Rochester's Tech Startup GoRout Selected as Finalist in NASA iTech Competition

Photo courtesy of GoRout.

Photo courtesy of GoRout.

Rochester company GoRout was selected as one of only ten competitors for NASA’s prestigious NASA iTech competition. NASA iTech, an initiative of the organization’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, challenges entrepreneurs to apply their technology to solve pressing issues related to space exploration.  Ten finalists remain in the competition , including GoRout, and will present their ideas at the upcoming iTech Forum in Sunnyvale, California on July 10-11th. Chief technologists from NASA, additional federal agencies, and industry will then select three winners from these finalists for the 2019 NASA iTech Cycle I competition. The ten NASA iTech finalists span a range of industry including medical, data, and materials. The three Cycle I winners will receive no monetary compensation but will gain on-going mentoring to help commercialize their product.

 Congratulations to GoRout and best of luck in the competition! GoRout, run by CEO Mike Rolih, is a Rochester-based hardware and software company eliminating the need for huddles and scout cards. GoRout’s technology works to improve on-field communication for hundreds of high school and small college football teams across the US. GoRout won the NFL’s 1st and Future startup competition in 2017. CEO Rolih was also named among SportsTechie’s 20 Innovators in 2017.

NFL's 1st And Future Startup Competition Heats Things Up In Minneapolis


On the eve of Super Bowl LII, the stars were not the football players, but the innovators and entrepreneurs with the ideas to change the game. Yesterday morning, nine early stage sports tech startups pitched their emerging technologies during the NFL’s 1st and Future Competition, the organization’s premier business pitch event, to a panel of judges and invite-only audience to win $50,000 and two tickets to Super Bowl LII.

The startups remaining in this annual competition participated in one of three categories: Advancements in Protective Equipment, New Therapies to Speed Recovery, and Technology to Improve Athletic Performance. One winner was selected in each category.

The Denver, Colorado based startup Impressio won the Advancements in Protective Equipment division. Impressio is led by a pair of engineering professors who have spent the last fifteen years “obsessed with finding new materials to improve human health.” This team aims to replace the current foam in helmets with a material containing “unprecedented energy absorbing ability,” called liquid crystal elastomers, to reduce concussion rates. These oval shaped molecules rotate when impacted to absorb more energy and dissipate absorption from impact over a broader range than current helmet foam material, increasing helmet safety. The technology requires no fundamental re-design of the helmet. Liquid crystal elastomers are documented by over forty years of research but are difficult to make, according to Impressio. The team has a patented procedure to manufacture the material in bulk.

Curv.ai, based in Toronto, Ontario, walked away as winners in the Technology to Improve Athletic Performance category. This startup is developing software that transforms the camera on any smart phone into a tool to test athletic abilities, track athletic progress, diagnose injury, and compare athletic advancements socially. The application can capture data such as throwing speed, vertical jump, knee kinematics, and reaction time to create a “revolution in athletic testing and athlete development.” The platform is free to use, with a paid premium model available to track data over time. The software is geared toward young athletes. A variety of wearables do exist to quantify these same types of data. However, these items are expensive, complicated, and cannot be integrated onto one platform, according to Curv.ai.

The Mountain View, California startup Recover X won the final division, New Therapies to Speed Recovery. This startup is “building the next generation of injury recovery devices to help speed recovery…and keep players accountable to their actual treatment.” The startup is developing a smart phone-controlled electric cold and hot therapy device that warms up or cools down to the optimal therapy temperatures in under thirty seconds. The device can also alternate between heat and cold for optimal recovery. The device is portable, runs on batteries, and requires the use of no ice. It even tracks data to ensure that players are performing their therapy as prescribed. The device is currently targeted to the knee, the cause of 28% of Injury Reserve issues in the NFL last year. However, the design is modular and can be adapted to target other portions of the body.

The NFL’s 1st and Future Competition was sponsored by Mayo Clinic, Sports Engine, and Comcast NBCUniversal. The event was hosted by Scott Hanson of the NFL Network. The expert panel of judges included Amy Banse, Managing Director and Head of Funds for Comcast Ventures; Jonathan Finnoff, Medical Director of Mayo Clinic Square with the Sports Medicine Center in Minneapolis; Courtney Hall, Managing Director of Hillcrest Venture Partners and former NFL athlete; Justin Kaufenberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Sports Engine; Laurie Locascio, Vice President for Research at the University of Maryland; Eric Sugarman, Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer with the Minnesota Vikings; and Jennifer Wethe, Neuropsychologist for Mayo Clinic Arizona Sports Neurology and Concussion Program.

