Cultivating Seeds Appropriate to Our Soil

Cultivating Seeds Appropriate to Our Soil

Other regions’ entrepreneurial successes may not provide a road map for ours.

The coolest thing about the boiling Indian summers is a large bucket filled with ice-cold mangoes. Ecstasy! The yellow dasheri from early season, the green langra during the peak and the whitish safeda with the monsoon are ranked among the 30 best in the world. The pink-yellow alphonso is the acclaimed king. The Americas have around 500 varieties of mangoes, but with my palate, admittedly biased, the best of them are more appropriate for making pickles. Similarly, my Latino friends tear up when describing their love for guanabana. I had never heard of it.

Each place has, and needs to mobilize, a random collection of elements to create its own distinctiveness.

My fruit snobbery has shifted to apples, the most ancient fruit brought to North America from Asia and Europe. Relatives now concede that Honeycrisp, the Minnesota state fruit, even beats the Kashmiri ambri. Washington state’s Red Delicious may be the “world’s favorite snack” but, for me, it is a source of fiber and nothing more.

The soil of a particular area is a mixture of minerals, organic matter and countless organisms. Together with climate, landscape and human practices, it favors particular crops and vegetable or fruit varieties that are difficult to duplicate elsewhere. Minnesota spuds may never rival Idaho’s; our own strengths are in corn, the most valuable crop, and soybeans, our top export commodity.

Sir Arthur Tansley coined a term a century ago, for this feature in ecology: ecosystem. James Moore, in the 1990s, applied this concept of ecosystems to economic activities. Biomimicry uses proven examples from nature to show us solutions for our issues. This concept posits that each place has, and needs to mobilize, a random collection of elements to create its own distinctiveness.

Silicon Valley is known for starting and growing certain types of ventures. Simply copying and labeling us Silicon Alley, Silicon City, etc. will never get close to it or give us much advantage. Over the years, local venture capital firms have left town for Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road, while others have set up local scouting branches to find and move top potentials to California. Exceptions like Arthur Ventures in Minneapolis and Great North Labs in St. Cloud are funded from the regional success of respective software companies. The Land of Lakes soil is not likely to be the right one for the Silicon Valley VC model.

Minnesota, in its own right, is credited as the birthplace of various leading technologies. Local entrepreneurial firms in the past have led to the creation of entirely new industries that ended up changing the world. These include food technologies, computers, medical devices, health care delivery, educational technologies, retail and now 3-D printing.

It is a very broad set of competencies that have been a source of pride and vitality for the region. This is our strength and can provide an ongoing edge. Local expertise is available; so are mentors with deep and unique insights to counsel newcomers. Beneficiaries from past successes are more likely to be early-stage investors. Seeds planted in this space can start with the local presence and grow well beyond for a global reach.

What we need is a concerted effort to create our special ecosystem that nurtures seeds in these specific areas and grows them into seedlings. When we do that, we will find opportunities/ideas at the intersection/permutation/combination of these technologies that can lead to more radical ones. This provides the competitive blueprint to continue rejuvenating our economy. Remarkable local names in this space include:

  • Angel Adams, founder and CEO of Catchwind, which is focused on medical device, biotech and health care IT and incubates in this space.
  • Sarah Couenhoven, co-founder of GIA Kitchen, which provides a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen space for entrepreneurs developing their own food businesses. She developed her own business in this space.
  • Donald Smithmier, CEO and cofounder of GoKart Labs. Success with his own venture in educational technology prompted him to found this active incubator, a launchpad for new ventures in that sector.

While these three have different business models, they share a focus on developing ventures that are in the realm of what I call MNstrengths.

Our scientists did not stop after developing over 24 varieties of apple that suited Minnesota climate perfectly. They have now created my new favorite, the SweeTango. Should we not apply the same diligence to our new ventures? Mother Nature tells us it is sound practice to have many more seeds planted in the technologies of Minnesota’s proven strengths

Dr. Rajiv Tandon is an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He facilitates peer groups of CEOs and runs programs for propelling ideas into business ventures: the Rocket Network and 100 Launches. He can be reached at

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