves or their company is faring poorly.

Some research suggests that entrepreneurs may possess character traits that actually predispose them to experience stronger emotional states and mood swings.  Entrepreneurs are often very energetic, creative, and innovative people that can easily cycle through states of depression, hopelessness, and despair, with emotions ranging as far as suicidal.

So not only are entrepreneurs burdened with a serious amount of pressure, they may already be predisposed to more severe emotions than the generation population, which may underlie the higher rates of mental illness in the founder community.

But it may not all be bad news. 

In his book “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering Links between Leadership and Mental Illness”, Nassir Ghaemi explores the relationship between extremely effective leaders in time of crisis and mental health issues.  Ghaemi dove head first into the lives and medical records of powerful, effective figures like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and John F. Kennedy.  He found they all had some form of mental illness, which may have made them even greater leaders in times of crises.

“It’s really interesting how leadership and mental illness seem to go hand in hand, as does higher IQ scores, with some diagnoses.  Some of this research that’s happening now shows that [a mental health diagnosis] doesn’t have to be this terrible, dismal thing,” explains Courtney.

Help is available to manage mental health diagnosis.  However, entrepreneurs are often hesitant or ashamed to seek professional guidance.  We might try to downplay a mental illness to avoid being perceived as weak or vulnerable.  We might be afraid a mental illness diagnosis would hurt an investment or diminish our level of respect with other founders or employees.  We might think those affected by mental illness can’t function properly and don’t want to have that stigma attached to ourselves.

Refusal to address mental health issues in entrepreneurs does not make them go away.

We’re all familiar with the fast-paced, deadline-oriented, stress-filled lifestyle of an entrepreneur.  I’m not telling you anything new here.  But I challenge each of you to take some time to assess your own mental well-being. 

Are we all really doing ok? 

The startup community needs to step up and more openly address these issues running rampant in our founders.  We need to break the stigma associated with mental illness.  It’s not a weakness and it’s not your fault.

We at Life Science Nexus feel so strongly about this issue, we put together a three-part series talking about mental health in founders and the stigma associated with mental health diagnoses.

I had the opportunity to sit down with my good friend Courtney Lawson from NAMI- the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization- to better understand mental health diagnoses, face the stigma associated with mental illness head on, and work to raise awareness of mental heath issues to build a healthier community for us all.

Please check back in over the next week as we talk about mental illness and entrepreneurs. 

Celebrate Pi Day with Twin Cities Entrepreneurial Communities

Pi Day- a day near and dear to any mathematician- is right around the corner.  Pi Day celebrates the mathematical constant Pi , the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.  The first three significant digits of Pi are 3.14, making March 14th (3/14) the perfect day for festivity.

Seem weird?  That’s because Pi Day is strange…and geeky.  “[Pi Day]’s the height of nerdiness,” explains CoCreateX catalyst Ben Ihde.  “It’s like Thanksgiving for nerds,” says another catalyst Mac Cameron.

Why not just harness Pi Day and celebrate your inner geek?  Although, it’s probably best not to celebrate an event like Pi Day alone.

CoCreateX- a Saint Paul based group that harnesses the power of the community to help others realize their creative potential- is celebrating Pi Day in style.  The group is hosting Big Pi Day in possibly the best location ever- the Twin Cities Trapeze Center. 

This year Pi Day falls on a Monday.  Monday’s just are not meant to be holidays.  So CoCreateX and other like-minded Twin Cities communities will celebrate Pi Day on Saturday, March 12th.

This upcoming Saturday, five community partners- including CoLab, Mad Scientists, diyBio, MAV Meetup, and Tesla Works- will hold Pi Day events throughout the day, “showcasing quad copters, trebuchets, and sequencing of the genome,” says Ben Ihde, to touch on just a few of the day’s activities.

On Saturday evening, these communities, along with many others, will come together at Twin Cities Trapeze to cap off the celebration with CoCreateX’s Big Pi Day night.  One of the CoCreaters will even stun the crowd on the flying trapeze!