Last year, Rochester’s own GoRout participated in the 1st and Future Competition the day before Super Bowl LI in Houston and won their division, Communication with the Athlete. GoRout is a hardware and software company that elevates “scout team execution with football’s most powerful on-field practice gear.”

This year, no Minnesota companies made it to the final round of the competition.

Agile Startups, Football Reps, and Social Media Management- the Latest 1 Million Cups Rochester


Yesterday the latest installment of 1 Million Cups Rochester took place, featuring the rapidly growing Rochester tech startup GoRout and the emerging Twin Cities software company EverGreen.



GoRout is an “on-field, visual communications platform for high school college, NFL, and CFL football programs.”

“Football,” explained GoRout Founder and CEO Mike Rolih, “is all about imagery.” In a sport dominated by chalk talks, diagrams, and film footage, the current communication methods used in football, Rolih said, are outdated and inefficient.

To communicate the next play during practice, coaches currently call their players off the line of scrimmage, talk through the upcoming play using a diagram on paper, and then send the players back out onto the field.

Rolih said this method uses up valuable practice time and does not speak the language of today’s generation of football players, “most of which have never lived their lives a single day without the iPod or the iPhone being in existence.”

Instead, GoRout has perfected football practice with their line of visual communication products. Their first product, Vue, displays play cards visually on a small screen that straps around players’ forearms and instantly communicates plays without the player ever leaving the field. GoRout’s newest product, Vue-Up, utilizes the same technology to display the next play across the visor of players’ helmets.

Using this technology, teams can run 45-55 reps in ten minutes, compared to 10-12 plays in that same amount of time without the GoRout products.

GoRout also developed their own private wireless network, covering all forty-eight lower U.S. states and half of Canada, that sends plays from the coaches to the players on the field in under one second.

All GoRout hardware is designed in Rochester. The tech startup provides their software to football teams for free and sells teams bandwidth on their private network. Rolih says GoRout is “pretty solid” now in both software and hardware development; their network has not dropped a single play since May.

GoRout has achieved much success. Rolih said their biggest problem now is dealing with the growth of the business.

“We’re transitioning from being a startup to [being] an early stage company. And with that comes a significant amount of learning pains and growth pains,” he explained.

Although the startup must expand, Rolih said he wants to keep the home office as small as possible. He expects the Rochester team to grow from seven to twenty-five people by the end of next year.

For himself and other startups in this city, Rolih asked Rochester entrepreneurs to start talking.

“We need to amplify stories about entrepreneurism here in Rochester, because there’s a significant group of people that expect everything in town to be run by one entity,” he said. “We have the opportunity to be more than just one thing in Rochester. And it’s really important that we find ways to do that.”


EverGreen is a social media automation tool for small to medium-sized businesses that lack the “time, resources, expertise, or budget to really run their own social media.” This emerging software startup was developed by accident, explained Founder Lou Abramowski.

A few years ago, Abramowski performed an experiment. He kept changing his birthdate on Facebook to the current day to see if he could receive happy birthday messages. He decided to continue this test until the birthday messages were no longer sincere. He expected the replies would continue for a few days. He was shocked when they went on for several weeks; he even received some from the same people more than once.

He deconstructed this experiment to determine why the messages continued for so long and boiled it down to one thing: “evergreen” content. “Evergreen,” Abramowski explained, is material that does not expire and is not relevant to the date, time, or current events. It’s something that’s educational, inspirational, or entertaining as opposed to content tied to a specific event, such as a Labor Day post, for example.

Since the beginning of social media marketing, Abramowski said people hesitated to reuse content or thought it should be “single serving,” or tailored to a very specific audience. Instead, he experimented with the exact opposite, even going so far as posting the same photo of a bunny wearing a backpack on Facebook every single day.

He began building up a library of this “evergreen” social media content on his computer desktop. Eventually, he designed software that would pull the content out of these libraries and randomly publish them on social media accounts whenever he did not publish content or have it scheduled on typical social media management platforms like Buffer or HootSuite.

Eventually, word spread and people asked to license his software.

Today, EverGreen publishes between 20-30K posts each day and manages a few thousand Facebook pages. Abramowski says fifty percent of his customers are solopreneurs. Another twenty-five percent are small businesses that cannot pay for a full time social media manager. The remaining twenty-five percent are larger agencies.


