Toward a Flourishing Ecosystem

Toward a Flourishing Ecosystem

The agricultural model offers lessons for our startup economy.

Within a decade, half of the S&P 500 companies drop off the list for one reason or another; new entrants emerge and replace them. In times of crisis, this churn can quicken. The 2008 financial crunch accelerated many tech startups, for example: Airbnb, Pinterest, Uber, Square, and Slack. Entrepreneurs, to paraphrase Winston Churchill: Don’t let this pandemic crisis go to waste.

Nature has, for millennia, provided potential solutions to human concerns. Looking to nature for models of progress even has a name—“biomimicry.” Early lessons for social prosperity originated with organized farming. Let me illustrate how they apply to today’s entrepreneurial environment. 

Plant seeds appropriate for the soil and climate.

Farmers know that a particular area will favor particular crops — for example, corn in Minnesota. Conversely, an orange grove planted in, say, Duluth, won’t fare well. Sir Arthur Tansley coined the term “ecosystem” a century ago to postulate this truth in ecology. James Moore, in the 1990s, applied the concept to economic activities. 

Rather than replicating Silicon Valley with limited success, we should build on the rich economic soil of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. We are the birthplace of leading industries including  food products, computers, medical devices, health care delivery, educational tech, retail, software, and in 1989, 3D printing, when Scott and Lisa Crump founded Stratasys. All concerned have provided historical strength to the state economy. 

“Rather than replicating Silicon Valley … we should build on the rich economic soil of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

Enhance capability with upgraded tools, improved seeds, and better practices.

Because of growing local support and the evolving econo-ecosystem, many new companies have sprouted in these established areas of strength. We highlight the following companies in the annual Tech 20: 

Plant new crops. 

Hmong farmers showed us that previously exotic vegetables could be grown in our climate and soil and still find a market.  

Emerging technologies, applied to long-standing as well as new social needs, are an equally lucrative area for growth. Experts have identified several that are likely to be dominant in the future. We highlight a few early entrants in this issue. 

Read more from this issue

Other emerging technologies worth attention include artificial intelligence, augmented reality, CRISPR (gene manipulation) for human therapeutics, DNA sequencing, digital wallets, and the Internet of Things. These will broaden our region’s portfolio of capabilities, especially as they expand our existing ecosystem.

Form consortiums to share and learn.

Over time, the USDA and university programs have used formal research and real-world experience to counsel farmers. Competitive concerns were subject to the opportunity for common benefit.

Business incubators have similarly emerged in medical devices, biotech, health care IT, food, and educational technologies. Numerous university programs and business plan competitions support entrepreneurial efforts in general. Certificate programs in emerging technologies help update workforce skills.

A board-like structure for emerging technologies such as blockchain to support common needs could augment these current efforts. In my opinion, Launch MN is in the best position to initiate something like this. 

The agricultural model has provided an excellent road map for building an enhanced ecosystem for technical prowess and economic strength. We can and must exploit Minnesota’s cross-pollination of emerging technologies for our ecosystem to thrive. 

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