Big Pi Day will also feature art, music, and local food.  Plus, of course, flying acrobatics.  There might possibly be no better way to celebrate a day dedicated to a mathematical constant.

All nerdiness aside, Big Pi Night will focus communities within the Twin Cities and the power and possibilities harnessed within these groups to fuel individual innovation.

These communities, and the support they offer, would not be possible without dedicated, passionate organizers.  “Being a community organizer is really, really difficult.  Community organizers create an enormous amount of value for lots and lots of people,” explains CoCreateX catalyst Nick Powley.

Big Pi Day will not only celebrate these individual Twin Cities communities but will “highlight the contributions of community organizers to our city,” says Nick.

The group is doing things a little differently for Big Pi Day.  No one has to supply any personal information or email address to register for the event.  Individuals just need to say they will attend and indicate if they will bring any guests.  That’s it.

“It’s really about bringing people together, creating that experience, and inspiring people to participate in all of the wonderful things these community organizers have been doing for them. […] This year’s Pi Day is really about giving thanks for communities, their organizers, and all of the wonderful people of the Twin Cities who’ve been so supportive of those types of groups,” explains Nick.

You can always celebrate Pi Day alone by eating Pi inspired foods like pizza, chicken pot pie, or of course, good old pie, or running 3.14 miles.  But why not step out and try on one of these communities on for size?  Interact with some like-minded innovators, nerds or not.  It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new. 

Why eat pie alone?  CoCreateX will have enough for you and 199 of your new friends.

Check out bigpiday.com to learn more about the CoCreateX event and location.

Also check out the daytime events from these great Twin Cities innovation communities.


Healthcare.mn Energizes the Twin Cities Healthcare Entrepreneurial Community. What's in Store for 2016?

Glafira Marcon is on a mission to learn as much as she can about healthcare.  The Macalester College alumnus joined the Healthcare.mn team shortly after graduation and took over as lead organizer this past October.  She has some fresh, new directives in store for the group in 2016.

Healthcare.mn, the Twin Cities community for healthcare innovation and startups, operates with the vision that “Minnesota is the best place to launch a healthcare startup,” explains Glafira.  The group’s main focus is “to bring together healthcare innovation enthusiasts to catalyze the community, energize it, and support it.”

Healthcare.mn lowers barriers to success for healthcare startups and entrepreneurs by making information and connections more accessible.  The group serves as a platform for exposure for these innovators and delivers “access to resources as well so that they can find a path to elevate and spread their solutions,” says Glafira.

The now over 1,100-member strong group was originally founded by local entrepreneurs Peter Kane, Thompson Aderinkomi, and Solome Tibebu in 2013.  The trio noticed the general lack of a community-based supportive group when launching their own startups and wanted to build a place where Twin Cities healthcare entrepreneurs could share ideas and build their network. 

Membership has rapidly grown over the past three years and Healthcare.mn continues to diversify in scope as the group expands, offering something for any entrepreneur operating in the Twin Cities healthcare space.  “Members find immense value in our group, whether it’s in the content of a discussion or just being in the same room with all these amazing people,” says Glafira.

The Healthcare.mn team continues to expand as a few more entrepreneurs were recently added to the organizing team.  These intrepid innovators mirror Glafira’s own passion and curiosity about healthcare and will complement her community and global health focus with experience in health tech, management/operations, and finance/investment.

Healthcare.mn events have always provided general education about hot healthcare topics, distilling down complex information and making it more accessible.  The group constantly works to connect startups with employees, investors, or end customers and offers entrepreneurs the space and opportunity to interact with key Twin Cities influencers.

Some new initiatives and programming have been added to the Healthcare.mn docket this year to continue to provide value to the Twin Cities healthcare community. 

One new series will help entrepreneurs better articulate the real issues they are trying to solve in healthcare by asking, “what is the real problem?”.

“Through experts at our events, we’re sharing frameworks for how startups can drill down and identify the problem they are trying to solve, get connected to people who are impacted by that problem, and design solutions that meet their needs and provide a good user experience,” sums up Glafira. 