1 Million Cups Rochester

1 Million Cups is a free, national education program that takes place in over 133 different communities across the United States to support entrepreneurship. 1 Million Cups Rochester occurs on the first Wednesday of every month at 9AM at the Bleu Duck Kitchen. The next 1 Million Cups Rochester will be held Wednesday October 4th.  

Tech Startups GoRout and EverGreen to Present at Next 1 Million Cups Rochester


Join the entrepreneurial community at the next 1 Million Cups Rochester on Wednesday, September 6th from 9-10AM in the Bleu Duck Kitchen Event Space. This month we have two entrepreneurs from the tech scene telling their story: Mike Rolih with GoRout and Louis Abramowski with EverGreen.


About GoRout

GoRout is a hardware and software tech startup based in Rochester, Minn. GoRout creates on-field wearable products to enhance communication between coaches and athletes during football practice at the high school, college, and professional level.

Launched in: 2014

Presenter: Mike Rolih

Industry: Information/Communication Tech

About EverGreen

EverGreen is developing a media marketing product to help small to medium sized businesses schedule Facebook and Twitter content.

Launched: 2016

Presenter: Louis Abramowski

Industry: Other/Technology


About 1 Million Cups

1 Million Cups is a free, national education program developed by the Kauffman Foundation. 1 Million Cups takes place every Wednesday at 9AM across 133 US communities to support and encourage entrepreneurs. The program is based on the idea that entrepreneurs connect and discover solutions over one million cups of coffee.

Tech Entrepreneurs Mike Rolih and Kenneth Ngah to Speak at Rochester Rising Community Celebration

We are very excited to announce the two invited speakers for our first birthday party and celebration of the Rochester entrepreneurial community: Kenneth Ngah and Mike Rolih. Our community celebration will take place on Wednesday July 19th at 4:30PM at Grand Rounds Brew Pub. Click here to purchase your ticket by July 12th.


About Kenneth Ngah- Founder of WandaGuides

Kenneth is a season web programmer, hailing from Cameroon, who has been in Rochester for the last ten months. This tech entrepreneur founded the startup WandaGuides to encourage tourism in Cameroon and connect tourists with government recognized travel agencies. Kenneth began his career performing web contract work and building websites in several different countries without ever having to leave Cameroon. He served as Community Manager of a coworking space in the city of Buea, called ActivSpaces, where he helped to create entrepreneur-focused events and connect with the local university system. Kenneth and a team of entrepreneurs helped to build very specific tech communities in Cameroon- including JavaScript and WordPress focused hubs- to increase the local skill set and bolster tech development. He also helped to directly place students into internships with developing startups in the community to teach immediately transferable skill sets.


About Mike Rolih- Founder of GoRout


GoRout is a two-year-old hardware and software startup based out of The Vault in downtown Rochester. GoRout developed football’s only on-field wearable technology that allows players and coaches to communicate instantly and efficiently. Mike- a former professional baseball player, Division One baseball coach, and baseball scout- originally set out to build a baseball stats platform, but the idea took too long and was not headed in the intended direction. He landed the original seed money for GoRout while driving a limo between Rochester and the MSP airport. The GoRout team believes in failing fast and learning fast. During Global Entrepreneurship Week last year, GoRout held the first ever sportstech product launch from Rochester unveiling their newest product, an in-helmet, heads up display called Vue-Up. This February, GoRout earned national attention by winning the “Communication with the Athlete” division in the NFL’s 1st and Future Competition in Huston over Super Bowl weekend.

Thanks to our generous community partners for making this event possible.

Press Release: All American Games and GoRout Announce an All-American Partnership

ROCKAWAY, NJ (April 20, 2017) – All American Games today announced a partnership with GoRout, the on-field wearable playmaking technology for football teams across the country.

GoRout is the only playmaking technology that combines intelligent software and on-field wearable products to enhance practice for high school, college, and professional football teams. U.S. Army All-Americans will use GoRout products to help players track their practice performance and perfect their game.

GoRout brings several different products to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. One of the products to be included is Vue, football’s only on-field display technology worn by players. With Vue, coaches send digital play calls, coaching tips, and assignments to every player instantly. Players select their position, see the play, and execute perfectly.

At the NFL’s 1st and Future Competition at Super Bowl LI, GoRout was named the “Most Innovative Athlete Communication Technology” in football. In addition, GoRout was awarded “Product of the Year” by Football Scoop in both 2016 and 2017. GoRout is currently being used by some of the best high schools, FCS/FBS colleges, and professional football teams in America.

