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Gov. Walz hears Duluth entrepreneurs' stories

Gov. Tim Walz (left) and Melissa Hortman, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, react to a pitch from Katelyn France, one of five startup entrepreneurs to explain their concepts and their needs in “Shark Tank” style event at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Hermantown on Wednesday. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Katelyn France, one of five startup entrepreneurs, explains her concept for a medical bracelet at a“Shark Tank” style event held at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Hermantown Wednesday. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Katelyn France was 14 years old when a commercial made her mad.

"We were watching a YouTube video when this ad popped up for these medical bracelets," said France, now 19 and a freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The bracelets cost $200 and only provided four lines of text identifying an individual's allergy or medical condition, France explained. She told her teacher at Hinckley-Finlayson High School she could do better than that for much less money. Her teacher told her to prove it.

The native of tiny Kroschel, Minn., did so, using a 3D printer to make a soft-fabric bracelet displaying a stamp-sized QR code. She can make her bracelet for under $5 apiece, she said. In a medical emergency, a first responder can take a photo of the code and connect that to a website that will have all the information needed to help that individual.

On Wednesday morning, she told her story to the governor of Minnesota.

France was the first of five startup entrepreneurs to explain their concepts and their needs in "Shark Tank" style at the Natural Resources Research Institute. Their panel, seated together on a couch, consisted of Gov. Tim Walz; Steve Grove, commissioner of the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development; and Melissa Hortman, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

They squeezed the event in in an hour before moving on to Walz's address at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

"This is a 'Minnesota Nice' version of 'Shark Tank,'" Grove said as he introduced the event.

If there was any doubt that this would be a friendly group of "judges," Walz dispelled it.

"Minnesota's future lies in innovation," he said. "To our entrepreneurs who are here: We're here for you."

In addition to France, who calls her company SMYLE LLC (for Scientists Make Your Life Easier); presenters were Markus Muller of Runway Manhattan, Nathan Lipinski of MC-Cubed; Tom Wolfe of Thinking Engines; and Brian Garhofer of The Actives Factory.

Each was given five minutes to tell about his or her company followed by two minutes to answer questions from the panel as a small audience looked on.

Garhofer got Walz's attention when he told about how his company, which has a plant in Two Harbors and extracts compounds from birch bark, at one point had a workforce that was 70 percent indigenous.

"Seventy percent of the entire workforce over the next 25 years is going to come from communities of color," Walz noted. "I understand that may not be equally distributed across the state, but it's a reality we're going to have to focus on."

The three panelists enthusiastically endorsed all of the presentations. Although no actual money was on the line, Walz said, "We'd love to invest in all of them."

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