Other Healthcare.mn events will feature stakeholders from specific industries or companies within the healthcare field, outlining the major problems they are facing.  “It’s them saying, we need innovation in this space.  We need startups to solve these problems. We hope this will enable existing startups to align their products and services with these real needs, or inspire people to start new ones,” explains Glafira.

Maintaining lines of communication and enthusiasm between events stands as a major initiative for Healthcare.mn in 2016.

“At our events, we have a ton of energy, a lot of conversations.  People are really excited.  It starts to drop off a few days after these events.  So what do we do between events to make sure that people are still talking and collaborating?  How do we facilitate that?” asks Glafira.

The group plans to rebuild and relaunch the Healthcare.mn website as part of the solution to provide an open forum for community conversations and connections.  In addition, they plan to host office hours with experts and provide a platform for sub-groups with specific interests to form.

Stay informed of Healthcare.mn’s upcoming events by joining the Meetup Group keep up with the conversation on LinkedIn.

Join Healthcare.mn at their next event focused on Service Design on March 14th.



Minnesota Startup Geneticure Designed Gene Panel to Direct Hypertension Treatment and Control High Blood Pressure Faster than Standard of Care

Geneticure- a startup with close ties to Rochester, Minnesota- created a panel of genes involved in hypertension to support decision making processes for clinicians and to control the disease faster for patients.

Seventy-eight million Americans, or every one in three, are afflicted with high blood pressure.  Five million new diagnoses spring up every year.  Over fifty percent of the US hypertension population, or thirty-seven million people, do not have the disease under control, often because they are taking the wrong medications.

The current guidelines, or standard of care, for treating hypertension targets three systems: the kidneys, the blood vessels, and the heart to inhibit sodium reabsorption, induce vasodilation, or reduce total cardiac output.  According to the standard of care, every patient presenting with hypertension begins treatment with the same drug, usually a diuretic.  The drug is slowly titrated up until the maximum tolerable dose is reached. 

If the first round of drug treatment does not control the hypertension, a second drug class is added without taking the patient off the first drug and the titration process is repeated.  If blood pressure levels still remain uncontrolled, a third class of drugs will be added into the regiment. 

This process is a very long and frustrating road to controlling hypertension, lasting up to twelve to fifteen months and adding unnecessary costs to the healthcare system.  Even with complete medication compliance, 40% of hypertension patients do not have their condition under control due to this trial-and-error process.

Geneticure aims to disrupt this paradigm of treatment and control hypertension faster than the standard of care by providing a more personalized, individual approach to hypertension treament.

The company has “identified and patented a unique panel of genes that are fundamental causal factors behind the disease and the corresponding responses that the patient could expect based on these various classes of drugs,” explains Geneticure Co-Founder and President Scott Snyder.  He thinks that Geneticure can slash the time for controlling hypertension down to two to six weeks.

“We’re eliminating those unnecessary office visits.  We’re eliminating unnecessary prescriptions.  But also we’re getting one of the deadliest diseases in the US under control quite a bit quicker. […] The risk factors of heart disease, stroke, and heart attack go through the roof when you don’t control the disease,” Snyder explains.

The Geneticure team designed a post-diagnosis product to help clinicians make more informed decisions to treat and manage hypertension patients. 

The startup focuses on pharmacogenetics- or how an individual’s DNA affects their metabolism and response to certain drugs.  They created and patented a panel of genes involved in hypertension regulation.  Genes included in the panel were curated from over twelve thousand peer-reviewed manuscripts.  The presence of certain alleles- or variant forms of the same gene with slightly different DNA sequences- of these genes correlate with a particular response to drug treatment. 

To begin the Geneticure testing process, hypertension patients have a sample of DNA taken right in their doctor’s office.  The Geneticure DNA collection kit comes in a clean, freshly designed box with the inscription “say ahh…” on the inside thanks to Snyder’s extensive Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) background.  The kit contains two buccal cheek swabs for painless, non-invasive DNA collection.  After the sample is taken, it’s lysed in two small vials, which are bar coded to protect patient identity.  The samples are then shipped off to the CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement and Amendments of 1988) certified lab at the University of Arizona (UA).

