Monday, 22 Jul 2019
Technology

American Public Media is seeding 28 media and technology start-ups from downtown St. Paul – St. Paul Pioneer Press

Andrew Haeg has a vision: A text message and web chat platform that offers direct conversation between news consumers and news organizations, including reporters.

GroundSource was cooked up while Haeg was teaching college classes, using business skills he gleaned from covering early stage companies for 13 years as a public radio journalist and a writer for the Economist.

These days, the former newsgatherer is a full-fledged entrepreneur, a role that offers few guarantees but plenty of excitement.

“We’re in fundraising mode,” said Haeg, from fifth-floor co-working offices overlooking downtown St. Paul’s Wabasha Street. “What you trade in security and stability, you gain in autonomy and the freedom to move. You’re the decider.”

THINKING LIKE VENTURE CAPITALISTS

For the past six months, he’s been joined by newly minted deciders all around.

Not long ago, American Public Media set out to think more like a venture capital firm. APM, a national distributor of public radio programs and a sister company to Minnesota Public Radio, established the Glen Nelson Center as its entrepreneurial arm and leased a floor within the Osborn370 building, the former Ecolab Tower.

From there, the center funds, hosts or mentors 28 startup companies, most of them based in the Twin Cities, and aims to fill a gap in the otherwise robust world of venture capital, which has virtually overlooked emerging companies that are media-related.

Andrew Haeg, right, CEO and founder of GroundSource, talks with Rose Martin, Business Operations Manager for the Glen Nelson Center in the Osborn370 building in St. Paul on July 2, 2019. (John Autey/ Pioneer Press)

More than a dozen entrepreneurs have been set up with mentors, trainings and workspace through “Ventures in Residence,” a yearlong incubation that has drawn Haeg’s GroundSource start-up — GroundSource.co — and other early stage technology and media firms.

Exercises focus on strategic planning, finding venture capital and even how to deal with setbacks and failure.

“We might get a financial return, but in many cases we get a strategic return,” said Jeff Freeland Nelson, executive director of the Glen Nelson Center, noting a startup vision may “go nowhere, or may go Google. … We could conceivably hire these companies, merge with these companies, acquire these companies.”

‘HE’S CRUSHING IT’

The ventures run a wide gamut, but all connect online audiences to niche services. Recovree (Recovree.com) offers online peer support for people suffering from substance abuse disorders. Glitch — Glitch.mn — describes itself as an independent video game label specializing in the “off-beat, the debut and the experimental.”

Former Minnesota Public Radio reporter Mukhtar Ibrahim is launching the nonprofit Sahan Journal — Sahanjournal.com — which bills itself as a chronicler of the “the struggles, successes and transformations of Minnesota’s immigrant communities.”

Nelson, who is of no relation to founding donor Glen Nelson, said Ibrahim is “still a few months from launch, but philanthropic support is lining up. MPR is on board as an investor. In the startup world, we’d say he’s crushing it.”

Other startups — including some based out of state — have benefited from the Horizon Fund, a philanthropic investment fund through which APM plans to distribute $10 million to emerging media and technology firms over the next four years.

“A record amount of venture capital is flowing nationally — $130 billion last year,” said Nelson, “and 1.04 percent of it went to media startups, which is disappointing. We are underinvesting in media startups.”

Like Haeg, University of Minnesota undergraduates Kiet Ho and Cody Perakslis have their own vision. Voy — theVoyApp.com — is a smartphone application that allows users to listen to audio files effectively hanging in the air in different locations. Dubbed “an audio tour for the entire world that anyone can listen and contribute to,” Voy pledges to do for walking tours what “Pokemon Go!” did for video games.

“When you load up the app, you’ll see right away what places have sound files attached to them — a directed tour that someone uploaded,” said Perakslis, who foresees direct benefits for tourists, city transplants, college students and the real estate industry.

In fact, the student duo have already signed a contract with Motley Minneapolis, a real estate consortium with interests around the U of M campus in Dinkytown.

THE BUSINESS OF PODCASTS

Still other startups moved into the Glen Nelson Center through a separate incubator known as Lunar Startups, focused more heavily on entrepreneurs who are women or people of color.

Lunar is working with companies such as Take 12 — Mytake12.com — which allows loved ones to help new mothers through unpaid maternity leave by giving financial gifts instead of a traditional baby registry.

Nelson said the prospect of breaking free from public radio traditions and thinking like an emerging business venture was so appealing to American Public Media that it siphoned off aspects of some of its existing programming and enrolled them in the yearlong Ventures in Residence cohort, as well.

That includes the Current music station, the APM podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” and “Brains On!,” a science podcast geared to kids and adults.

“This is a whole new world,” Nelson said. “The podcast business model is evolving everywhere. We’re exploring what is it like to bring that to scale. These are programs of MPR, but we’re taking them through that (startup) business model.”

The cohort includes another APM venture — Newsignal Studios — an independent audio and technology production company that creates and sells branded digital audio content.

“In boardrooms, they ask, ‘Will it work?’ ” Nelson said. “We don’t ask that question. We say, ‘Let’s try it!’ “