For 18 consecutive years, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl has been the nation’s premier high school sporting event and serves as the preeminent launching pad for America’s future college and NFL stars. Odell Beckham Jr., Andrew Luck, Patrick Peterson, Adrian Peterson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey made their national debuts as U.S. Army All- Americans. A total of 330 U.S. Army All-American Bowl alumni have been selected in NFL Drafts. The 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl drew a record crowd of 40,568 to the Alamodome and was watched by more than 5 million unique viewers on NBC.

For more information on GoRout, visit gorout.com and noscoutcards.gorout.com. Connect with all GoRout activity at fb.com/gorouttech, or at the official Twitter (@Go_Rout) and Instagram (@Go_Rout) accounts.

For more information on All American Games, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and its related events, visit usarmyallamericanbowl.com, goarmy.com/events/aab, allamericangames.com, and footballuniversity.org.

Connect with all #ArmyBowl activity at fb.com/ArmyAllAmerican, or at the official Twitter (@ArmyAllAmerican) and Instagram (@armyallamericanbowl) accounts.

For more information contact:

Mike Ulatoski

All American  Games

[E] mulatoski@allamericangames.com

[O] 973 2981103 [C] 203 808 6601

Rochester's GoRout Makes it Big in NFL 1st and Future Competition

GoRout Founder Mike Rolih launching Vue-Up during Global Entrepreneurship Week.

GoRout Founder Mike Rolih launching Vue-Up during Global Entrepreneurship Week.

Rochester based football hardware and software startup, GoRout, earned themselves national recognition over the weekend. The team won the “Communication with the Athlete” division in the NFL’s 1st and Future competition in Houston this Saturday, bringing home $50,000, two tickets to Super Bowl 51, and entry into the Texas Medical Center Accelerator program.

The NFL’s 1st and Future competition was presented by TechCrunch, one of the biggest names in online startup and technology news sites, in collaboration with Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Startups pitched their ideas to an audience of NFL owners and executives the day before the Super Bowl in one of three categories: “The Future Stadium,” which involved products that enhance the experience of spectators at live sporting events; “Bringing Home the Game,” which included products that enhance ways that live sporting broadcasts are consumed at home; and “Tomorrow’s Athlete,” which encompassed products that address the performance and safety of athletes.

GoRout is based right above Grand Rounds Brewing Company in downtown Rochester and run by Chicago-native Mike Rolih. GoRout developed football’s only on-field, wearable technology that enhances communication between players and coaches. Their products- Steel 2.0, Vue-Up, and Vue 2.0- are used by football teams from the high school to the professional level. GoRout launched their latest product Vue-Up, football’s first in-helmet, heads-up display, right from Rochester during Global Entrepreneurship Week to a packed house.



Congratulations to Mike and the GoRout team for this major success. And thank you for representing Rochester’s startup community, especially outside of medicine, on such a platform.

“GoRout is an amazing example of a Rochester based company that exemplifies the next generation of local tech startups. Mike and his team have crafted a world class tech business right here in Rochester.  Congratulations to GoRout on this fantastic achievement,” commented Jamie Sundsbak, Community Manager at Collider Coworking, a hub for entrepreneurs in downtown Rochester.

It seems that one of the best kept secrets in Rochester is finally getting some well-desired attention. 

GoRout Launches Football's First In-Helmet Display Right from Rochester

Last night GoRout, a Rochester-based football hardware and software startup, launched their newest product, Vue-Up, during Global Entrepreneurship Week. Vue-Up is football’s first in-helmet, heads-up display, which will change the way that players and coaches approach the sport.

Vue-Up is a lightweight, military grade display that is embedded into the helmet, allowing for instant communication between players and coaches and enabling each player to see the exact route they need to run for each play. Vue-Up has a 1280 x 720 bright HD display with the largest focal plane ever for this type of product. Vue-Up comes with a 4MP instant-on video camera, capturing the viewpoint for each player on the field. The device is also voice controlled and learns and identifies individual voices through artificial intelligence.

GoRout also announced the release of GoRout Air, their newest update to on-field networking. Now you can just turn on any of their products anywhere in the continental United States, and it’s ready to go. No more routers or syncing required.

And all this was developed right here in Rochester, Minnesota.

Congrats to Mike Rolih and his team on this latest success and thanks for letting us all be a part of it.

