New tool maps business clusters

University researchers helped make an interactive map that shows U.S. industry clusters.

Kevin Karner

 Academics, business leaders and federal officials gathered at the University of Minnesota last week to celebrate the release of an online tool that lets users visualize where businesses cluster in specific areas.

The two-day event, called “Mapping the Midwest’s Future,” was held at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and featured discussions about the University’s role in economic development and in researching industry clusters, or geographic concentrations of related companies or organizations.

Researchers developed the tool over the last four years through research from the Harvard Business School and partnerships like that with the University of Minnesota, said Lee Munnich, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School.

The interactive map’s primary function is to serve researchers in business and academia, said Munnich, who teaches a course on clusters.

But he said the tool is also simple enough for individuals to use for their own purposes; for example, people who are job searching can browse areas to see which areas are suitable.

Some students think the new tool could help them decide on a career path.

“I think it looks very useful and creative and could be a huge help,” said freshman Zack Klesch, who is in the process of choosing either biomedical or chemical engineering to study. “I want to pick the
major that promises the most options for success in the future.”

Past research on clusters in Minnesota revealed some unsurprising local industries, like medical devices, food products, heavy industry and publishing, Munnich said. But the tool’s statistical methods picked up on some other clusters that might otherwise go under the radar — like recreational vehicles, glass production and footwear.

Corporate headquarters, too, are concentrated in Minnesota’s economic area, Munnich said.

“They provide for a training and breeding ground for startups,” he said.

The mapping tool has also sparked statewide interest in other emerging clusters relating to robotics, biorenewables and water technology.

Munnich said many local business leaders are unfamiliar with how they could partner with the University, so the institution’s officials plan to actively cultivate more collaboration.

“There’s been a focus from President [Eric] Kaler on how to make the ‘U’ more relevant in terms of economic development,” he said. “There’s research here that might be directly relevant to some of the problems those companies face.”

With its concentration of rail lines, the Midwest largely transports the goods it produces to other parts of the world, said Thomas Horan, a professor at Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Information Systems and Technology.

Horan released a paper at last week’s event that detailed transportation’s role in supporting trade-based business clusters across the Midwest economy.

Minnesota is a key player in shipping exports by freight rail, Horan said.