Thursday, December 24, 2009

Independent innovation. Happy Holidays Ben Franklin!

A new Business Week article - Ben Franklin Where Are You? - is about the United States falling behind in the global patent race.

The article in the Dec. 28, 2009 issue by Michael Arndt documents the fact that in 2009 for the first time non-Americans were granted more U.S. patents than resident inventors.

The body of the article focuses on the difficulties universities and high tech centers are facing in the patent race. However, the headline (celebrating Ben Franklin) highlights our history as independent innovators.

It's my opinion that this kind of citizen innovation and entrepreneurship is more alive and flourishing than I've ever seen in decades of work in the field. In fact I think the world is full of Ben Franklins, and that the age of the independent entrepreneur and inventor is just arriving.

I think a difference between an independent inventor and those in universities and corporate labs is that independent inventors work to solve very specific problems not create new technologies.

Dave and I didn't have any budget to launch or grow our company. We had values that were important to us and each of us had a skill set that built on the other person's strengths.

We also knew some really cool ways to solve some very specific problems. The fact that new technologies emerged from this and were taken through the intellectual property process was an afterthought.

The fact that the rest of the world is surpassing the United States in patents is a tribute to the value placed on ever increasing innovation by governments and societies worldwide. Much of the world seems to get it that continuous, sustainable innovation is the only way forward.

So, my favorite independent innovation story from the last startup Dave and I founded…

One of the world's leading satellite and space manufacturing firms, Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne, recently gutted their two satellite and space manufacturing plants in California and retrofitted them from the ground up with worldwide 'best of class' equipment. Their corporate mantra is: "Pure and simple, we are the best at what's new."

Rocketdyne chose to recycle their manufacturing fluids using inventions Dave and I created. We worked out these ideas far from corporate labs and universities.

It was my last major sale for our company. I really miss that work.

Thank you Pratt and Whitney! The fact that you chose our inventions as the 'best of what's new' for fluid recycling in 21st century space manufacturing is a lifelong honor for an independent inventor.

For those of you working in the trenches, let me say that there are big firms and important organizations looking for better ideas and ways to innovate. Even when you're doubting your own capability to execute or to reach those markets, press on. The world needs you, your ideas, and your work. Like Pratt & Whitney, keep working to be the best at what's new.

Happy Holidays 2009!

Photo courtesy of Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne. Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-110)

Business Week article, Ben Franklin Where Are you?. Online edition Dec. 17, 2009. Print edition Dec. 28th and Jan. 4th.

Our first patent (patent number 6,183,654). I wrote this patent and did the patent drawings. For our subsequent inventions, we turned this process over to our wonderful patent attorney Dr. Jaen Andrews - Thank you Dr. Jaen!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Building development landscapes

The idea I've been working on this year is that it's possible to build economic development landscapes. That is, design systems that let people enter the process of economic development at multiple points. You don't plant a tree or two. You try to create a sustainable landscape in which a wide range of interrelated opportunities for growth exist.

In my current job, because of the amazing assets we have in place, I'm working to make Iowa County a premier location to learn about and participate in agriculture and local foods entrepreneurship.

Our Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen will allow beginning food entrepreneurs to get into the game professionally, with greatly lowered barriers to entry.

Existing small food enterprises can use the kitchen to reach new, higher levels of quality, sales and profitability.

At this end of the landscape spectrum there will be many, many points of entry for individuals and small businesses.

At the other end of this spectrum the Driftless Foods project is moving forward. This has felt like the best startup idea I've ever seen since the first moments that Mark and I started talking.

Driftless Foods offers a chance for some serious meta-level good. There is a strong component to helping farmers stay on their farms by building the infrastructure they need to process local foods at a scale that can profitably support regions. It's a way to help people to get into farming and to help existing farmers securely diversify their sources of income.

The project recently got a very nice recommendation from the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. Rod Nilsestuen.

"The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection strongly supports Driftless Foods and The Iowa County Economic Development Corporation in their efforts to create a vegetable processing and freezing facility.

A facility such as this will help meet the growing demand for locally grown foods, a demand that is increasingly important to the vitality of Wisconsin agriculture.

I firmly believe that Wisconsin's future is tied to the success of our agricultural sector, and the success of that sector depends on innovation and diversity. We need to keep farmland in farming and farm families on their farms. This project can help us do both. It also creates new job opportunities in your region and opens new economic development possibilities.

