St. Paul-based Minnesota Public Radio is a nonprofit, but it has always been a business-minded operation. Now, the Glen Nelson Center, a new arm of MPR parent American Public Media, will operate like a venture capital firm, looking to invest in promising startups.
What does this have to do with APM’s mandate to run a media organization? As traditional media business models are rapidly changing, APM says it is on the lookout for businesses with ideas that could help the nonprofit find new audiences and future sources of revenue. The initiative is named for the late Glen Nelson, CEO of Park Nicollet and vice chairman of Medtronic, who was a longtime MPR supporter and board member.
“Everything the Glen Nelson Center does is strategically aligned with the future of media and public media,” says Jeff Freeland Nelson, who was hired in 2017 to lead the center. Nelson worked at MPR from 2006 to 2012 as a producer and public affairs staffer before leaving to launch St. Paul-based YOXO, which makes building toys from recycled materials.
Although it has been operating under the radar, Nelson says the center has already invested in three media-related companies: LifePosts, a social app for major life events; RadioPublic, a podcast delivery application; and Skyword, a content marketing software and services company. All are based on the East Coast.
Other traditional media companies are pursuing similar strategies. Investors in RadioPublic include Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH, the New York Times Co. and California-based newspaper operator McClatchy Co.
This summer the Glen Nelson Center will open an incubator called Lunar Startups in downtown St. Paul. Both entities will be located at Osborn370, a former Ecolab Inc. tower now catering to tech and startup companies. The space is being backed by a $1 million grant made in December by the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
APM has also hired Melissa Kjolsing Lynch, who led the MN Cup entrepreneurial competition, to serve as founding manager of the incubator. Lynch says that it’s not meant to be co-working space catering to freelancers but will be tailored to growth-focused businesses; companies will have to apply to be considered for space. “It will be specifically focused on entrepreneurs ... who are at varying stages in their development.”
Nelson says that the investment strategy is essential for APM/MPR to remain competitive. “We don’t know what the media world will look like 20 years from now,” he says. “We need to take risks.”