Red Wing Ignite Ag Tech Challenge Final Pitch: One word – robotics

Last night I attended a fun event at Red Wing Ignite. It featured a few experts in the ag tech (aka food tech) field and three presentations from entrepreneurs looking to get a start (of $10,000) to explore a future for their tech ideas.

I don’t have line-by-line notes as I often do but I walked away with some general impressions.

Brett Brohl, from Techstars Farm to Fork, pointed out that farmers generally have about 35 chances (seasons/years) to make money in their career. So while they are always interested in technology and how to farm better, they want to see solutions with a proven ROI. When Brohl looks at investing, he looks at the team and diversity in team (inventor, marketer, business versus 3 investors) more than any one project idea. Brian Carroll, from Emerging Prairie, talked about creating community assets to spur ag technology – including makerspaces, business accelerators and building 21st century skills.

The set the stage for learning about three projects that were finalists for the fabulous prize:

  • Drainage Monitoring and Control – The goal of the project is to significantly reduce sediment and nutrient runoff from agricultural fields by implementing a monitoring and control system that can respond in real time to rain and soil conditions.
  • Robotic Sod Farm Weeder – Robotic weed pickers can be used to reduce/eliminate herbicide use on farms. Sod farms provide an easy landscape for robotic weed picker deployments.
  • Poultry Patrol – A semi-autonomous robotic system to assist in poultry farm tasks like detecting dead birds, training birds to lay eggs in the correct place, disinfecting feces, turning soil, retrieving eggs, and giving the grower an inside camera view wherever they are.

Robotics are certainly emerging. In the food industry, they are reducing the pain of labor shortages and safety concerns. As someone said, last night, robots don’t forget to wash their hands and of course you don’t have to worry about injury to a robot in the same way you do a human. Some of what we saw last night was the sweet spot for robots doing mindless chores – the kind that for me might cause inattention and accident. One of the issues right now is making the robots more affordable.

I could see in the beauty of a place like Red Wing Ignite – where techies can meet farmers and others on the frontlines. Farmers know the needs and potential for ROI; techies know what can robots do and what they can’t.

Becker MN makes short list for Google data center

MPR reports

Sherburne County in central Minnesota appears to be in the running for a Google data center worth around $600 million, according to a filing Thursday by Xcel Energy.

The filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission says Xcel has been working for two years with the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, the county, the city of Becker and several other stakeholders on the project.

It says the Google project would help transition Xcel and the surrounding area from reliance on the Sherco coal-fired power plant.

“By locating there, this project becomes part of the company’s journey to mindfully transition a coal-plant environment into a less carbon-intensive, business-oriented area that creates new jobs, results in significant private capital investment in the state and benefits all of the company’s customers,” according to Xcel Energy’s filing.

“This is particularly true given the proposed data center’s unique electric service needs and Sherco’s robust infrastructure.”

The state department’s spokesperson Shane Delaney said the project could create 2,000 construction jobs for 18-24 months, as well as 50 permanent jobs.

Sherburne County is currently ranked 36 (out of 87) for broadband access in Minnesota. I have to think that along with opening doors to new electric solutions that the area might also see a boost in broadband options.

Minnesota ranks top state to raise a family

This news was too good not to share. WalletHub was just named Minnesota the best place to raise a family. No surprise to me with three girls! To be fair they don’t mention broadband or internet but reading through their categories, it was easy for me to see the impact broadband would have on each:

Family Fun – OK we only ranked 13. I have a family blog that alone should rank us higher than that. (To be fair, we were more obviously fun when the girls were little.) But especially when the girls were little, broadband helped us find fun. I scanned local calendars for fun things on a regular basis – from Winter Carnivals to art openings to pumpkin carvings. You name it, if we had an afternoon off, we could find fun. Also we used the internet to see things we’d never go see. Question about the Sphinx? We’ll look it up. For some families, gaming may be an issue or feature – and Paul Bunyan has shown us how fun and profitable that can be with their annual Gaming Contest. Not for us – but it has been a ticket into finding unusual activities.

