A large red beanbag lay on the floor, a big screen TV stood in the center of the room and a whiteboard hung on a deep red colored wall; that was the first time I noticed Great North Labs on 5th Ave South in Downtown St. Cloud. Although I walked past the office space every day, my curiosity was never satisfied with the apparent structure explanation. So, I did what any other Millennial would do: I Googled them.

What I discovered is that Great North Labs is an early-stage venture fund. They provide capital, operating experience, key relationships and market intelligence to cultivate the next generation of leading tech companies in Minnesota and across the upper Midwest. In other words, the little unassuming office I walked by every day was brewing some majorly innovative companies, right here in St. Cloud!

I continued to follow the work of Great North Labs and was excited when I heard the organization’s co-founder, Ryan Weber, was hosting a four-week summer bootcamp focused on building lean startups. While I don’t have a startup business, my personal interest in learning about them and creating efficient workflow processes led me to sign up for the class. The workshop began in May and was held in Sartell. As I entered the room on the first day, I noticed the familiar red beanbag and a wall full of sticky notes. I knew I was in the right place.

Through the Lean Startup bootcamp, Ryan aimed to educate and promote a business model commonly used in Silicon Valley. During the four-week class, I, along with a handful of other participants, got firsthand knowledge about the concept and real life application skills. I found Ryan’s passion and excitement for the curriculum to be motivating. Ryan not only shared tactical lessons that could transfer back to any workplace, but he spoke at length about his journey to build Great North Labs, alongside his brother, Rob.

What I like most about the Startup School classes offered through Great North Labs is their accessibility. All too often, venture fund groups can project an unwelcoming persona. Great North Labs takes what could be considered an exclusive business model program for an elite crowd, and they package it up in a way that makes it applicable to the everyday person who has a solution-oriented mindset and entrepreneurship attitude. As a young professional living and working in Greater St. Cloud, I find Great North Labs’s vision for creating a startup ecosystem in our community exciting on many levels. The potential economic opportunity could be a major catalyst for future development across the region.

That said, building a startup ecosystem is not an easy task. Many of the challenges stem from the startup concept being new to central Minnesota. As with anything new, it takes time for the general public to become aware and understand the value. Nonetheless, the persistence and enthusiasm of Ryan and Rob could bring a positive wave of change to the region, including future economic development, human capital growth and other innovation solutions for our community. Just recently, the Weber brothers closed their first fund with $23.7M in committed capital, the largest debut seed fund ever raised in the Midwest. They intend to invest that money back to the central Minnesota startups.

If this is the first time you’re hearing of Great North Labs, I invite you to get on their email list (sign up on their homepage) and follow them on social media. This is one incredible local company making a significant impact in our community and beyond.

Jonathan Wong is a graduate of St. Cloud State University. He holds a B.S. in Mass Communications and Media and a Masters in Public Administration. He currently works as a Regional Communications Specialist for the State of Minnesota.