You can read more background about Mike and GoRout by clicking here.

GoRout Unveils Newest Product at Rochester's First Ever Sports Tech Launch Tomorrow Night

GoRout, a football hardware and software startup, is one of the best kept secrets in Rochester. This two-year-old company developed football’s only on-field wearable technology that allows coaches and players to interact and communicate more efficiently. GoRout launched their beta product to sixty-five football teams, from the high school to professional level. Tomorrow evening, they’ll unveil their newest product at a public launch party right here in Rochester during Global Entrepreneurship Week. And they’ve done it all from a small office space above Grand Rounds Brew Pub.

It takes a lot of pluck to be an entrepreneur, as GoRout’s Founder Mike Rolih well knows. Mike’s story is one of those that is so crazy, it just has to be true.

Mike first moved to Rochester from the Chicago area with his wife six years ago. At the time, he owned a consulting business, which he later sold. Mike had strong ties and connections in baseball; he actually played professional baseball and was a Division One Baseball coach and a professional baseball scout. After moving to Rochester, he started building up a baseball stats platform with a friend that would communicate information instantly to the players on the field. In the end, the platform took much too long to develop and was not really headed in the intended direction.

“But this whole idea of transferring real time information to people on the playing field was something that really kind of struck my eye and something that I really started diving into and I really had no idea how to build it,” Mike explained.

Mike had always been a tinkerer. When the baseball platform didn’t pan out, he started learning to write code to better understand how to create his vision. So he started coding and building small machines at home, which as you can imagine, was not so great for his wife.

“And at this point my wife had had enough. She wanted me out of the house. …And I had nothing to do. So I took a job driving limo, running people back and forth from Mayo to the Minneapolis airport.”

Ironically, limo driving might have been the best gig he ever landed. The entire time he was driving, Mike was also pitching ideas to anyone who would listen and ironing out the finer details in his head.

“You’d be surprised how many people you meet,” he said, which included famous people like Jay Leno. “They’re just normal people. You just strike up a conversation with them.”

One day, the former CEO of Motorola stepped into Mike’s limo and happened to love his idea. After a few trips to and from the airport, Mike asked he if could give this man a call at some point for mentorship. The former CEO agreed. Two months later, Mike tinkered around enough to develop a very rough prototype. He called the man on the phone and the former CEO flew on his personal jet to Rochester in five hours.

“And he wrote me a check for $300,000. That was our seed fund. And from there we kind of hit the ground running.” Mike took the money and bought a ticket to China, where he spent the next ninety days building the initial version of the first GoRout product.

GoRout fills a very specific niche in the sports world. And really no company, anywhere, is doing what they are doing.

 A large amount of time, effort, and strategy goes into preparing for a single football practice, at any level of play. Coaches have to actually sit down and draw out plays on cards, which can be upwards of 200-400 cards for the week. At the Division One College Level, this could take five to seven hours. Once on the field, these play cards are kept in a large binder and held up when a play is called. All the players on the field have to be able to see the card to know what play to run, which often involves running back and forth from the field to the sideline, taking away valuable practice time.

“So the attention span, the ability to see a card depending on where you're standing, the inefficiently of actually having to come in the huddle and listen to a coach point out ten other guy’s responsibilities before he even gets to yours, all of these elements add to a significant amount of time lost in between reps,” Mike explained.

GoRout developed products that increase communication between players and coaches during practice and allow more reps to be run. Using GoRout Steel software, coaches can more easily draw and instantly change plays. GoRout Vue is football’s only wearable display technology, allowing players to see plays on a device strapped onto the wrist and know exactly what route they need to run without ever going into the huddle or running to the sideline.

Without GoRout technology, teams may run about one play per minute during practice. But with GoRout, you “just hit a button and send the information out,” keeping all the players on the field, relaying information faster to every single player, and allowing cycling in of more players.

Instead of running maybe 10 reps in 10 minutes, with GoRout teams can run 35 to 50 reps in that same amount of time at a much higher quality.

“There are so many coaches that still try to teach 21st century players with late or early 20th century technology. …Kids today…they’re interactive. They’re individualized. And they’re very tech savvy. And if you’re not using products that can speak to their learning style, which is inevitably going to be visual to some degree, then you’re losing a major component of what you’re trying to achieve.”

Since GoRout’s start in 2014, they’ve had a lot of successes. But they’ve also had a lot of failures.