I can also see in this project the opportunity to create a model for processing locally grown foods that other communities can follow. This model promises to celebrate local foods, be profitable, and return value directly to the producers, the communities they live in, and the regions that support them."

What a wonderful, insightful show of support. Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary!

So with the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen opening at one end of the spectrum and Driftless Foods launching at the other end of the spectrum, we've got a fairly diverse development landscape underway.

In the middle of that spectrum are some really delightful co-conspirators helping to knit this effort together.

We met today to plan the first information sessions for our regional growers. This will all take varying amounts of time. The Innovation Kitchen will be open in the Spring for food processing on a small to moderate scale. For the larger scale of Driftless Foods growers need to plan well in advance for joining this kind of enterprise.

We will have 3 informational meetings focusing on Driftless Foods in January and February. Because this is a diversified effort, we will also be able to support interested growers with information about the Innovation Kitchen.

The first two dates are not quite set, but the details for the third meeting are in place. We will dedicate the February 24th Entrepreneur Club meeting in Dodgeville to this grower information session. I'll post details below.

So, the development landscape grows across the spectrum and we can soon begin inviting people in.

This has been an amazing year watching and learning from this experiment in economic development landscapes.

Letter of support from Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen

Link to the Iowa County Entrepreneur and Inventor Club page. Our Feb. 24th meeting will focus on opportunities for regional growers being created by the Driftless Foods project.

Photos are from our magical Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point. Our EDC was able to host the quarterly meeting of the Thrive Economic Development Pros at Shake Rag Alley last Friday. Our meeting was in the replica 1840s carpenter's cabinet shop. Karla and her great team had it beautifully decorated to receive area children for Santa's visit the next day so the atmosphere was great. Thanks to all who came and shared beautiful Iowa County with us!

Mark Olson and Renaissance Farm

Monday, December 14, 2009

Artisan food processing

The opportunity for entrepreneurship in local and regional foods surpasses anything I've seen in my 35+ year career as a working entrepreneur. It's like software, only sustainable.

In the world of local and regional foods there is a wildly expanding demand and an impossibly small capacity to supply this demand. The supply side - the people who grow and process these local foods - need help to get to a scale that is sufficient to begin meeting this demand.

It's a big subject with serious economic development implications for rural and urban areas worldwide.

My goal is to help launch our new Innovation Kitchen efficiently and with high value for all involved. I'm going to need to convey a lot of information across a wide variety of subject areas as clearly as I can.

That's why I took the Wisconsin Acidified Foods Training Course and passed my exams so as to be certified, as trained in: "microbiology of canned foods, principles of acidified foods, thermal processing, food process sanitation, facilities requirements, state and federal regulations, record keeping and process monitoring."

Not everyone will need this course to become an artisan food processor but many will. For anyone in Wisconsin thinking about this, I urge you to take this course (linked below). It's taught by Dr. Barbara Ingham, from the Department of Food Science at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Ingham teaches this course 6 or 7 times per year around the state.

I could not recommend this course any higher if you are considering any kind of artisan food enterprise in Wisconsin.

All foods with any water content have a pH. This measures the acidity of that food. A pH of 4.6 is the magic number. Foods that are pH 4.6 or lower have enough acidic content to be assured of safety. Shelf stability of acidified canned foods is ensured by a vacuum seal and adequate thermal processing.

Artisan food entrepreneurs utilizing these kinds of foods who want to work from the Innovation Kitchen will need to pass these exams first. After taking this course I sincerely believe that this is not some kind of onerous intervention into free enterprise. Just the opposite. Being part of a system like this - one that inspires the highest quality, safest and most interesting food products is a branding windfall.

If you have an interest in this subject, this course is not only fun, but it is densely packed with information that Dr. Ingham shares in ways that are understandable and easy to remember. Also the take-away binders contain printouts of everything relevant to your journey as an acidified foods for later reference.

We were also very fortunate to have Dave Steinhardt, who is a Food Safety Supervisor with the WI Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Dave answered a wide range of questions regarding the inspection protocols that our artisan food processors will need to follow when working in the Innovation Kitchen.

This was a wonderful course. I can't recommend it highly enough.