Health & Safety – Access to remote healthcare – be it doctor emails or actual video visits has been a game changer, especially as a parent. And I’m a parent in a city. I can’t imagine the time savings not bundling up kids for every sneeze when the doctor is 10 miles away. Also portals make it easy to manage regular visits and payments. Telehealth use increased seven-fold in Minnesota between 2010-2015, and use continues to grow. But it also helps with healthier lifestyles. Many of us use devices (fitbits and others) to maintain healthy habits. And of course using the internet for quick fixes for getting out splinters or getting gum out of hair is a day saver too.

Education and Child Care – My kids have used broadband for assignments starting almost in kindergarten. In Kindergarten we used it to extend learning. But by second grade one was using Khan Academy for extra math support. They have all created and uploaded videos for class assignments. All have been required to access, complete and turn in assignments online. The youngest has created (on her own) online quizlets to help her with mock trial. Broadband is all but required for basic education but it is key for extending a student’s reach beyond formal education. (Last year, Blandin hosted a webinar on broadband and the homework gap.)

Affordability – Studies show that homes with broadband see an annual economic benefit between $1,850 and $10,500. And home buyers will pay seven percent more for a home with gigabit service; people wouldn’t pay that if they didn’t think there was a return on investment in education, healthcare or fun for their families.

Ignite Minnesota Ag Tech Challenge – Final Pitch Event Jan 15

Hosted by Red Wing Ignite, I think this event looks fascinating. They will be looking at final pitches from entrepreneurs creating technology projects for agriculture. Here’s the info you need:

Tue, January 15, 20194:30 PM – 7:30 PM CST
Red Wing Ignite 419 Bush Street Red Wing, MN 55066

Here are the finalists:

Poultry Patrol – A semi-autonomous robotic system to assist in poultry farm tasks like detecting dead birds, training birds to lay eggs in the correct place, disinfecting feces, turning soil, retrieving eggs, and giving the grower an inside camera view wherever they are.

Tile Drainage Monitoring and Control – The goal of the project is to significantly reduce sediment and nutrient runoff from agricultural fields by implementing a monitoring and control system that can respond in real time to rain and soil conditions.

Robotic Sod Farm Weeder – Robotic weed pickers can be used to reduce/eliminate herbicide use on farms. Sod farms provide an easy landscape for robotic weed picker deployments.

UnitedHealth Group transitions to remote workers in International Falls

The International Falls Journal reports…

The office that houses employees of UnitedHealth Group and Optum will be shuttered, as staff transition to working remotely.

Rumors that the insurance manager and claims processing site is closing in the city is not accurate, said Lauren Mihajlov, Optum Health senior director of communications.

“We regularly offer people the flexibility to work from home or from a more traditional office, and the enthusiasm for working remotely among many of our team members in International Falls means we no longer need to maintain an office there,” she told The Journal Friday. “We have an outstanding team in International Falls and are committed to their continued success and to making this transition as smooth as possible for them.”

They will lose some tax base…

While he also said the loss of the tax base the facility provides is unfortunate, he said he’s encouraged the company will continue to employ people and even try to employ additional people who will work from their homes.

But technology is changing how people work – assuming they have broadband…

“This is a reminder the workplace is constantly changing,” he said. “Technology can flatten the geography, that’s always provided a bit of a challenge here because of our location. If you’ve got the prerequisite broadband (internet), it really doesn’t matter where you are. This is part of the evolution going on.”

Nevanen said a group working to expand broadband coverage locally will likely discuss the transition when it meets today.

Laws and Policies Affecting Broadband Access in Minnesota

The Network for Public Health recently posted a report on State Laws and Policies Affecting Broadband Access in Eight Northern Region States – including Minnesota.