Call Taylor at (507) 424-3648

Call Taylor at (507) 424-3648

GoRout fits a very specific vertical in the sports tech field, which no one else was filling, and solves a problem that no one else quite knew how to solve. They really are the only ones operating in their defined space, which has allowed them to experiment, take some risks, and just try some things out. Some of these risks have led to failures, something that the GoRout team doesn’t fear, but actually embraces as a learning opportunity.

“We really believe in failing fast. Fail faster than anybody else. Let’s not be afraid to put something out there, have it not work, and figure out why,” Mike explained.

The initial version of the GoRout product actually never even got off the ground. Last year, they got their alpha version out to fifteen teams around the Midwest, which was largely a success. But they realized they had to make significant changes to their product. Instead of giving up, GoRout accepted it as a learning experience and an opportunity to completely re-engineering both their hardware and software, now with a better understanding of the customer.

GoRout failed fast, and learned fast, in part because every bit of their company was created here. “We design everything in house. Everything […] designed right here in this room. Our software, written and designed right here in Rochester. Right in this room.”

These rapid lessons helped them launch a successful beta product this year to fifty different football teams.

Now it’s time for the next step. GoRout will launch their latest product, live, tomorrow night during Global Entrepreneurship Week at Bleu Duck Kitchen. The event will be a first for Rochester.

“[People] should expect to see something they’ve never expected to see before. They should expect to see a product that people want in a lot of different industries, but it’s never been created. …They should expect to learn about a very small, nimble, innovative company that has their offices above a brew pub, that sells internationally, that none of them have ever heard of.”

If you are located in Rochester, don’t miss this event tomorrow night. Can’t make it? GoRout will be live streaming the product launch on their website.

Want to hear more? There's a special audio clip available for Patreon supporters

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.

Rochester Entrepreneurial Roundtable Discusses Future of City's Startup Ecosystem: Part 2

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 part two 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 AbleBright 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, startup ecosystem, and the key ingredients for Rochester’s startup success in Part 1 of the discussion, we next asked how we should build up and feed Rochester’s startup ecosystem and encourage more prospective entrepreneurs to take risks.

“I think as entrepreneurs, we always wish, I always wish, and I think everyone will agree, things would happen faster, bigger, and better.  And so I think all of a sudden, you’re just anxious to make this grow and change faster.  But I think we’re doing a lot of the right things,” explained Nate.   He viewed Cube, Rochester’s first coworking space, as that first connection point in our entrepreneurial community.  And from that moment, things just propelled forward.

Rochester’s entrepreneurs also need to utilize the energy within the community to make startup growth possible.  As part of this process, we need to clearly identify the roadblocks impeding our success and craft solutions to these problems.

It’s also essential to learn from the experience of other cities that have undergone dramatic growth in their startup and entrepreneurial systems to avoid committing similar errors and to accelerate our own growth process.  “When the entourage went to Madison, it was ‘Oh we built a lot of space.  We should have been investing in those companies.’  And I think that’s a strong lesson.  Don’t build it and expect them to come.  Go the other way around.  Make them be there, then fill the space,” said Hunter.

Things are happening in Rochester’s entrepreneurial scene that made the panel believe we are pointed in the right direction.  Take Café Steam, for example.  Something that didn’t exist eighteen months ago has now become a hot spot for Rochester’s entrepreneurial force.  You can’t go in there to work or hold a meeting without bumping into someone else you know who is working on their own business in the coffee shop.  Café Steam has become a location in Rochester where entrepreneurs can interact in a low key fashion.

The Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator has also taken off.  “I’m excited because when we opened the accelerator…it was a public effort.  But now, we have the private sector doing something.  Which to me means that the model has been proven and there’s opportunities for a business itself to help other businesses, which will only exponentially keep helping out our companies,” explained Xavier.

There’s also a changing community perspective on entrepreneurship.  Nate explained that perhaps the first stage of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is skepticism or even lack of trust in the process because it’s just so foreign and new.  He explained when Cube first open its doors, people thought it was insanely weird.  The next stage in building that entrepreneurial ecosystem might be curiosity. 

“And now maybe we can get to a point where it’s more like faith and trust in, ok this is actually a real thing.  It’s not just some random people just playing around and having fun.  They’re trying to build a business and make a big impact here.”

