Amidst the graffitied rooms of the Prairie Den, Congressman Kevin Cramer met yesterday with local entrepreneurs to discuss the startup economy. Cramer, who has been a U.S. Representative for North Dakota since 2013, came to celebrate National Startup Day.
Seated around the table were local leaders from a variety of industries, such as e-commerce, unmanned aircraft, healthcare, venture capital, and agriculture.
“It’s never been so cool to be from North Dakota,” Cramer said, after hearing a short introduction from everyone at the table.
Not long ago, he said, a politician said something he will never forget: “North Dakota is the rectangular blind spot in the nation’s consciousness.”
“I’m here to tell you that right now, with the oil boom and rapid growth, we are the rectangular stage in the nation’s spotlight,” Cramer said. “Now the question is, what do we do with this moment in the spotlight?”
For an hour and a half that afternoon, these men and women discussed what they are doing in that spotlight.
The North Dakota Spotlight
Jim Traynor, Director of Account Management at Intelligent InSites, spoke about how their Fargo-based company is working to transform healthcare. He urged Cramer to make remote tracking in hospitals a requirement.
Shawn Muehler, COO of Botlink, shared a little about the revolutionary technology he and his team are creating, giving Fargo a name in an industry dominated by Silicon Valley. For the UAS industry, his request for Cramer was to establish policy that allows for greater access to flying drones.
Kirk Anton and Clint Howitz both run successful e-commerce companies, and shared concerns about the pending Marketplace Fairness Act. This legislation would crush e-commerce growth in the region, they said.
Upon hearing this, Cramer enthusiastically said that they were talking to the right guy.
“I’m the only one on your side in this,” he said. “The politics, particularly in this state, are very much against you.”
“It’s nice to see who’s supporting us and who’s not,” Anton said.
Anton, who runs the monthly e-commerce breakfast, also plans to bring more policy-making discussion to the table over their usual waffles and eggs.
“We need to bring up these topics, start getting things signed and sent to the Senators,” he said. “We can add more punch to it.”
From Fargo to Capitol Hill
Apart from industry-specific requests, the general consensus on Fargo’s greatest barriers are topics we’ve heard before: lack of talent and resources. Many local companies are constantly hiring, while also paying respect to where they are getting employees from. This is increasingly a problem that prevents growth.
“We have a robust economy,”said James Burgum, co-founder of Arthur Ventures. “How do we build our own future without depending on someone else?”
Perhaps the answer lies in these meetings. By talking to representatives at Capitol Hill, small voices can be heard. In an e-mail to all Startup Day participants, Engine Program Manager Anne Duning encouraged city leaders to “ask your member of Congress for their support on Capitol Hill.”
Some of the things national policy-makers have the power to do, she said, are reform the broken patent system, improve capital access, fund access to tech education, and fix the immigration system.
When everything came to a close, Cramer arranged some follow-up meetings with members in the room, stating that he was inspired by the energy of the group.
Emerging Prairie co-founder Greg Tehven, who organized the meeting in less than 24 hours, closed by pointing attention to the startup growth happening in Grand Forks and Bismarck, and also asking that perhaps someone from the team become a member at the Prairie Den.
Fargo, welcome the Prairie Den’s newest member: Lisa Gibbens, head of the Cramer’s North Dakota staff.
Photos courtesy of Marisa Jackels.