Once at the lab, the DNA is extracted and the Geneticure proprietary assay run.  A report of the findings is returned to the clinician with the patient’s genotype- the DNA sequence at these targeted alleles- and the predicted patient response to drug therapy, including the literature supporting the recommended drug treatment. 

For example, if a patient has the genotype, or alleles, EE for hypertension gene LSN, Geneticure would know that gene LSN relates to blood vessel function and might predict that a vasodilator be the first line of defense in controlling this particular patient’s hypertension.

The Geneticure team is stacked with three National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded scientists who know a thing or two about cardiology and genetics.  The company was begun by the Snyder brothers, President Scott Snyder and Chief Operating Officer Eric Snyder.  The latter Snyder performed his thesis work in cardiology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and then went on to UA, where he collaborated with genetics expert and now Geneticure Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Ryan Sprissler.  Sprissler runs the UA Genetics Core Facility and receives all the Geneticure DNA samples.  The fourth co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Tom Olson, serves as Assistant Professor of Medicine and Consulting in Cardiovascular Diseases at Mayo Clinic. 

Late last year, the team added a second business man to the team, Ben Bowman.  Bowman has an extensive background in startup development and was the Founding CEO of General Blood, a company that optimized the human donated blood market.

The group launched a retrospective stage phase one clinical trial early last year to demonstrate the efficacy of the gene panel in directing hypertension treatment and found quite a bit of success.

“…we were more than twice as good as the standard of care in predicting that first drug class that was successful,” explains Snyder.  In one particular case, Geneticure would have controlled a hypertension patient nine months faster than the standard of care. 

Geneticure also thinks they can improve patient therapy compliance “by providing a personalized medication solution. […] [Patients] are going to be more likely to take that drug if they know it was a solution that was developed for them,” explains Snyder.

Snyder predicts, “Without question, at some point in the future, your doctor will not prescribe a drug for hypertension without you taking our test.”    

CoCreateX and UMN MDC Event Leverages the Power of the Twin Cities Innovation Community

I’ve had the unique opportunity to follow and engage with the Saint Paul based CoCreateX innovation group for a little over one year.  They served as my first real introduction into the Minneapolis/Saint Paul entrepreneurial community and the power harnessed therein.

This past Tuesday night, CoCreateX co-hosted a Medical Event with the University of Minnesota Medical Devices Center (MDC) in the MDC space on the university’s East Bank campus.  Anyone interested in learning about the Center and medical device commercialization was encouraged to attended. 

But the night was really about community, resource sharing, and helping one another.  The purpose was to collect like-minded individuals into one space to advance and give exposure to personal and community projects. 

The event format was designed to share stories and ideas of innovation from our rich entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Twin Cities. 

CoCreateX printed company and group posters from the community and hung them around the space to gain exposure for these organizations. A handful of innovators gave three minute pitches throughout the night, which were broken up by half hour interactions and informal networking.  Pitches were delivered by AdrenaCard, Worrell Designs, a medical device map, Transfuse Solutions, ImmerGen Studios, AxioMed, the UMN Engineering World Health student group, a heart cooling catheter and system company, and the Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium. 

The event was yet another interactive, engaging activity arranged by CoCreateX, leveraging the assets and expertise of the community to build and bolster innovation across the board. 

Encounters such as this are even more proof that innovation and comradery are thriving in Minnesota.  

MN Cup Fuels Minnesota's Early Stage Entrepreneurs

For one day we will take a step away from the life sciences and talk about something equally essential to us all: food.

The Twin Cities are a veritable Wonka-Land for foodies.  New breweries, upscale restaurants, and daring new tastes lurk around every corner.  Just last week the Minneapolis restaurant The Copper Hen was featured on the CNBC show Restaurant Startup and received an investment from restauranteur Joe Bastianich for a rooftop expansion.

