There is more to Minnesota tech than the startup ecosystems of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Great North Labs co-founder Rob Weber would know. He and his twin brother Ryan founded their first company while they were students at St. Cloud State University. They grew their business in that city before expanding to the Twin Cities, and eventually, the Bay Area.
Now, after nearly two decades in tech and a successful exit in 2016, Rob and Ryan Weber are looking to jumpstart other companies with northern roots through a new incubator: Great North Labs.
Part startup school, part venture fund, Great North Labs focuses on building, educating and investing in early-stage tech companies from the Great Lakes region. The incubator officially launched in the fall of 2017, and is dually located in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.
“It’s a misnomer that there aren’t quality developers outside the Cities,” Rob Weber said. “From a work-ethic standpoint, smaller communities have a lot of talented, self-driven people. You see more collaboration across different sectors too. It’s a place where people reach out and help each other.”
The Weber brothers have watched Greater Minnesota’s startup scene mature over the last 18 years. Their company, initially called Freeze.com, was founded in St. Cloud and began by distributing applications like screen savers. Eventually, the company became NativeX, which makes technology businesses use to advertise within mobile apps. Chinese mobile-advertising network Mobvista bought NativeX for $25M in 2016.
After Rob and Ryan exited NativeX, they dove headfirst into Great North Labs. Today, Ryan manages strategy for the incubator, and Rob serves as managing partner of its funding arm.
“We bring a unique perspective,” Weber said. “We’ve been on both sides of the table, and we can share some wisdom from the lessons we’ve learned.”
Weber and his brother also manage an angel-investing fund, 32 Degrees, LLC which they started in 2006. The fund was an early investor in startups like Field Nation, a Minneapolis-based company that also originated at St. Cloud State.
“We want to be involved with these companies from the time they hire their first employees to when they become unicorns”
The Great Lakes region has given birth to a number of successful tech startups in the last decade. Two Minneapolis-based tech companies, Jamf Software and SportsEngine, started in Eau Claire, Wis., but scaled in the Twin Cities. In Weber’s experience, founding a tech company in this region is not difficult – but growing it there is.
“There’s great young talent in St. Cloud, but we still ran into issues,” Weber said. “A lot of local tech companies try to poach talent from each other, which doesn’t grow the scene.”
Great North Labs hopes to add more entrepreneurs to the regional talent pool through its startup school, a 15-hour program where students receive training in product development and engineering skills relevant to building startups. Around 30 companies have participated in the program since this fall.
The incubator is currently in the process of raising its first fund, Weber said. This venture fund arm will participate mostly in angel and pre-seed funding rounds, contributing anywhere from $50,000 to $2 million depending on the company. Weber hopes that the incubator will invest in up to 30 companies in the next two to five years.
“We want to be involved with these companies from the time they hire their first employees to when they become unicorns or even decacorns,” Weber said. “We’re here to help them accomplish that. We firmly believe that our companies will be the strongest in the region.”