This story is part of our Inno on the Road series, looking at the tech and startup scene in Minneapolis-St.Paul, Minn. You can see all Twin Cities tech stories here, and other Inno on the Road series here

When Minneapolis-based Target decided to launch a retail-focused accelerator with Techstars, they were overwhelmed with interest for their first cohort: They received over 550 applications for ten spots.

Startups were drawn to the accelerator for its retail focus and close proximity to Target, said Jenna Reck, a public relations manager at Target who worked closely with the program. They weren’t as excited about moving to Minnesota.

AddStructure (Credit: Target Techstars/Rich Ryan)
AddStructure (Credit: Target Techstars/Rich Ryan)

“Everybody just thinks it’s cold,” she said.

But as the first cohort went through the accelerator this summer, startups warmed to the North: Seven of the ten companies are in conversations or have pilots underway with Target (including Chicago’s AddStructure) and two startups–LA’s Branch Messenger and Hong Kong’s Inspectorio–moved their headquarters to the Twin Cities. Leaders in Target’s program hope that by casting a national net with the accelerator, they can start to grow their hometown tech scene as well.

“That totally flips the script on ‘We’re a startup in Minnesota, we need to go to the Valley,'” said Ryan Broshar, managing director of the Target Techstars retail accelerator. “Instead, people are coming here.”

Target launched the accelerator out of a desire to bring innovation to the retail giant’s culture, and as a way to connect with more early stage companies: “Working with startups is a muscle we didn’t have,” said Reck.

At the same time, Target has deep roots in Minnesota’s business scene: The retail chain was started out of Dayton’s department stores (founded in 1902) and the first Target store opened in suburban Minneapolis in 1962. Reck said that Target wanted to continue to build on this foundation. “When the Twin Cities ecosystem grows, Target grows,” Reck said. 

When the Twin Cities ecosystem grows, Target grows

Target and Techstars didn’t end up choosing any Minnesota startups for the first cohort, so the accelerator focused on getting out-of-state founders plugged into the local ecosystem. Each startup was paired with an industry mentor from Target, and several of the partnerships and pilots grew from this natural synergy, said Reck. The retail accelerator also encouraged startups to meet with investors and companies across the Twin Cities ecosystem, such as General Mills and Best Buy. The accelerator also ran during summer months to show founders that balmy weather does accompany Minnesota’s harsh winters.

“It quickly became apparent when we started the program that there were many opportunities to grow the company in terms of partnerships, clients, and talent,” said Atif Siddiqi, founder of Branch Messenger, a communication platform for hourly shift workers, who’s moving headquarters to Minneapolis from Los Angeles, over email. “We decided early-on that it made sense to have a presence here, and we’ve been really pleased with that decision. The reception and support from corporate retailers in Minneapolis for a solution like Branch has been fantastic.”

Atif Siddiqi, founder of Branch Messenger (Credit: Target Techstars/Rich Ryan)
Atif Siddiqi, founder of Branch Messenger (Credit: Target Techstars/Rich Ryan)

“Moving from a large startup scene like Los Angeles, it was refreshing to see a tight-knit community and a deep level of commitment from everyone in the ecosystem to help grow this part of the economy,” he added. Siddiqi said he will miss the proximity to surfing in Southern California (although: “I was a horrible surfer so that might be for the better,” he said.)

Target will run the accelerator for two more years, and they also launched a website where startups can pitch a pilot or partnership without attending the accelerator. Broshar added that he sees Techstars “doubling down” their presence in the Twin Cities.

Drawing startups to Minneapolis-St. Paul will be key as the tech hub grows: Branch Messenger and Inspectario are hiring and fundraising, boosting startup activity and jobs in the area, Broshar pointed out. That can help make the Twin Cities a destination, rather than another Silicon Valley wannabe.

“From the Minneapolis perspective I don’t us to just be a part of the conversation, I want us to be our own conversation,” said Broshar.