25 Innovations and Trends for the Future

From AI and drones to podcasting and housing density.
25 Innovations and Trends for the Future


Artificial Intelligence


Although movies and TV often portray artificial intelligence (AI) as robots with human-like characteristics, AI encompasses anything that has a built-in computer system enabling it to perform tasks often associated with human intelligence such as speech recognition, decision-making, and learning. Health care, marketing, transportation, and finance are among the top sectors with the most potential for AI integration. MN Cup co-founder and serial entrepreneur Scott Litman’s St. Louis Park-based start-up Equals 3 is touting its AI-powered assistant, Lucy, to help marketing teams mine data and segment it, thus improving marketing effectiveness. Equals 3 says the technology can comb through more data in a minute than a marketing team can go through in a year.


Self-Driving Technology

Predictions differ on when self-driving cars will become mainstream; it’s the technology behind the wheel that will govern the speed and success of that rollout. With a history in traffic management products, Maplewood-based 3M sees opportunity in high-tech road and car products. The company has already begun developing signs with embedded bar codes that smart vehicles can read. 3M is also exploring enhanced road markings, protective films, and lenses that keep sensors clean, as well as optical films that convert rearview mirrors into rear cameras.



With a continuing labor shortage, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, have become crucial for many businesses and industries. Goldman Sachs predicts businesses and governments will spend $13 billion on drones from 2016 to 2020, with construction and agriculture industries as top adopters. Richfield-based Sentera, founded in 2014, supplies drones and software to the agriculture, infrastructure, and public safety industries, and is one of the leading providers of ag data collected from drones. Sentera’s drones are used in applications from crop management to building inspections.


3-D Printing

Often regarded as the next industrial revolution, 3-D printing, riding a wave of media hype, has not quite fulfilled expectations. Skeptics dismissed it early on for its high cost, slow print times, and no clear path to penetrating the general consumer/retail market. But as practicality concerns continue to be hashed out, 3-D printing’s industrial applications are growing. Stratasys, a leading 3-D printer manufacturer with a split headquarters in Eden Prairie and Israel, has had its machines used to construct submarines, rockets, and even anatomically correct, patient-specific models of body organs for surgeons to study at Mayo Clinic. Companies are also using the technology to quickly build houses in developing countries, for less than $4,000 a pop.


Sports Tech

No sport at almost every competitive level is safe from the analytics revolution. The most detailed physical data, from collision speeds in football to the heart rate variability of hockey players, is being tracked in real time. And Minneapolis is at the center of it all. Sportradar US, from its U.S. operational headquarters in the city, is among the largest players in the game today, providing exclusive data from three of the four major professional leagues (MLB excluded); while only miles away, NBC-owned SportsEngine continues to bolster its offering of league and player tracking for youth athletes around the country.


The gig economy has dovetailed with an equally significant trend: efforts by many corporations to subcontract or outsource work that had been done by salaried staff. It has created a generation of freelancers and specialist providers while continuing to narrow traditional full-time employment, overhead, and expertise. While Angie’s List once owned the field of connecting contractors to businesses seeking limited-time help, the recruiting service industry has become increasingly crowded with agencies that specialize in various professional fields. Minneapolis-based Field Nation now ranks among the nation’s top freelancer connectors, with a focus on all things IT and one mission in mind: to eliminate the 9-to-5 workday.



Hydroponics, a soil-less growing method, is becoming an increasingly popular way to grow fruits and vegetables in an environmentally sustainable system. One of the most common types of hydroponic systems is aeroponics, an indoor gardening practice in which plants’ roots are suspended in air and regularly sprayed with a nutrient-rich solution. The method uses 90 percent less water and grows plants two times faster than traditional farming practices. For example, Living Greens Farm, an aeroponic farm in Faribault, produces a head of lettuce in less than 21 days. Its 45,000-square-foot building makes it one of the largest indoor farms in the world.


Water Resources

Looking to the future, few issues will be as important as access to fresh water. Numerous forecasts suggest that water shortages will become a critical global issue, and some Minnesota companies are at the forefront of it. St. Paul-based Ecolab Inc. has a range of tools and technologies to help customers better manage water use. Pentair PLC—technically based in London, but organizationally headquartered in Golden Valley—offers a range of water filtration, separation, flow and management products and services for businesses in industries including agribusiness and food service. You’d expect nothing less from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.


