Minnesota startups ‘Rise with the Rest’

Ten local startups vied for $100,000 Tuesday, five of which had University roots.

Barry Lytton

A blue bus rolled up to the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown on Tuesday, and when its doors opened, a man worth $1.3 billion stepped out with $100,000 burning a hole in his pocket.

Inside the venue, 10 startup hopefuls had five minutes each to pitch their businesses for a hefty investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case, who stopped by Minneapolis on his “Rise of the Rest” tour.

It was Case’s second stop on his Midwestern journey to kick-start entrepreneurial ventures and pay homage to startups’ critical economic value.

Five CEOs of the 10 companies that vied for Case’s investment hold a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management,  embodying the success of the institution’s ongoing mission of fostering entrepreneurship.

A majority of projects by the competition’s finalists — which are in various stages of funding and development — are based in Minneapolis. Case said the city is becoming increasingly relevant in the national startup scene.

Tuesday’s pitches ranged from an online network for nonprofit communities to a mobile forum for teachers and parents. One even featured a tiny, nitrogen-scattering robot.

“We are trying to find those cities that show signs of momentum,” Case said. “There are a bunch of different factors, but having a particularly strong research university clearly is helpful.”

Though only one company — 75 Fahrenheit, an indoor heating and cooling company — won the investment, all 10 companies aim to be big Minnesota startups like Target or 3M.

Money-minded ventures

The night’s first spiel pitched Not on my Nickel, a web-based platform that lets to-be retirees shop for post-career financial plans.

“Typically, the media focuses on ‘Americans aren’t saving,’” said the startup’s founder, Susan Seltzer. “Not on my Nickel focuses on an unaddressed aspect of the retirement crisis.”

She said her company offers Americans the chance to independently peruse retirement plans.

“We’re not managing money,” Seltzer said. “We’re giving retirement investors the tools to analyze and feel comfortable.”

Carlson School alumnus Michael Noble founded the event’s other finance-centric venture, Apruve, a PayPal of sorts for interactions between businesses.

“E-commerce is kind of this new world for [business to business],” he said, “Yet all of these companies are still processing payments and managing spending in old-world ways. Apruve is a bridge between those two worlds.”

Health-wise startups

Based in a state known for its health providers and medical device industries, two of Minneapolis’ “Rise of the Rest” finalists pitched ideas for advancing health care.

One of them, Zipnosis, is a digital diagnosis and treatment software, said its marketing officer, Elizabeth Rossini.

“[Zipnosis is] extending the care they do in their brick-and-mortar into the digital space,” Rossini said.

RetraceHealth is also eyeing the medical industry with Thompson Aderinkomi at its helm. Aderinkomi is an alumnus who completed his undergraduate studies at the University before garnering advanced statistics and business degrees from the school.

“We have the belief that people no longer want to waste time scheduling doctor’s appointments, driving to doctor appointments and waiting in rooms with other sick people,” Aderinkomi said.

His business provides virtual doctor’s appointments and access to a service previously reserved for the wealthy: in-home care.

“Anybody can have it — whether it’s a college student in their dorm room … or an old person at home who doesn’t want to get out and drive in the winter,” he said.

Earth-conscious businesses

Before collecting $100,000 Tuesday night for his indoor heating and cooling business, 75 Fahrenheit CEO Deepinder Singh was Minnesota-bound for unusual reasons.

As a member of Canada’s Olympic national air pistol team, he and his wife moved to Mankato, Minn., for the sport-ready landscape.

“We were looking for a house where we could shoot in the backyard,” Singh said.

75 Fahrenheit, based in his shooting-ground city of choice, was one of the competition’s two startups that didn’t hail from the Twin Cities.

He said his ecologically conscious business allows all occupants of a building to control their own temperatures and still save 40 percent of energy.

Rowbot CEO Kent Cavender-Bares’ venture minimizes environmental waste by changing how farmers farm.

“Nitrogen fertilizer is this huge cost to farmers, and right now a lot of it ends up being lost [in] the fields rather than in the crop,” he said. “We wanted to make a difference in helping farmers manage nitrogen better.”

The company, which has University roots in its leadership circle, developed a tiny robot that scatters nitrogen across fields while simultaneously collecting precious agricultural data.

Grumbl, another startup featured Tuesday, is taking aim at the final stages of the agricultural process.

It creates an online forum for real-time quick sales, which are when a company sells food goods at a very low price or gives them away for free, co-founder and CEO Holly Jade Chan said.

By pairing app users with grocers, the program minimizes waste and gets food items off the shelf at a monetary benefit for both parties, Chan said.

“The benefit for grocery stores is that we’re not only adding new revenue streams and [reducing] their food waste, but we’re also adding new foot traffic,” she said.