On the first day of my visit to Fargo, N.D., I met with Chuck Hoge, executive director of the North Dakota State University Research & Technology Park (RTP), which is "dedicated to enhancing the investments in North Dakota State University by the citizens of North Dakota. The development of facilities and research centers conducive to cutting-edge research is also part of the NDSU Research and Technology Park." The research park operates a 50,000 sq. ft. technology incubator, which offers space, facilities, and services to technology-based entrepreneurs and businesses.
Hoge also serves on the Fargo Moorhead Growth Initiative Fund Board. Prior to the research park, he was president of the Ottertail Corp. Manufacturing Platform for six years, and before that, he was president and CEO of Bobcat Corp.
Hoge said, "I was on the board of directors of the park before I became interim director in 2013 and the executive director in 2016. The research park is a 501(c)(3) corporation with its own board of directors. The park is home to two NDSU research buildings, the John Deere Electronic Solutions building, and two buildings occupied by Appareo, one of our incubator graduates."
Explaining the purpose of the research park, he said, “The park’s goals mirror those of the state of North Dakota. Our shared mission is to diversify the economy through high-tech STEM jobs, develop the workforce and provide valuable, in-state career opportunities for North Dakota students. In the past, many of NDSU’s 15,000 students were seeking well-paid, high-tech positions out of state, so we made it our goal to create those opportunities for them in-state. The research park has created 1,339 direct jobs, of which 52% are held by graduates of North Dakota colleges and universities.”
“In the incubator, our mission is to help companies succeed faster, which is why we have two of our partner organizations in the incubator; the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Bank of North Dakota. The SBDC helps startups with anything from business plans to financial modeling and because the Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned bank in the country, they have many programs aimed at helping startup companies.”
When I asked for information about the founding of the research park and incubator, he said, "The research park was founded in 1999 and the incubator in 2007. Our funding sources were a combination of private donations, a State Centers of Excellence grant and an EDA grant."
Hoge, said, "The Bank of North Dakota isn’t the only state entity creating programs for local startups. The Department of Commerce’s Innovate North Dakota program provides up to $32,500 in startup funds to companies in four phases ─ $2,500, $5,000, $10,000, and $15,000. In the last couple years, we had over 50 companies in the Fargo area use the program to kick-start their companies with a great success rate. The program doesn’t only provide monetary support; the company founders attend entrepreneur training boot camps to network with fellow founders and learn from world-renowned entrepreneur, Dr. Jeffery Stamp of Bold Thinking, LLC.”
He told me that the incubator has 12 current incubator clients and has graduated five companies: Appareo, Fargo 3D Printing, Intelligent InSites, Myriad Mobile, and Pedigree Technologies.
“In addition to programs designed to target local entrepreneurs, we also have a student competition called Innovation Challenge, where $27,000 is awarded to teams of NDSU students with the most innovative ideas. Through three rounds of judging by industry professionals, the students are challenged to pitch their innovations through a written proposal, a tradeshow scenario and a mock fundraising pitch. We want to inspire students to think about entrepreneurship as a career path and we use innovation as the gateway to entrepreneurship. We had three companies get their start in Innovation Challenge last year and we are hoping for more this year. The program is financially supported by a combination of a University Center EDA grant, state matching funds and contributions from local businesses and organizations.
The Incubator Manager, John Cosgriff, has a background in venture funds, and he assists companies with intellectual property, human resources and raising capital. We have monthly founder meetings where the entrepreneurs advise each other and 'Lunch and Learn' events where founders learn from and network with industry experts."
After I returned home, I was emailed an Economic Impact Study released November, 2016, and a few highlights are:
- Its companies support an estimated 1,300 indirect jobs in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
- Its companies employ 489 graduates of NDSU (37% of total RTP employment)
- Another 202 are graduates of other North Dakota University System schools.
- 107 student interns are employed by the RTP companies.
Renewable Advanced Materials
While at the incubator, we met with Chad Ulven and Corey Kratcha, who are the co-founders and CTO and CEO, respectively, of one of the incubator tenants, c2renew, which "uses proprietary biocomposite formulations to design materials, compounds, and parts that satisfy demanding engineering specifications." With this technology, it is possible to take advantage of lower-cost, renewable resources while meeting, maintaining, and even improving upon the mechanical properties required for a product.