The MN Cup’s “EAT: Entrepreneurs at the Table” event this past Thursday celebrated and showcased over sixty local food entrepreneurs.  Over five hundred people packed into the Chow Girls Solar Arts Building in Northeast Minneapolis for this free event.  Participants had the opportunity to engage with, sample, and buy product from each of these early stage food and beverage entrepreneurs.  If you didn’t leave having to expand one belt notch, you probably weren’t doing it right. 

What could be sampled from Minnesota’s food innovators?  Please start by smearing some of the  Shamim’s Pantry Ghee, a type of pure butter fat, onto crackers.  Top that off with an enormous, half pound cookie from T-Rex cookies and wash it all down with a pineapple habanero mixer from The Twisted Shrub.  For the more adventurous, try out the Northern Ale Guide craft brewery passport.  Take this little blue book to over thirty Minnesota craft breweries in Mankato, Rochester, the Twin Cities or Duluth to get a buy one get one free pint, plus have the passport stamped.  It really doesn’t get much better.

So what exactly is the MN Cup? 

It’s only the largest annual state business plan competition that grows and supports entrepreneurship in Minnesota.  The state-wide tournament provides small businesses with the tools to grow and offers exposure for early stage companies. 

The MN Cup launched in 2005 and is based out of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.  The competition spans eight categories including Food/Agriculture/Beverage, Student, Life Science/Health IT, and a newly added Youth Division. 

The criteria for entry is simple.  Companies must have under one million dollars in annual revenue and be based in Minnesota. 

The competition grows every year.  In 2015, $327K in prize money was awarded and over ten thousand entrepreneurs impacted by the tournament.  Over 89% of the state’s counties were represented, with a strong presence from Southern Minnesota.

For the competition, startups are judged on the opportunity of their business idea, business plan, team, and progress in engagement with customers.  The competition is particularly looking for high growth potential businesses that could bring job opportunities to the state. 

The whole MN Cup process is free for startups, including the application which goes live March 21st.  During this six-month long competition, ten semifinalists in each of the eight division are first selected from this large pool of applicants and paired with at least one mentor.  This field is winnowed down to just three startups in each division in early August.  The pool is further preened to just one divisional winner who walks away with $30K in seed money.  All divisional finalists have a chance to compete for the grand prize, the MN Cup and an additional $50K, at the final awards reception scheduled for September 22nd this year.      

Even for startups that don’t make it into the finals, the constructive feedback, increased visibility, and mentorship received is invaluable and worth the effort to enter the competition.

For more information about the MN Cup, check out LSN Podcast 27 and 28, where MN Cup Director Melissa Kjolsing spoke at a Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator and BioAM sponsored event and the competition website.    


Healthcare.mn Event Proves that Innovation is Thriving in Minnesota

Healthcare.mn started off the year with a bang with the “Overview of Healthcare Innovation Projects in MN” packed-house event this past Monday.  The night was stuffed with predictions of 2016 healthcare trends by local experts and pitches from startups operating in the healthcare space.  A perfect morsel of this sector of Minnesota’s life science economy.

The event was held at Worrell Inc, a global product development company headquartered in Minneapolis.  This business works with startups and large corporations alike.  They take products from the concept stage all the way through engineering, design, and optimization, to hand off the product to a manufacturer.  

The night was kicked off by leading experts in Minnesota’s healthcare field- including Jodi Hubler of Lemhi Ventures, Kunjorn Chambundabongse “KC” of Optum, independent healthcare consultant Keith Toussaint, Nick Wassenberg and Libby Johnson of Gravie, and Bob Johnson from the Minnesota Department of Health- sharing their predicted trends for 2016.

And what do these experts see for the healthcare field in the not too distant future?  They predicted continued investment in the healthcare space for companies rooted in product and discipline.  They stressed leveraging the established ecosystem we have in Minnesota to help each other succeed, because we only help ourselves by helping others as well, a premise the state was built on.  These experts predicted the generation of a knowledge economy in healthcare, where intelligence can effectively be managed and understood and patients function as a vital part of the healthcare team.  They also see group health insurance plans moving into the individual market, leading to extreme cost savings across the board.