For those of you in other areas, I would strongly recommend you search out this kind of training. It is in your own best interests. You will create better food products, and you will have a better business because of it.

Not all processors will need this kind of course. Some may need even more advanced courses, depending on the food. Some processors may require less training. My point is that you can't just wander into the subject and open up shop. You'll need to find out what training is needed and learn how to work in a community-access processing kitchen. It's not hard. You just have to do it, for all the right reasons.

So, back to the start. I believe there is a terrific entrepreneurship opportunity in artisan food processing, especially with a focus on local and regional foods.

If you have an interest in this field, start organizing yourself to get in the game. Costs to enter are low, demand is high, there appears to be a good opportunity for profit and - if this course is an indication - artisan food processing can be a lot of fun.

Download the 2010 Wisconsin Acidified Canned Foods Training for Small Food Processors brochure and registration form. PDF format. 164 KB

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen

This story ran in the The Dodgeville (WI) Chronicle November 19, 2009. The article is not yet on line. Subscribe to the Dodgeville Chronicle by calling 608 935 2331

Food Innovation Kitchen will help launch new businesses

Published November 19, 2009


Iowa County will soon become home to one of the most creative economic development projects in the country - The Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen - which has the potential for starting and growing hundreds of unique small businesses.

The Innovation Kitchen is a new, state certified food processing facility owned by the Hodan Center. It will also be available for public access, as a shared use community processing and marketing kitchen. Foods made here can legally be sold to the public.

The Hodan Center broke ground for the 10,000 square foot processing and retail facility four months ago at its previous Dairy Queen/Miners Point property in Mineral Point. Currently under construction, it is expected to open in early 2010.

"The kitchen will be available on an hourly rental basis to food entrepreneurs and small businesses," explained Rick Terrien, Executive Director of the Iowa County Area Economic Development Corporation (ICAEDC). The community shared-use portion of the project is being coordinated and marketed by the ICAEDC.

"We have an agreement that I'll do the entrepreneurship and business work, and the Hodan Center will do all of the kitchen work," Terrien said.

"The Hodan Center has created varied work opportunities for the client-employees they serve," he added. " Among other things, they have developed a line of their own food products. - dry goods, wet gods, gift baskets, and other things, - called 'Papa Pat's' Their products are in about 700 stores in 26 states. They've gotten so good at doing this, they ran out of space. It's an Iowa County economic development success story."

Last year The Hodan Center requested a Community Development Block Grant for the kitchen from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. They were awarded a grant for $750,000.

Community access kitchens have been tried at various places in Wisconsin. The most successful model is a ten year-old venture in Algoma, called The Farm Market Kitchen.

"They have a small kitchen with 80 food businesses. Chocolatiers, bakers, people making mixes, sauces and salsas come from four counties away to process foods and start businesses there," Terrien said. "Most of them come in the evenings, because they are doing their small business start-up in addition to their day jobs."

"A great benefit for this project in Iowa County is that we have our own anchor tenant (Hodan Center) and the tenant already has people to work there, along with knowledge and experience in food processing," he said.

The Hodan Center client-employees will use the kitchen 5 days a week for their own products. Evenings and weekends it will be available to regional food entrepreneurs for starting or expanding their food businesses.

"In 35 years as an entrepreneur, I've never seen an easier or more affordable opportunity for starting your own small business than this Innovation Kitchen," Terrien said enthusiastically. His experience ranges from teaching basic business start-ups to having businesses with clients on six continents.

Now he is working out the kitchen details with Annette Pierce, Food Service Administrator at Hodan Center. The Hodan Center plans to offer its services to kitchen renters at an affordable price, and can help with supplying discounted ingredients, if entrepreneurs wish.

There are five different ways for food entrepreneurs to access the kitchen. On the most basic end of the spectrum are people who want to bring in their own ingredients, do all of the work, package their products at the kitchen site and sell it there. The front portion of the building will serve as a retail display area for products made by The Hodan Center and the entrepreneurs.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who want to have a food processing business without doing the work. They have the option of handing The Hodan Center a recipe which its client-employees would produce, package and label with the entrepreneur's own logo. The other options range between these two extremes.

"People can do a slow start-up with this. They don't have to be Donald Trump," Terrien said. "They can bring an idea to my office and I'll show them a basic, entry level business plan. I'll help them understand the possibilities and their responsibilities."