Dr. Ulven said, "I was trained in advanced composite materials when I was in graduate school and at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds Army Research Laboratory. Then I became faculty at NDSU researching agricultural products for use as fillers for composites. I wanted to use a variety of materials and built several predictive models based on biomass constituent make up. I met Corey by chance, and we decided to take the technology out of the lab and spin it off to make products. We started working with big companies like Bobcat and John Deere, but the time to market was too long."
He explained, "We decided to target companies that are focused on new products and started working with EarthKind to develop consumer market products using a PLA-based resin along with flax fiber."
They showed us some of the products where their materials are used:
EarthKind Pouch Pod - All natural repellent holder that uses flax sourced from North Dakota farms as the filler to the resin.
Bogobrush - An eco-friendly toothbrush where materials, production and shipping all take place in North Dakota and the surrounding area. The company gives a toothbrush away for every one bought.
Corey said, "In a partnership with 3DomFuel, we have developed a collection of bio-based 3D printing filaments called c2composites. Our expertise in biocomposite formulation matched with the expertise 3DomFuel has in producing filament means that anyone with a 3D printer capable of printing PLA can print with the following custom filaments:
Wound Up - a coffee plant fiber waste filled filament
Buzzed - made from byproducts of beer production
Entwined – made from industrial hemp
LandFilament – made from upcycled municipal solid waste
“We have created many different biocomposites for various customers, but we had never created anything that was 100% done for us. So we thought about ways to take one of our favorite things, coffee, and use it in a new and innovative design. We developed the c2cup by creating a new biocomposite formulation that is a hybridization of a bio-based resin and coffee plant fiber. We then used this biocomposite to make 3D printer filament and printed the first coffee cup. The biomass resources we use are taking the waste off the hands of the producer to be utilized in a rapidly renewable manner. We use carbon rich byproducts that also have high lignin content that improves a material’s UVA resistance. We look at how we can meet performance specifications by finding a solution that is bio-based, renewable and sustainable.
“We have a 9,500 sq. ft. production facility in a nearby industrial space. We have at least two interns from NDSU at any one time that we meet through the incubator and other meetings.
We now have experience working with a wide variety of thermoplastics including: PP, PE, PLA, ABS, ABS/PC, and PA, and a wide variety of agricultural inputs are possible as fillers:
- flax fiber
- wood flour
- hemp fiber
- sunflower hull
- dried distiller grains with solubles
- soybean hull
- oat hull
- sugar beet pulp
Our formulations are more environmentally responsible since the petroleum feedstock can be replaced with agricultural byproducts which would otherwise be left to decay in the soil or be sent to the landfill."
Chad told me about the collaboration they are doing with NDSU researchers to spin out c2sensor, as a result of the "development of a micro-sensor made from biocomposites and non-bioaccumulating metals.” He said, "The Sensing Earth Environment Directly (SEED) Sensor can be placed during planting for in-situ measurement of soil conditions, as opposed to current methods which often require a combination of direct (i.e. soil sampling) and indirect measurements (i.e. remote sensing).
Biodegradable materials used in SEED Sensors allow them to degrade after use where planted without adding toxins to the soil. Since wireless communication with the sensor is based on passive radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, batteries are not required for operation. This technology has been tested in lab and in field trials."
Chad said, "The SEED Sensors provide:
• Salinity levels for allowing adjustments as needed
• Nutrient levels for variable rate fertilizer applications
• Moisture levels to have more focused irrigation
• pH levels to more proactively manage inputs
• Real time soil analysis for end of year fieldwork
• Couple with aerial mapping via UAVs or satellite imager"
At the end of our visit, Chad said, "We also provide engineering services to help design, analyze and develop plastic and plastic-composite parts for virtually any application. While we specialize in utilizing natural and recycled materials in place of virgin polymers, we also produce solutions with more traditional materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber."
If c2renew is an example of the cutting edge technology of the startup companies in the incubator, North Dakota will certainly be able to reach its goal of accelerating the growth of startup and emerging companies to expand their manufacturing base and keep college graduates from leaving the state. The park's website describes the success to date: "The NDSU Research & Technology (RTP) Park and its companies have seen tremendous growth over the last five years according to a survey conducted by EMSI in 2010 and repeated by the RTP in 2015. As of December 2015, there were 1,105 jobs at companies located in the park and 234 jobs at RTP incubator graduate companies located around the Fargo-Moorhead area. This is a 50% increase over the number of jobs at the end of 2010."
It would have been great to be able to visit with more incubator tenants, but we had other more established companies to visit the rest of the day that I will discuss in my next article.