Earlier this month, Emerging Prairie sent out a request to North Dakota’s gubernatorial candidates — Democratic candidate Marvin Nelson and Republican candidates Doug Burgum and Wayne Stenehjem. As an organization that focuses on tech-based entrepreneurs, we asked each candidate the following questions:

Q: 1) How do you view the role of innovation and entrepreneurship in North Dakota? 2) As Governor, how would you respond to the rising startup culture across the state? 3) What is your background or experience in working with or leading tech entrepreneurs in our state?

We are publishing the candidate responses in the order they are received. Here is the response from Democratic candidate Marvin Nelson:

Marvin Nelson on entrepreneurship in North Dakota

One of the disappointing things I find running for governor, is that there are still lots of people in the state who are waiting for someone to come and rescue their towns. Somehow, they expect me as a candidate for governor to say I will snap my fingers and lots of great, high-paying jobs will show up in their community. That’s really just a fantasy.

It takes the entrepreneurs to do that.

Entrepreneurship is the only path forward for our state. It is innovate, or slowly die.  Unfortunately, a large portion of our state has been slowly dying for a long time now. Our state government has fueled that by investing pretty much anywhere but in North Dakota.  The belief seems deep that what is started in North Dakota is going to fail. We need first to believe in ourselves.

Looking back, one can see how some of the really successful companies started. You can go to manufacturing, Marvin Windows started as a way to keep the lumberyard’s help busy in the winter building windows for the houses they were going to assemble the next year. It took one of the first radial arm saws to start that company. Bobcat started with a couple guys building a skid steer loader that couldn’t possibly work. The stories are really endless of how innovation resulted in companies that today are chased by economic developers from all over the world, but few would give someone a radial arm saw or some help in building a prototype and hope that in 50 years or so you have something.

My best friend before he died was a machinist, and we built a shop and made plastic injection molds and I often helped him. It was very interesting because I got to see economic development done poorly.  It seemed like every idea in the state would come our way.  See guys would have an idea, and just like that they would become the local hope.  So often, before they had ever sold the first product, they got loans and built a factory and hired a bunch of workers and so on.

Problem was, they had never done any of those things and so they ended up spending all their time laboring at what they were no good at, and no time selling the product they were excited about.  The whole system didn’t result in many success stories, mostly a bunch of buildings that sat empty for a while before being sold to someone, usually for storage. What it did do was feed a feeling of fatalism in the countryside.  No use starting things, they are just going to fail anyway.

One of the most difficult things is that government has to be willing to fail, but needs to work to succeed.  Just like the entrepreneurs.  If you have an economic development division that never has any failures, you probably aren’t helping the people that need help.  Politically, it brings criticism. The easy thing to do is slowly die and few will ever criticize you. But in the end, all lose.

The biggest thing for tech innovation is to feed minds.  Our educational system builds the foundation of entrepreneurship.  Then, we have to get people out of their homes, and they have to spend time talking and feeding off each other’s ideas.  This results in a couple of things.  One, people decide to go for it.  It’s surprising who decides to start up a business if they have a friendly optimistic atmosphere.  The other thing is that they develop a web of contacts, so they are free to do what they excel at, and they know where to find others who can do what they cannot.

In everything there should be flexibility in the help given. I remember when we had one of those empty buildings here, I tried to sell the idea that we should put in the machines to allow people to tinker and build things at very low cost. Always the response was, what are people going to build? I would respond with, I don’t know, that’s for them to decide, but it will be something that without that being available, they won’t build at all. I guess it was really my attempt to sell the idea of a manufacturing incubator.

Tech needs that incubation too. There are lots of ideas, but there are many steps from an idea to a successful company. That’s where the state really can help or hurt. There needs to be infrastructure in place.  Is a tech company going to locate where there isn’t high speed internet?  Not likely. Well, some $400 million has been spent bring high speed internet across the state.

There are many steps that the government can help or hinder the startup. Filing paperwork with the government should be easy with no wrong door. Business conferences and idea conferences can be encouraged and supported by the government to help people build the network they need to succeed and stimulate ideas.  Access to capital is one of the big problems, a bank loan just doesn’t fit every situation.

Large companies tend to get a lot of support from government, and we need some large companies. We need our universities to feed a tech culture. The basic problem though is that government often doesn’t work so well for small companies. Often the requirements for a grant or any government help is so onerous, that it just isn’t worth the trouble. We must be careful not to try and fit everyone into one model or just focus on the large, headline grabbing companies.

An interesting thing is how tech is fed by a whole environment that makes one think. Instead of the same old boring things, innovation in other areas like retail or dining actually feed innovation in tech. A really big thing in order to feed a tech culture is we have to be a place that people want to live, and enjoy, not just exist. We have to quit chasing people who are a bit different out of the state.

In my ag consulting business, a big topic is precision agriculture. I have an electromagnetic induction machine which is used to tell the conductivity of soils and map salts and help us create zones of similar soil so we can manage the zones and not the field. We use LIDAR more all the time for water management and zoning as well. Yield monitors tell us how we are doing. Vegetative monitors are helping us fine tune fertility even more and we are looking to them to help direct our time in the field. I use GPS in almost everything, computers are a given it goes on and on. It’s difficult to even think of how many tech things have come along through the years.

Personally, I’ve been an innovator myself. I have made printed circuit boards, run milling machines and surface grinders, manufactured a machine that ran on compressed air to push leafcutter bee cells out of nesting blocks, built a grain cleaning trailer, built a store and on and on.

One thing that I bring that is unique is the variety and the breadth of my experiences.I think of a tour I was on in California when all of a sudden, the guy with a fruit packing plant asked me a question about cleaning up pomegranate seeds because he had a market for them, but they had wings that needed to be removed. So there we were drawing out a machine that would do what he needed and I told him of a manufacturer I knew that could build him just want he needed. As governor I hope to be able to help more people with their challenges.

_ _ _

Thank you Marvin Nelson for your response!

Posted in

Marisa Jackels