Smart Farming

With finite natural resources shrinking and the global population growing, more farmers are investing in technology to maximize production and reduce waste. Ag-tech companies such as Minneapolis-based Conservis are helping farmers work smarter, thanks to technologies like cloud-based software, robotics, and drones. Today, more than 9,000 fields in 300 countries use Conservis’ enterprise-farm management platform, which streamlines tasks including production, inventory, budgeting, and analytics. Another company attracting farmers’ attention is Minneapolis-based Rowbot. The robotics start-up was selected by Google to showcase its autonomous vehicle, which applies nitrogen fertilizer to corn.

The Graying of Building Trades

When is the last time your business hired a plumber, electrician, or HVAC contractor under 40? Odds are it’s been a while, because virtually every construction trade profession is struggling to attract millennials to their ranks. The vast majority of companies responding to a Builder magazine survey reported labor recruitment as their greatest concern. Only 3 percent of 18- to 25-year-old respondents to a National Association of Homebuilders survey expressed an interest in the building trades, even though those jobs offer good wages and easy opportunities for eventual self-employment. Unless this trend changes, it will become tougher and more expensive for businesses and individuals to build and fix things.


The Podcasting Boom

Everyone used to have a blog; today they have a podcast. Barriers to entry are relatively low: You can launch one from your kitchen without much more than a microphone and some software. But podcasts aren’t just for hobbyists—some large local media companies are making big investments. St. Paul-based Hubbard Radio is about as old-school as it gets, but in 2015 the company bought a 30 percent interest in Los Angeles-based PodcastOne, a major network. Minnesota Public Radio and parent American Public Media now have more than 40 podcasts, including the award-winning investigative series In the Dark. What’s not yet clear is podcasts’ potential to drive a critical mass of advertising or subscription revenue—but for now, everyone’s in.


Housing Density

The Metropolitan Council estimates that the seven-county metro area will reach 3.74 million people by 2040, double the number of 1970. But there’s only so much land. Getting more people in the same amount of space calls for taller buildings, smaller units, and housing on previously non-residential sites. While planners and developers tout density, residents from the core cities to the suburbs often object to projects as too tall, with too many units, and out of scale with the area. As the Twin Cities population grows, fights over density will be a constant, defining battle.


Craft Alcohol

The craft alcohol boom is ongoing and multifaceted. Along with the development of new beverages—sour beer, organic and gluten-free liquors—is an explosion of breweries and distilleries, which have become popular recreation spots and are driving the hospitality industry’s current growth. From 2012 to 2017, the number of breweries statewide has risen from 134 to 318, and micro-distilleries have grown from 0 to 27. Trends include retail taprooms, lighter beers, collaborations with neighboring restaurants, beer by the ounce so people can cheaply try new beers, and new entrants looking to rural areas to corner untouched markets.


Protolabs Prototype Revolution

From start-ups to Fortune 100 companies, businesses of all sizes have turned to Protolabs to bring a new product to market faster. With facilities across America, Europe, and Japan, the Maple Plain company, founded in 1999, is leading the next industrial revolution with 3-D printing, injection molding, and CNC machining. Where it once would have taken weeks, if not months, to build a prototype, Protolabs has trimmed turnaround time to days, while trimming the total cost and allowing companies to innovate at a faster pace.


The Rise of Biotech

As the operational headquarters of med-tech giant Medtronic, the Twin Cities has always had a strong spin-off market for new and emerging medical device companies. While devices remain the dominant category for health care start-ups, biotech is an emerging local growth sector. In 2017, biotech and pharmacy companies in Minnesota raised $66.8 million in financing according to Golden Valley-based trade group Medical Alley Association, up a robust 865 percent since 2013. Another sign of the sector’s growth is Minneapolis-based Bio-Techne Corp., which produces proteins for research and clinical diagnostics. The company posted revenue of $563 million in its fiscal 2017, up 55 percent since 2013.


Higher Education

Demographics and market dynamics are forcing Minnesota’s colleges and universities to evolve. The number of Minnesota high school graduates has been declining, enrollment in the Minnesota State University system has dropped, and employers are demanding academic programs that align better with their workforce needs. Simultaneously, digital disruption is prompting the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems to increase their online offerings. They face competition from Minneapolis-based Capella University and others with online programs. Going forward, there are big questions hovering over higher education as students and parents question high price tags and the value of some degrees. Historically, change has come slowly to campuses, but colleges now are being pushed by state legislators and employers to accelerate their evolution to educate the next generation of the workforce.



It was a bumper year for corn-based fuel in Minnesota. Last year, Minnesota ranked fourth in ethanol production, and consumption of E15 (gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol) zoomed to 19 million gallons, a 230 percent increase over 2016. E85 sales were up almost 18 percent, to 14.8 million gallons. Ethanol has its opponents—petroleum producers, some environmental and consumer groups, members of the Trump administration (though not, it appears, Trump himself). Researchers also are looking to extract ethanol from sources like waste paper and sawdust that would require less water and fertilizer than corn.

