Senator Heidi Heitkamp, sporting a Prairie Den co-founder t-shirt, met with local startup founders and global investor Paul Singh yesterday to discuss how federal infrastructure can better support startup development.
Connecting policymakers with the founders is a crucial step to progress, Heitkamp said.
“There’s a lot of policy being made in Washington DC that affects the future of this industry,” she said. “To make sure that we’re aware, and that I’m aware in Washington of what the concerns are as we make these policies and move forward is pretty critical.”
Founders in the room represented a variety of technologies; additive manufacturing/3D printing, e-commerce, mobile apps, internet of things. Fitting, as Heitkamp called technology the “third leg of the stool” when it comes to economic growth, particularly in North Dakota.
“The reason we’re [United States] is the highest economic power in the world, is technology,” she said. “We have a higher rate of innovation.”
But in order for that innovation to remain sustainable, she went on, there are a few key things that need to change. Making higher education more affordable, increasing access to broadband internet, and training the future generation of technologists are three she and Paul Singh focused on in this meeting.
First big problem: student loans. Much of the innovation in the United States is thanks to the quality of higher education, which is quickly becoming far too expensive, Heitkamp said. A founder at the table, Travis Kiefer from Aberdeen, SD, echoed the sentiment, stating that “education is the only thing you can’t re-collateralize.”
For this solution, Heitkamp points to the Bank of North Dakota as a valuable resource. There, she said, the team is willing to work directly with startup founders to figure out a way to ease the pain of student loans and provide compound interest.
“One of the most important things you can do is find out what the Bank of North Dakota can do for you,” Heitkamp said.
Eric Hardmeyer, Bank of North Dakota President, was also in the room and encouraged the founders to look into the Bank’s offerings, calling the bank “North Dakota’s unfair competitive advantage.”
Broadband internet is another significant need, both Heitkamp and Singh agreed.
“If we don’t get internet into more of these cities, we’re curtailing the opportunities of our young people,” Singh said. The venture capitalist has spent the last few months touring through cities smaller than 300,000 people, and said this is a reoccurring problem, he said.
Another founder at the table, Edie Ramstad, founder of Weave Got Maille in Ada, MN, said the lack of high-speed internet in Ada has cost her upwards of $17,000.
“I run an international internet company in a town that won’t give me internet,” she said.
Fortunately, Heitkamp said, there is work being done by companies such as Midco to get fiber internet across the state. With that access to internet, both Heitkamp and Singh encourage local entrepreneurs to pursue a diverse range of products and customers.
“With the internet, your customer base is global,” Singh said. “How do I build something anyone could buy?”
Thankfully, Heitkamp said, there is work being done by companies such as Midco to get fiber internet across the state. But there is still much work to be done towards establishing an infrastructure that can fully support the tech-based startups of the region, she said.
Lastly, there needs to be a concerted effort towards training the population to be able to support the local tech industry as well, they said. Heitkamp said when she visits highschools, she asks the students who sees themselves pursuing a career in tech.
“In reality, they should all be raising their hands because every company is going to be a tech company,” she said. “None of them raise their hands.”
This is a problem particularly in an area where the hunt for talent is difficult. Singh has seen this as another consistent problem in smaller tech hubs, and encourages establishing coding schools or training programs to ensure the people can support the startups.
“Somewhere in here is the next AOL,” Singh said, referring to the success of America Online which began in his hometown of Ashburn, Virginia. “We need to make sure we’re providing the talent by training our population.”
Heitkamp and Singh concluded the event by hearing from each of the founders, and encouraging them to pursue the resources provided here in North Dakota.
“This is not just a one-off,” Heitkamp said. “We actually do want to hear from you and support you.”