Rochester Entrepreneurial Roundtable Discusses Future of City's Startup Ecosystem: Part 3

A few weeks ago we sat down with some of Rochester’s entrepreneurs for a roundtable discussion about the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem in Rochester, where the community is headed, and what it will take to get there.  This is the final piece in a three article series covering the conversation. 


Our esteemed entrepreneurial panel:

  • Mike Rolih, Founder and CEO of GoRout, a sports wearable display and sensor company and recent graduate of the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator.
  • Xavier Frigola, Director of the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator that houses twenty-two life science companies.
  • Nate Nordstrom, Founder of BrandHoot, a company that designs websites, mobile applications, and additional products.
  • Hunter Downs, Founder of Area 10 Labs, a hardware and software product development company, and Co-owner of Café Steam.
  • Chris Lukenbill, Founder of Able, Bright Agrotech software to connect produce farmers that have the passion grow, with the knowledge they need to be successful.
  • Jamie Sundsbak, Founder of BioAM and Program Director at a new coworking and business incubator space called Collider.


Now that we had defined a startup and examined the past and present state of Rochester’s startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem in Parts 1 and 2, we finally discussed what Rochester’s entrepreneurial community could look like five years from now and how the ecosystem would have changed.

“I think hopefully we would have some examples of successful companies with large exits,” said Jamie.

This would mean that ideas were coming to maturation and capital flow was occurring.  Companies exiting would fill a final piece in the startup ecosystem.  Normally, some sort of learning process occurs during company maturation, and these businesses could then provide a mentorship role to other emerging ventures in the community.

Mature business could not only give back in terms of lessons learned, they could also provide additional financial opportunities to local entrepreneurs, fueling the ecosystem where we could have “one turnover of successful companies feeding ten more for every company that’s successful,” said Jamie.  This could cultivate a real give back initiative in the Rochester community.

Five years might as well be a century at times in the entrepreneurial world.  Sometimes it’s difficult to visualize far into the future because the business and problems are always changing.  Once we reach one goal, we just extended it to the next endpoint.

“I think there’s some real actionable things that can be done in the next eighteen months, versus five years.  And I think the trajectory of this could significantly change in the next eighteen months,” explained Mike.

What could we do in the next eighteen months that would have a noticeable impact on the entrepreneurial community?

For one, we could create more engaging technological programs at the high school, junior high, and even elementary school level right in the city.  Teaching students how to code, develop software, and cultivate other basic technological skills would almost make them better poised to enter the tech job market than some adults.

“I think if we can’t change the workforce that we currently have, let’s try and figure out how to change the workforce that’s coming behind them,” advised Mike.

There are some great programs in place in Rochester and in the virtual space that challenge kids to develop these skills.  Technovation[MN] is an initiative that teaches Minnesota teenage girls how to create mobile phone apps.  Scratch is on online learning system out of MIT that encourages even very young children to create interactive stories and games.  STEM village provides resources for Southeast Minnesota teachers.  But these movements take time to develop and change in general is slow.  

Even though the topic was the future, it was clear that workforce issues continued to be one of the largest barriers for Rochester’s startup ecosystem in the minds of our panelists.  We highlighted before the lack of a large higher education system in Rochester that teaches skills like design, UX (user experience), and prototyping.  Rochester needs a youthful, skilled workforce that is curious, open to different ways of thinking, and can bear the risks involved in working for or launching a startup.

“One of my biggest concerns that I’ve seen too many times is someone that is going to go to college or a fresh college graduate and they get sucked up into the Twin Cities or someplace else that seems cooler or better.  And so we need to keep promoting Rochester for what it is and the interesting, great things that are happening here right now,” Nate suggested. 

There are many advantages to cities with a small population size like Rochester.  It’s much easier to make an impact in the community and it’s relativity simple to get meetings with the right people.  We need to start attracting people to fill the startup workforce scene here before they reach an established point and have responsibilities like mortgages and children and can’t afford to take on that same financial risk.

People in their 30s and above know why Rochester is a great city.  How do we make the environment attractive to the 20-year-olds?

Hunter described dealing with the reverse problem during his time in Hawaii.  People wanted to be there, because it was Hawaii.  Who doesn’t fantasize about surfing before work every morning?  But in the 1990s, jobs in the tech sector were limited.  If you lost your job, it was a major problem.

“I would get things like Oxford PhDs and Carnegie Mellon trained masters.  And I was like, this is easy!  If I wanted somebody, I just advertised and the next month I’d have somebody from a top tiered school saying, ‘I want in.’  I think we have to get to where that’s the culture here.  They want to be here,” he explained.

In Rochester, if you take that risk on a startup and it doesn’t work, it’s not quite as detrimental.  Minnesota as a whole has a very low unemployment rate, the 11th lowest at 3.8%.  Incidentally, Hawaii’s unemployment rate is currently 0.2% lower than that of Minnesota, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Not to minimize the event of a job loss, but everybody seems to be hiring in Rochester.

“I think if you lose your job or something doesn’t work out at a startup, fine.  There’s probably either a startup next door or a big corporate group like Mayo that has twenty, fifty job positions that would fit you,” Nate suggested.

But, maybe we don’t have to focus all the attention on attracting 20-year-olds to Rochester.  We have kids right here that will be twenty-year-olds in the very near future.  Maybe instead we should invest some real effort in providing them with the skills they need to succeed in Rochester’s emerging startup scene.  Perhaps we need to shift our view to a more generational timescale.

This wraps up a fantastic, insightful discussion with these local Rochester entrepreneurs, hopefully the first of many future conversations.  Although there are certainly hurdles in our future, the workforce being the largest looming barrier, the outlook for Rochester’s entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem is positive.

“I think that we’ve come a long way.  When we look back at where we were and where we are now, we’re at a much more desirable place. …To me the future, although challenging, could be a bright future,” Xavier summed up.