Finding Future Firsts

Finding Future Firsts

Minnesota’s heritage is rich in major innovations. Will that legacy continue?

It’s that time of the year, when we have a chance to enjoy the great outdoors, relax and appreciate all that’s good in Minnesota—so what better time to look back at all the interesting “firsts” that have originated here over the years?

When we looked back in time for this month’s cover story, we were surprised at how many really significant inventions and innovations have come from Minnesota, from the concrete grain elevator and the refrigeration systems used by trucking companies to open-heart surgery, the blood pump, the black-box flight data recorder and auto safety belts. We found much more than the implantable pacemaker, Post-it notes and other firsts we typically hear about. We also came across others that didn’t make the top 50, but were impressive nonetheless.

One such story involves something as mundane-sounding as an egg.

A quiet but major innovator in the food products sector in the 1980s and ’90s was St. Louis Park-based Michael Foods. Picked on by other companies through patent suits (later found to be without merit) and fielding other challenges, it maintained a low profile over the years. But in the late 1980s it became the first company to provide commercial and industrial users (restaurants, hotels, airlines) with bacteria-free liquid eggs, called Easy Eggs, which remained fresh when refrigerated up to eight weeks. Prior to this, such businesses purchased eggs that were powdered, frozen or delivered in tanker-size loads with shorter shelf lives.

In the 1990s, Michael Foods spent tens of millions of dollars developing technology to remove cholesterol from eggs. It also acquired additional egg-producing companies, and along the way developed what is now the nation’s No. 1 provider of value-added processed egg products, with an estimated 49 percent overall market share. Its “ultrapasteurized” extended shelf-life liquid eggs make up the majority of sales in its Egg Products division. And that division was responsible for 72 percent of Michael Food’s $1.95 billion in annual sales during its last year of operation, before it was acquired by Post Holdings last year.

Meanwhile, there are those Minnesota companies that instead co-developed major firsts. Merrill Corp., for example, quietly worked with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1980s to help develop an “electronic data gathering analysis and retrieval” program to do what seemed almost impossible at that time—file, read and print SEC filings electronically. Back then, the SEC had to receive printed materials sent by mail, overnight or fax; copies of a filing were actual photocopies. Today, EDGAR is as ubiquitous with SEC filers as online streaming is with music lovers.

In helping to invent EDGAR, Merrill developed proprietary software that allowed it to quickly prepare and file electronic versions of financial and corporate documents through a dedicated data line directly to the SEC’s computers—and did it in 1993. It also prepared to offer SEC filing services. And by the time the SEC required all publicly traded companies to use EDGAR, beginning in May 1996, the company was uniquely positioned to capitalize on the new way of doing things.

I could go on with more great examples from the past. I cannot talk that much about more recent examples, though, because we don’t see many.

Not that there aren’t still great ideas being forged here—just look at the Minnesota Inventors Congress’s 58th annual Innovation Expo in late April. The event’s goal was to link inventors with people in the industries where their products might be sold, with experts on product development and marketing, and with business developers who could help them go from concept through product development and distribution. More than 1,000 people attended, according to program director Deb Hess.

The Inventors Congress has helped several companies get off the ground. One of its more recent success stories is BackSafe, an electronic device invented by St. Paul Fire Department Captain Jovan Palmieri to help trucks back up more safely. Each year, trucks driving in reverse cause more than 20,000 injuries and more than 100 fatalities nationwide. After winning the grand prize at the 2010 Innovation Expo, Palmieri received additional guidance, and as of this summer, will have the product on the market. St. Paul is expected to outfit 40 of its fire trucks with the BackSafe.

But I’m still wondering: Where are the big, all-new ideas today? Like inventing the first recreational snowmobile or the implantable pacemaker, or performing the first kidney transplant?

In the past several years, the trend with larger corporations’ R&D efforts has been to “innovate” by modifying existing products or ways of serving customers. It’s safer in part because such modifications involve fewer risks, cost less and can be achieved more quickly than something like developing an ultrapasteurized egg. Where are the CEOs, boards of directors and executives who have the type of vision, creativity, smarts and stamina that companies such as Michael Foods and Merrill needed to patiently convert an idea into a highly profitable, sustainable business venture?

Where are the earlier-stage companies that will be considered major firsts decades from now—and who’s backing them financially? The two most significant that come to mind—Stratasys, which developed a process for 3D printing that is now used by more than 40 percent of the industry, and Cirrus Aviation, with planes that have built-in parachutes – found they needed to go to investors not only outside the state, but outside the U.S., to continue growing.

We have a fantastic foundation of innovation, leadership and resources in Minnesota, so I can’t help but think future fabulous firsts are being worked on as I write this column, and we’re just not aware of them yet. If you or your company is developing or financing a game-changing invention—or you know of someone else who is doing so—please write, email or call me. As you know, we love to write about such stories. And it’ll help us do our next “Fabulous Firsts” a few decades from now.