Next, it was local startups turn in the spotlight.  A total of twenty-three startups gave quick, sixty second pitches; just enough to entice and pull in the audience.  These small businesses are operating in a variety of pockets in the healthcare space including data analysis and collection, women’s health, diagnostics, medical device, social networking applications, and digital health.

You can revisit all the excitement of the evening with the Twitter hashtag #healthcaremn.  The group’s next event is Tuesday, February 15th, highlighting maternal mortality issues in conjunction with the startup Ova Woman.

This event proved that innovation and entrepreneurship are surely thriving in Minnesota.  Let’s keep pushing those boundaries.

Medical Alley Association Talks about Recent Rebranding Strategy to Better Serve Minnesota's Health Technology Sectors

Last week, Jamie Sundsbak sat down for a chat with Tess Donahue, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Medical Alley Association, formerly LifeScience Alley, to talk about recent changes with the largest state-based life science business association in the nation.  Check out the full interview in LSN Podcast Episode 26. 

Most of us operating in Minnesota’s life science sectors realized that LifeScience Alley changed their name and rebranded as Medical Alley Association a few weeks ago.  “Largely, the LifeScience Alley brand stopped being relevant to our core,” Donahue explains. The organization actually launched thirty-two years ago under the name Medical Alley Association and had a very strong following in the state’s health tech community in the medical device, digital health, diagnostics, and biopharmaceutical spaces. 

As the focus of LifeScience Alley expanded over the years to meet the demands of the ever growing life science sectors in the state, the group started to lose relevancy.  “You just simply cannot be all things to all people,” says Donahue.  The group strategized to bring the mission back to what their core companies needed from the organization.  As a result, LifeScience Alley was rebranded with renewed vision back to Medical Alley Association.

All the services and the focus of the organization remain the same.  “Nothing’s changing.  It’s just getting better,” Donahue assures.  Medical Alley Association is built on the core services of advocacy, information/intelligence, member services, and a buying consortium for members.  For more information, peak back at an interview from last year with Vice President of Member Services, Frank Jaskulke. 

Medical Alley Association released that 2015 Annual Investment Report a few weeks ago as part of these information and intelligence efforts.  This report showed that things in Minnesota are actually….quite good.

“There’s a perception that funding is dried up and that it certainly isn’t coming to Minnesota.  In fact, we had a record breaking year in 2014 and we’ve sustained that into 2015.  That’s really good news.  The investment community is paying attention,” says Donahue.

How much investment did Minnesota health tech companies accrue last year?  A record high $434.9M.  A total of 101 companies secured investments in 2015, with the digital health space seeing 59% growth compared to 2014.  Not too shabby.

One place you will see a change in the new Medical Alley Association is in their shared content. They recently rolled out the “10 To Know” Top 10 News Week List as featured tile on the new website, showcasing a weekly curation of the hottest news stories from around the state.

“If you have news to share, or you’ve gotten funding, or you want to let us know about something that’s going on in your particular part of the Medical Alley region, let us know.  We can help to extend your voice,” explains Donahue. 

Along with the rebranding, Medical Alley Association is planning to hit the road to meet face to face with current and potential Medical Alley Association members.  “We’re looking at different areas that we can reach out to our membership, particularly down in Rochester, to engage our members that are there and to start discussions with startups and other investors who are focusing on that area particularly,” says Donahue.

The startup community, specifically, is a vital part of Medical Alley Association’s membership.  The group is ready to get the conversation rolling in Rochester, and in other key pockets in the state, to see how the organization can best help the health tech community in these areas.

The best ways to connect with the Medical Alley Association are through their new website, LinkedIn groups, Twitter, and Facebook pages.  The organization will soon be rolling out individual Twitter handles, so you can follow your favorite Medical Alley Association staffers on that social platform.  You can also sign up for the Medical Alley Association newsletter to stay informed of the latest communications and events. 

The Beer Dabbler Owner gives Fireside Chat at Latest Startup Grind Minneapolis

Startup Grind Minneapolis held its latest event this past Monday, featuring local Twin Cities entrepreneur Matt Kenevan.  We noted Startup Grind a few weeks ago as one of the top ten websites that every entrepreneur needs to know.  Beyond the website, Startup Grind is actually a large community of entrepreneurs with over 213 worldwide chapters. 

