Downtown Fargo, North Dakota. Editorial Credit: FiledIMAGE, Shutterstock.
With just 1.6 million people between them, North and South Dakota rarely attract national spotlight. Startups in these two states received just $30.3 million in venture funding in 2019, a tiny fraction of what was invested even in other Midwestern states.
But that doesn’t mean the Dakotas are without a startup community. Fargo, North Dakota is home to a growing community of entrepreneurs who gather in communities catalyzed by incubators like the Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups initiative. Grand Forks, North Dakota boasts a bustling coworking space, the 701, and publicly funds loans to small businesses.
The Dakotas are hubs for highly specialized industries, too. Of the eight startups on this list, two work in the agriculture sector. Two more are developing technology to support commercial drones. There’s a cybersecurity company, a marketing software firm, a social discovery app for wholesale fashion brands, and more.
Fargo may not be the next Miami — at least not yet — but there’s plenty of innovation happening on the Great Plains.
Unsurprisingly, maybe, agritech is an important part of the startup scene in North and South Dakota. Fargo-based Bushel offers a software-as-a-service platform to more than 1,400 grain elevators and ethanol plants across the U.S. and Canada. Grain buyers purchase branded versions of Bushel’s apps, and their customers — farmers — can access real-time information about cash bids, contract settlements and other deals for free.
Since its 2017 launch, Bushel has raised nearly $30 million, including $19.5 million in Series B at the end of 2019. Bushel has added a variety of products this year, including a wallet that helps farmers get paid more quickly when buyers purchase grain. Currently, the company says its 27,000 monthly users touch nearly a fifth of the U.S.’s entire grain volume.
The first of two drone startups on this list, Airtonomy is working with the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation to develop a framework that will allow pilots to fly multiple drones at once without sacrificing security.
A 2019 grant from Microsoft TechSpark enabled Airtonomy to test the project at a wind farm in North Dakota, near their Grand Forks headquarters: Drones inspected wind turbines, performed wildlife assessments and occasional perimeter checks, learning along the way via AI. A grant from a different Microsoft program, AI for Earth, supported Airtonomy’s development of AI-powered bird and bat mortality surveys required after the construction of wind farms. The company has raised seven figures to develop this technology, and the research is sure to remain fascinating.
Dhiraj Sharan and Andrew Maloney launched Query.AI in Brookings, South Dakota in 2018. The company aims to help companies proactively tackle cybersecurity issues — specifically, by offering an AI console that accesses and analyzes data across disparate platforms. Users can interact with that console directly from their browsers, making investigation simpler and quicker.
Query.ai reported a raise of more than $1 million in a venture round September, setting the company up for big things in 2021.
BotLink is a cloud-based operations platform for drones. Available on both desktop and mobile, Botlink’s users can capture and process aerial imagery and export it to the needed location. Botlink also processes FAA flight and regulation data and offers airspace alerts and weather advisories, helping ensure that drone pilots comply with regulations to fly safely.
Angel-backed Botlink made news over the summer when they became the first in the country to receive a waiver to fly commercial drones in Department of Defense Airspace. The commercial drone space is growing fast and this Fargo company may be one to watch.
Another Fargo company, BWR Innovations got its start creating products that connect legacy equipment to automation — helping to automate and monitor commercial refrigerators, for instance. Their proprietary sensors can monitor the condition of equipment, predict the need for maintenance, track when machines are down, and monitor how productive machines are.
BWR Innovations also specializes in fuel cell technology, helping clients power legacy machines with fuel cell generators. Fuel cells are low-maintenance and cost-effective, and unlike traditional power sources, they release zero carbon emissions. In April, the company announced that it had designed “small, mobile, fuel cell generator sanitation systems” to help companies keep employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aother agritech startup, FarmQA pulls data from applications that monitor soil, plants, machines, and animals and combines them in a single dashboard. One app, FarmQA Scouting, focuses on information about what’s literally happening on the ground, in a farmer’s fields. FarmQA Advice allows crop advisors to write chemical treatment plans and share them with growers. And FarmQA Weather helps users keep an eye on weather patterns on a field-by-field basis.
North Dakota’s CoSchedule is a suite of agile marketing products, including a social media organizer, asset organizer and marketing calendar. In 2014, the startup earned its first funding. A year later, they’d landed their first 5,000 customers. By 2018, the company had more than 30 employees in two cities, Fargo and Bismarck.
CoSchedule has raised $2.5 million in two seed rounds since 2014 — and, the company boasts, “we’re doing it all from North Dakota.”
tailorie’s founder, former boutique owner Brianne Osowski, created the platform after years of attending wholesale markets and discovering new brands. tailorie offers an app, currently in private beta, that connects consumers to relevant brands based on their tastes, including style as well as shop location and price point.
Grand Forks-based tailorie was launched in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the U.S. Still, more than 175 brands had joined the platform by mid-May, and the company then raised more than $1 million in seed funding in June.
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