Here is what they say specifically about Minnesota. Because tables don’t always transfer well here, I’ve manipulated the format a little but not the content…


Broadband Definition

  • “Broadband” or “broadband service” means any service providing advanced telecommunications capability and Internet access with transmission speeds that, at a minimum, meet the Federal Communications Commission definition for broadband. MINN. STAT. § 116J.39

State Leadership Body/Initiative

  • The Office of Broadband Development
    The Office of Broadband Development is established to serve as the central broadband planning body for the state and shall remain in existence until the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development certifies that the state has met the broadband goals established in MINN. STAT. § 237.012. MINN. STAT. § 116J.39
  • State Statutory Goals
    It is a state goal that all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to highspeed broadband by 2022, among other goals. MINN. STAT. § 237.012

Statutory Funding
Border-to-Border Broadband Fund

  • Administration. The border-to-border broadband fund is administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development. MINN. STAT. § 116J.396
  • Eligible Expenditures. Grants may be awarded under this section to fund the acquisition and installation of middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure that support broadband service scalable to speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and 100 megabits per second upload. MINN. STAT. § 116J.395
  • Eligible Applicants. Eligible applications for grants include: (1) an incorporated business or a partnership; (2) a political subdivision; (3) an Indian tribe; (4) a Minnesota nonprofit organization; (5) a Minnesota cooperative association; and (6) a Minnesota limited liability corporation. MINN. STAT. § 116J.395

Preemptive/Restrictive Laws Regarding Municipal Broadband

Procedural Barriers

  • A municipality seeking to construct a new exchange where an exchange already exists shall not be authorized to do so unless 65 percent of those voting thereon vote in favor of the undertaking. MINN. STAT. § 237.19
  • The council of a municipality shall have the power to improve, construct, extend, and maintain facilities for Internet access and other communications purposes, if the council finds that: (i) the facilities are necessary to make available Internet access or other communications services that are not and will not be available through other providers or the private market in the reasonably foreseeable future; and (ii) the service to be provided by the facilities will not compete with service provided by private entities. MINN. STAT. § 429.021


“Dig Once” Efforts

  • The Office of Broadband Development shall, in collaboration with the Department of Transportation and private entities, encourage and coordinate “dig once” efforts for the planning, relocation, installation, or improvement of broadband conduit within the right-of-way in conjunction with any current or planned construction, including, but not limited to, trunk highways and bridges. MINN. STAT. § 116J.391

Fiber Collaboration Database

  • The purpose of the fiber collaboration database is to provide broadband providers with advance notice of upcoming Department of Transportation construction projects so that they may notify the department of their interest in installing broadband infrastructure within the right-of-way during construction in order to minimize installation costs. MINN. STAT. § 161.462

Creation of Broadband Deployment Maps

  • The Office of Broadband Development shall oversee the creation of state and county maps showing the availability of broadband service at various upload and download speeds throughout Minnesota. MINN. STAT. § 116J.397

I see that they have the 2022 state speed goals but have missed the 2026, which are 100 Mbps down and 20 up.

The report also provides some easy ways to compare us with our neighbors; we’re not number one.

Also they frame broadband from a healthcare perspective, which is helpful in making the case that broadband is a solution to other problems – not a problem in and of itself…

Lack of broadband access at home can serve to exacerbate disparities in other social determinants of health, such as by limiting educational and employment opportunities. Lack of broadband access can limit online educational opportunities for students living in rural and underserved areas. With online curricula and resources being increasingly part of the educational experience, this puts many rural students at a significant disadvantage. Lack of broadband access can also limit employment opportunities. It may be difficult to draw businesses to communities lacking broadband access, and job-seekers also face logistical challenges in looking for work or applying for jobs online.

Connectivity also plays an important role in healthcare. In addition to accessing clinical services online via telemedicine, individuals can learn about health topics online, access their electronic health records, and learn about programs and opportunities to improve their health. Individuals without broadband access at home may not be able to take full advantage of these opportunities for remote care and health promotion.


Home buyers will pay 7 percent more for a home with Gigabit service

Corning reports

Today, home buyers are shopping for more than just curb appeal. They’re looking for a quality internet connection. When you’re in the business of attracting new residents and keeping existing ones satisfied, you can’t deny that the value of reliable broadband connectivity at home is real.

Did you know …

  • High-speed broadband can increase the value of your home by 3.1%

  • Homes with Gigabit broadband sell for about 7.1 % more than similar homes with slower connections