This latest Startup Grind event put on by the Minneapolis chapter was an informal fireside chat.  The event took place at CoCo Coworking in the beautiful and historic  Minneapolis Grain Exchange Building.  If you’ve never been in the space before, it’s something to see.  There’s nothing quite like looking up from your cubicle to just take in the architecture- the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places- or glace up at the ticker board to check out the upcoming entrepreneurial events in the area and see a large, pixelated cow.  They offer tours of the space every Friday, if your interested is now sufficiently piqued. 

This Startup Grind Event was a laid backed talk with the one-of-a-kind business man Matt Kenevan.  Kenevan is perhaps best known for his Beer Dabbler craft beer festivals and his work to build up the Twin Cities craft brewery scene.  Kenevan currently owns five independent companies, all of which are loosely tied together in some manner or another, mostly through beer.  After plying everyone with pizza and bottles of Fulton beer- because what Twin Cities event is complete without a local brew or two- we got to jump into the mindset of Matt Kenevan and understand what makes him tick as an entrepreneur. 

As with a lot of entrepreneurs, the ability to answer only to himself was a major reason Kenevan was driven to become a small business owner.  Apparently, he just really likes wearing shorts to work.  But with that freedom also comes a price.  He said to remember that in small business ownership, there is no nine-to-five or Monday through Friday.  It’s all the time.  If you feel like you’re working, it’s probably not the right field for you.  He said it’s all about finding a level where you don’t even know you’re working. 

He also wanted to prove to the nay-sayers that he could do something or get something to work which was thought to be impossible.  Enter one of his businesses: The Growler.  Maybe you’ve seen it.  It’s in about every pub and brewery in the Twin Cities.  The magazine is of course about beer.  But it also contains cultural and lifestyle stories for everybody.  Kenevan wanted negativity kept out of The Growler, avoiding any hurtful words for beer enthusiasts and brewers who were putting everything on the line to make their dreams a reality, valuable advice for all of us spreading written words out there.   In an era where print is supposed to be dead, The Growler has been up and running for three years.

It might seem that winter beer festivals in Minnesota are a crazy idea, but Kenevan made that work as well.  His first plan was to throw beer fests in twelve different cities.  In the end, he said that was an incredibly bad and unsuccessful experience where he lost a lot of money.  But he was still convinced that the winter beer festivals could work, but maybe the concept of the twelve cities was wrong.  He advised that you can have the best business plan in the world, but there will still be something wrong with it.  It’s all about rolling with the punches and making the best of the situation.  Kenevan said that it’s alright to fail.  We all do.  It’s just important to avoid landing in that same position twice.

He has revamped the beer festival model, paring it down to just three events all held in the Twin Cities: the Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival, Summer Beer Dabbler, and the Beer Dabbler at Twin Cities Pride.  Although he still can’t control the weather, the highly successful Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival celebrates it’s seventh season this February 6th.   It’s not always great.  He called the 2014 Winter Dabbler during the polar vortex “the most horrifying experience of my entire life”.  But if you have a good product, people will withstand subzero temperatures for it.

Some of Kenevan’s businesses didn’t necessary have a road map.  They were like a choose your own adventure plan.  He said it’s all about taking opportunities when they are presented.  That’s how another of his businesses, The Beer Dabbler Store, was launched.  He needed an office space and wanted to be more than a beer festival promoter.  He also wanted to create a physical space where people could come to talk to him about the beer fests.  So he opened up the store front, selling craft beer apparel.  His refrigerated tap trailer company, Metro Cold-Stor, also developed from seizing an opportunity.  Kenevan saw a need for the service in the area.  But, he also saw a personal need to get out of the office a few times a week, which Metro Cold-Stor provided.

Every entrepreneur’s journey is different and Matt Kenevan’s is truly unique.  Join Startup Grind Minneapolis for their next event in March with the software design and development company The Nerdery.