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Stevens FORWARD! -- Harnessing area's intellectual capital

By Philip Drown

For the Sun Tribune

Communities that encourage economic growth by increasing entrepreneurial opportunities tend to see more innovation within their borders, and they experience more long term prosperity. When marketable ideas and the entrepreneurial spirit are combined with sound business practices and healthy financial backing, the potential for industry creation and new job growth are practically limitless.

Bolstering the development of new business is one of Stevens FORWARD!'s 14 Destiny Drivers.

The driver says that "By 2009 we will harness the intellectual capital of the University of Minnesota Morris, West Central Research and Outreach Center, U.S.D.A. Soils Lab, and agri-business and associates into an Innovations Incubator that will produce one new commercial venture each year."

The Champions of this initiative strongly believe that by uniting knowledge and resources already present within Stevens County, they will be able to produce long term economic fruit.

Warrenn Anderson, a local attorney and one of the Stewards of the Stevens FORWARD! initiative, believes in this potential and does not have to think long to find a tangible local precedent.

Anderson cites West Central Environmental Consultants (WCEC) as a strong model of the sort of grass roots incubation of an innovative idea that has continued to generate economic opportunities. WCEC, a firm that is headquartered in Morris with three satellite offices in the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Montana, provides a variety of environmental services including environmental assessments, as well as control and cleanup of hazardous material spills.

Anderson said the firm began when a few people recognized an environmental need or opportunity, and assembled the right mix of resources to turn that opportunity into a business.

"We looked at the idea that (businesses) were replacing all these underground storage tanks," Anderson said. "We asked ourselves, what does that involve? The intellectual asset is geology. Well, UMM has this Geology Department and they have all these bright students and professors."

Anderson said they connected one of UMM's Geology faculty, a banker, and a businessman together in early 1990. Out of that grassroots uniting of opportunity, idea, and resources, a significant local industry was born that now provides jobs in a specialized field and continues to grow.

For Anderson and others in the county, observing this kind of success as well as other examples of innovative businesses, just makes them hungry to find more.

"What other things could we spin off from the knowledge base that we have in this county," Anderson said. "I mean, it's incredible what we have."

Anderson and others are currently making plans to create an "Innovations Incubator". The goal would be to increase the interaction between the sources of knowledge and good ideas in the county and people with business experience and financing, to produce businesses. What form this incubator might take, however, is yet to be determined.

"This is a very formative time right now," Anderson said. "We're still working on the concept."

According to Anderson, Stevens County has what he referred to as a "triangle of knowledge" in the West Central Research and Outreach Center, the University of Minnesota Morris, and the U.S.D.A. Soils Lab that serve as educational and economic resources. Anderson said they want to combine those foundational components with the economic drivers in the county.

"We want to combine what we have here and create some companies that would utilize all these assets that we have in our county," Anderson said. "This triangle of intellectual property that we have here in our county, that's unique to our county. We want to take that intellectual property and combine it with our known economic engines: agriculture, manufacturing, and finance. We've got to have the knowledge, the people, and the money."

Anderson also noted the number of students who graduate from the area schools and the University every year. For those involved in this initiative, these students represent a ripe workforce that could be harnessed, providing that there is a diverse economic atmosphere with a diverse selection of jobs to support them.

"We're very much hoping that there will be green jobs somehow," Anderson said. "We have the land and wind resource in this area. We have the intellectual resource. We have the demand for renewable related products."

Anderson is careful to note, however, that the field of opportunities are not limited to "green" industries. The very nature of an innovations incubator is the ability to think outside the box and capitalize on opportunities as they arise. But, Anderson notes, there are trends in the green energy industry that hold potential to launch numerous industries by nurturing home grown talent and ideas.

At this stage, Anderson and a few others are in the process of assembling a healthy mix of stakeholders from a variety of representative industries into an Advisory Committee. These representatives, who each have their fingers on the pulse of diverse fields of business knowledge, will be able to leverage the creative energies and ideas of people within those fields and potentially convert them into marketable businesses with job creation potential.

"We have the folks in Stevens County from the private sector who are very interested in contributing their time and talents toward accomplishing this goal," Anderson said. "We think this is a necessary part of retaining or sustaining the viability of the county."

Are you a 'Champion'?

Stevens FORWARD! stewards are seeking "Champions" -- people who want to get involved in the initiative and spearhead a Destiny Driver. For more information, visit the Stevens FORWARD! Web site at, or contact Coordinator Roger McCannon via email at:, or by phone at (320) 287-0882