We’re not only seeing a trust or acceptance of entrepreneurship in Rochester, we’re seeing a change in the actual face of the city itself.  There’s a real push in infrastructure investment now where residents see noticeable changes to the cityscape.  “If I was to steer DMC more in terms of what it was doing, I would say let the buildings get built but focus on, and I know Patrick Seeb is working on this a lot, is how do you get people in and out of downtown quickly?” asked Hunter.  Poor traffic flow could be a literal roadblock to entrepreneurial ecosystem growth.

Positive developments are occurring in the Rochester entrepreneurial scene.  But at what point will we know if all these efforts have been successful?

“I’d say like every day, if you could have an announcement like [GoRout’s] round of funding closed.  It would be like boom, today [GoRout] closed.  Tomorrow, every person down the line,” Hunter explained.

A key event happening in Rochester every day would mean two things.  First, it means that ideas are coming to maturity.  Second, it means that capital is flowing into the city.  This daily announcement would not need to be limited to the close of a funding round.  It could include things like major hires, launches of clinical trials, or major exits.

People in Rochester increasingly want to hear more about the entrepreneurial world.  Maybe it’s due to the rise of things like Shark Tank, but we’ll be optimistic here.  Perhaps this means we are moving through what Nate termed the “curiosity” stage of entrepreneurship. 

“To me things [in the entrepreneurial community] are happening pretty much every week, I don’t know about every day.  But things are happening pretty often here and there are people that want to know that live in this town,” Xavier summed up.

Rochester may be pointed in the right direction as far as entrepreneurial development is concerned, but overall the business environment in Minnesota may not be all that favorable to new ventures.  Hunter spoke about his previous experience in Hawaii, a state where tourism is a major contributor to the economy.  However, this industry took a huge hit after 9/11, virtually grinding to a halt.  The state realized it was time to diversify the economy.  In 2001, Hawaii passed Act 221, a high tech tax credit with a 100% return on investment, which fueled growth in the industry. 

We do have income tax incentives in Minnesota, like the Angel Tax Credit, where qualified investors can be credited up to 25% of any new investment.  However, the credit is maxed out at $125,000 for an individual and $250,000 for a joint filing couple.  That’s not such a bad deal if you want to invest $100,000.  But larger investments, such as in the $1M ballpark, are not all that attractive.

With already difficult regulatory requirements in place to get products like medical devices to market, a poor business growth environment adds even more barriers to entry for startups.

One solution?  If the game is not working, just break it.

“Then we have to change the rules.  Conversations like that start in rooms like this.  If we can find out what is impeding that progress, we can build some momentum.  There could be a case asking for the state to change the rules,” suggested Xavier.

Rochester Entrepreneurial Roundtable Discusses Future of City's Startup Ecosystem: Part 1

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 part one 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 AbleBright 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.


We opened the discussion by first defining a startup and startup ecosystem.  The room as a whole agreed that a startup is an organization that is still looking for the right business model.

“So you’re not established.  You don’t have that history of what you are creating.  You just have an idea or ideals of what you’re trying to get to or maybe what you’re trying to create,” explained Chris.

A startup is something that’s likely underfunded and just trying to survive long enough to figure things out.  Startups begin as an idea and hopefully become some product or service, but they are not a full-fledged business.  Running a startup is a bit of “semi-organized chaos”.

“You’re just this thing that’s doing this one thing and solving this one thing.  And you’re trying to survive long enough to figure out that happy path so that you can become a company and make one thing, more things,” said Mike.   

A startup is an entity that’s even a little bit naïve.  It’s something that “doesn’t know what it needs yet, in terms of resources,” explained Hunter.  Sometimes that’s the draw to launch a startup in the first place.

“But that’s one of the beauties of startups, right?  Is that naïve ability to just overcome things because you don’t know what you don’t know, until you get slapped in the face forty times,” said Mike.

Being classified as a startup is completely independent of time.  Some companies just rocket out of the gate or can be built and have all the cogs in place over a single weekend.  Whereas others, like Fitbit, take years to get off the ground.  And look where they are now.

Some parts of a business can even be more “startup-like”, while others are more mature.  Nate Nordstrom explained how some people classify BrandHoot as a startup, but it’s more complicated than that.

“But some part of me says, well, in some ways we’re not a startup.  And maybe the reason that I think that is because parts of our business are pretty well ironed out.  They’re figured out. …Some parts of our business, within the product development stuff we’re doing, those to me definitely fit the definition of a startup.  They’re kind of fuzzy.  We’re trying to solve a problem.  Not really sure exactly how it’s going to pan out.  Other parts of the business don’t feel like a startup to me anymore.”  

