Minnesota Businesses Look For Encouragement

van Guilijk, Sieben

A Willmar company runs the first private business innovation center of its kind in the country.

A Duluth firm based in Canal Park, near Lake Superior, is nearly ready to ship an electronic device designed to help people who do not speak English obtain better medical care.

They are two examples nearly 800 Minnesotans saw Tuesday as they looked for encouraging news about the state’s economic future. They discussed ideas about how to add jobs in Minnesota at a job summit Gov. Mark Dayton organized.

Democrat Dayton opened the summit saying that Minnesota ranked seventh in the country in per-person income eight years ago, but has dropped to No. 13.

Minnesota’s economic slide mirrors problems nationwide, he added. “The tale of the state and the tale of the country are remarkably similar.”

Dayton said he plans today to announce job programs, a mixture of things he already had in mind and some that came out of the summit.

The governor said he plans programs that can get people to work quickly as well as some that are more long term.

Those at the summit heard plenty of encouraging news such as from Willmar, Duluth and elsewhere.

In Willmar, President James Sieben of MinnWest Technology Campus is doing something no other private business does: Lease space to other technology companies to provide his related company, Nova-Tech Engineering, some competition.

Sieben wants competition for jobs, and is not worried about losing sales of Nova-Tech equipment used by the poultry industry.

When Nova-Tech prepared to expand several years ago, it decided to enlarge its Willmar presence by purchasing the old state hospital campus in town and turn it into a place where small companies can grow. In doing that, engineers would be attracted to the area and Nova-Tech would have an easier time hiring key personnel.

Sieben and Ernst van Gulijk manned the Nova-Tech and MinnWest booth in the job summit’s Innovation Hall, a place other business leaders used to get their own ideas.

Another of the 13 innovative companies is from Duluth. Zach Anderson talked about GeaCom’s Phrazer system that allows people who do not speak English to tell hospital personnel, such as emergency room workers, their medical problems.

The electronic device allows a patient to answer simple questions in his own language and the device relays the information to medical workers in English. Now, hospitals must wait for interpreters to arrive at the hospital before being able to communicate with such patients.

The Duluth and Willmar businesses are examples of what Dayton and other summit organizers wanted to show Minnesotan business leaders.

Throughout the day, speakers pointed to reasons to be optimistic.

“This is a great place to build a company,” Bill George told nearly 800 in the overflow crowd.

“I’m pessimistic at the national level, but very optimistic at the Minnesota level,” he added. “We have all the resources here.”

George is a Harvard Business School professor and former leader of Medtronic, a Twin Cities-based medical device maker. He said that the quality and civility of the workforce are important.

“Of course, costs tend to be on the high side, but you get something for it,” George said.

Neal Crooker of Schaefer Ventilation Equipment in Sauk Rapids agreed, saying that Minnesota workers never again will knit socks or bend metal. “That ship has sailed.”

Dayton said he sees “very real problems” in the economy, such as a strong desire for China employees to work hard.

But China does have a problem: At this point, Dayton said, the Chinese do have not the capability to develop products.

Dayton, who has been in China six times in the past decade and plans a trade mission there next year, told of a company there called M3, which produces cheap copies of Minnesota-based 3M products such as Post-It notes.