Big-Time Sports and Cord-Cutting

Virtually every pro sport and NCAA Division 1 has been basking in record revenues, but a look at the balance sheets reveals those increasing cash flows have mostly been coming from broadcast contracts. As millennials cut cords, depriving cable systems and regional sports networks of subscriber fees, sports franchises will feel the pain when their broadcast contracts renew. In many sports, broadcast revenue now exceeds game-day revenue, and unless teams and leagues can find ways to enroll cord-cutters in subscription schemes, the gravy train of ever-growing top- and bottom lines could be coming to an end.



Is everybody co-working? Not yet, but co-working has emerged as a major trend in alternative office space for freelance contractors or start-up entrepreneurs. In the gig economy, not everyone wants to work out of Starbucks; co-working’s sell is that it offers collaborative, creative environments. Users sign up for memberships and pay monthly fees based on how frequently they use the space. CoCo—now Fueled Collective—introduced the trend locally and remains a key player. By mid-2018, there were more than two dozen operators in the Twin Cities, including global players like WeWork, offering about 850,000 square feet of co-working space across the metro. Co-working evangelists say that’s only the beginning.

Rochester’s Destination Medical Center

Eight years ago, the state Legislature approved $585 million in infrastructure funding to create the DMC. When completed about 15 years from now, the project—the largest public-private economic initiative in Minnesota history—will mean a much larger Mayo Clinic. It’s also providing Rochester with an opportunity to reshape the city, with new construction (commercial and residential) and public amenities. In addition, DMC advocates say, it will help make Mayo research and innovations more readily available to locally based startups—and inspire Rochester entrepreneurs launching companies not rooted in Mayo technology.


A New Restaurant Model

Restaurants and food businesses have proven almost recession-proof over the last three decades, as more and more Americans eat at least one meal out every day. But what has stressed the business model is labor shortages and the adoption of the $15 minimum wage (by 2022). This and the millennial predilection for fast service and home delivery are driving new restaurants to abandon the traditional waiter-service model for so-called quick-serve, where customers order at a counter and often serve themselves beverages; labor costs drop and tables turn faster, necessitating less real estate. See Michelle Gayer’s Salty Tart restaurant or Tim Niver’s Meyvn for a taste of where restaurants are going.


Renewable Energy

Minnesota-based companies are getting into renewable power in a big way, with economic impacts within the state and outside it. Xcel Energy is establishing the country’s largest wind farm to South Dakota, a $1 billion investment. Minnesota Power sister company Allete Clean Energy has seven wind projects in four states, with about 535 megawatts worth of wind capacity. Edina-based Geronimo Energy is developing solar sites across the state, while the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab is working to advance battery storage capabilities. After coal, renewable energy is now the state’s second-largest electricity source—but perhaps not second for long.


The Diversifying of Rural Minnesota

Minnesota’s population grew by about 600,000 residents between 2000 and 2016; of that number, 500,000 were people of color. In a 20-county region of southern Minnesota, the overall population increased by 7.7 percent in this period, to 735,706, while persons of color rose by 104.4 percent, to 93,134. Worthington, located in the state’s southwestern corner, had a population of 13,036 in 2016, nearly 60 percent of whom were people of color. JBS, a pork processing concern that employs more than 2,000 people in Worthington, employs many Latino workers.

Data Mining

With corporations eager to use data analytics to make better decisions, Ravi Bapna is enmeshed in the digital revolution from his perch at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. As a professor of business analytics and information systems, he’s encouraging graduate students with STEM backgrounds to earn an M.S. in business analytics, so they can bridge the knowledge and communication gap between business executives and IT practitioners. He also directs Carlson’s Analytics Lab and serves as an associate dean and is probing the effects of social media and big data on behavior. Bapna has presented his research at Facebook, Google, and in international forums.


Deliver Everything

Once upon a time, the only thing you could get delivered promptly to your home was the daily newspaper, pizza, and Chinese food. Today, Amazon wants to deliver everything to your door, in less than two hours for its Prime members. Minneapolis-based Bite Squad is an emerging national player in the increasingly competitive business of delivering restaurant meals. Bite Squad, founded in 2012, started ahead of the curve and is now in about 40 U.S. markets. Meanwhile, retailers like Minneapolis-based Target Corp. are ramping up efforts to ship items directly from stores to customers. In 2017, Target announced its acquisition of Shipt Inc., a same-day delivery company.