A startup is in a different category than “new business” because it involves a high risk, high reward element and has a strong component of innovation.  As opposed to a new business, a startup involves, “Doing something differently.  Trying to solve a particular set of problems in a new way,” explained Nate.

The panel made an analogy in the food industry to illustrate this difference.  Most consumers probably don’t think of restaurants as startups.  The gathered entrepreneurs generally did not consider a restaurant franchise to be a startup.  While opening any new business is a risk, something with a set business model and defined products does not really add that element of innovation.

But some restaurants are highly innovative, like Asian fusion restaurant inamo Soho in London where menus are projected onto table tops, creating a virtual reality experience.  Carnivale is a disruptive, innovative restaurant in Chicago were diners are served under a big top.  “And the people that are serving you are dressed up like carnies and it’s freaky.  And if you’ve had too much to drink, it’s not the place to go.  But, it’s innovative and they’re taking a risk because people might not want to dine in that type of environment,” said Mike.

The startup ecosystem, in turn, contains all the components that provide support and resources to the developing startups and help them to navigate and overcome barriers.


What might be some key ingredients that Rochester needs for our startups to succeed?

The panel agreed that Rochester needs more youthful enthusiasm to propel the startup and entrepreneurial community.  And this rigor doesn’t need to necessarily be from those young in age.  This mindset can be in anybody with a willingness to create, take risks, and go a bit against the ingrained mentality in Rochester.

“Part of that environment requires people who don’t fit the nine to five model. …Who really have come to the conclusion ‘A’, I can’t work for anybody else and ‘B’, I think I can offer something bigger and better to the world that hasn’t been offered before,” explained Mike.

But younger people typically have less to lose.  They usually don’t yet have families or mortgages.  They’re generally more malleable and don’t have a set way of thinking.  If they try to build a startup and it fails, who cares?  There’s always something else to try.

The problem is, there’s not a broad, large, higher education system in Rochester to draw this young talent to the city.  We don’t have a large university system, like in Boulder for example, pumping in people who are able to take those risks and play a vital contribution to the workforce and startup scene.  And it doesn’t seem like this will change any time soon in Rochester.  That working population is being competed away to areas like the Twin Cities or other regions where these students attended college.  In this sense, the workforce in Rochester is severely lacking.

Change in mentality is another key ingredient for Rochester’s startup success.  We need people who break the chain of A: going to school, B: getting a job in the field that was studied, and C: staying in that single job or career until retirement.  We need people who are willing to take risks and not follow this traditional paths for our startup community to grow.

“The community needs to have a ‘Why not?’ mentality versus a ‘What can go wrong if you do this?’ And I think that’s part of what we do here.  The ‘Let’s do this thing.’  What’s the worst that can happen?  It could work?  And that’s two very important things that the community has to do.  Just to release the old ways of thinking, ‘How much trouble could I get into by doing that?’ versus ‘How many good things can come out of it?’” explained Xavier.

It seems pretty obvious, but this mentality changes simply by Rochester residents just “doing stuff”.  People interested in starting a business who may be sitting behind their desk asking, ‘Why am I still doing this?’, need to just stand up and starting doing something to break this mold. 

“Midwesterners pride themselves on tenaciousness.  But you have to have tenaciousness in that adversity that’s nontangible.  It’s not like the tornado just wasted your building.  It’s like somebody just denied your permit or something like that,” said Hunter.  Even though we are a tough bunch, there are always roadblocks in building startups.  The minute things get really dicey, we have to dig into that tenaciousness and problem solve instead of backing down and retreating to something more familiar.

“That’s where we can succeed.  Is that, you don’t have that ‘well it didn’t work, abandon it’ type of mentality in this town.  And I think that’s what we need to foster and build on,” summed up Hunter.  Most of the panel agreed again that this change in mentality is dependent on attracting that younger workforce or people with that youthful enthusiasm to fuel our startup system. 

When we do have all the ingredients to create this strong ecosystem in Rochester, people need to know about the entrepreneurial community.

“It needs to have some sort of identity. …It needs to be out there that the opportunity is here.  Or that there are places you can go if you have that mentality.  Because there’s hundreds of people that are sitting at their desk thinking, ‘What am I doing here?  This makes no sense for me to be here.’  And I’m assuming most of us were in that situation at some point,” said Chris.

That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with Rochester Rising.


Want to learn more?  Click here to listen to Part 1 of the podcast of this discussion.