St. Paul-based Engineering Research Associates helped create the modern computer industry after WWII. It preceded an explosion of innovative companies in Minnesota. Their impact around the world provided our solid economic foundation after World War II.
Much of the work done here was highly classified during the Cold War, so no one knew about it. Today, most Minnesotans look to Silicon Valley as the only home of innovation and are blissfully ignorant that the Bay Area was merely building basic components when our state was the epicenter of high tech.
Local organizations want to correct this perception. The Lawshe Memorial Museum (part of the Dakota County Historical Society) and the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota are repositories of the history of computer technology in Minnesota. Recently, the Minnesota High Tech Association, in alliance with Twin Cities Public Television, released a one-hour documentary that chronicles the history of Minnesota’s computer industry. It highlights Minnesota’s leading role in the industry and its status as the birthplace of the high-speed, large-scale electronic digital computer.
Minnesota was also the birthplace of the implantable cardiac pacemaker, invented in the 1950s. That invention spawned the world’s greatest concentration of leading health technology companies beyond medical devices into biopharmaceutical, diagnostics, and digital health. The Bakken Museum and the Minnesota Historical Society have preserved interviews and recordings documenting this period. The region’s “Medical Alley” stands alongside Silicon Valley as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s “Places of Invention.” Yet, because medical devices were lumped with pharmaceuticals, our region was shortchanged well-deserved recognition in the broader tech community.
Besides computing and medical devices, Minnesota is also the birthplace of innovations that created entirely new industries and changed the world. These include food processing, retail, health care delivery, educational technologies, and now 3D printing.
I urge TPT to create comprehensive documentaries about these other native innovations. We need more hoopla, in schools and other forums, to motivate the next generation to inspired leadership. No need to be modest; as Walt Whitman said, “If you done it, it ain’t bragging.”
Our future rides on emerging technologies and a new generation of pioneers to exploit them. The development or practical applications of these technologies are still unrealized. They are emerging from obscurity and can be a driver capable of changing the status quo.
In 2018’s Milken State Technology and Science Index, Minnesota slipped one spot to No. 8. It rated us 21st, though, in risk captial and entrepreneurshial infrastructure.
Globally, businesses of all sizes are facing, or about to face, major disruptions due to automation. An industry expert panel identified seven emerging technologies. They are: artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, augmented reality, blockchain, Internet of Things, smart robots, and intelligent vehicles. Other sources have added deep learning, digital wallets, next-generation DNA sequencing, and CRISPR for human therapeutics.
We need a concerted effort to create an ecosystem that nurtures seeds in these specific areas and grows them into seedlings. As we find opportunities/ideas at the intersection/permutation/combination of these technologies, they can lead to even more radically new opportunities. This provides the strategy for a continued explosion of innovative companies and rejuvenation of our economic engine.
This need has prompted the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development and Gov. Tim Walz to commit to startups focused on a selected set of these technologies (see TCB's Q&A with DEED commissioner Steve Grove).
The real power of our legacy is that we already have the technology in our DNA. What we need is a broad cadre of personnel to be exposed to and develop dexterity in these emerging technologies. Schools can broaden their STEM programs. Universities must offer quick certificate programs, on the model of software bootcamps, to train people in these specific technologies; we cannot wait for comprehensive courses that are outdated by the time they appear in college catalogs.
We presently have a multitude of regional and statewide organizations involved—with no single point of ownership. While this diversity is a source of strength, we need better coordination if we are to advance in these technologies.
Unlike Silicon Valley, we are not a one-industry town—never were. Our very broad set of competencies in a range of industries has been a source of pride and vitality for the region. This is our strength and can be our ongoing edge. Seeds sprouted here can grow to a global reach. This is the vision for the future of technology in Minnesota.
Rajiv Tandon is executive director of the Institute for Innovators and Entrepreneurs and an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He facilitates peer groups of Minnesota CEOs. He can be reached at email@example.com.