In Nebraska, innovation can be seen far and wide across all industries. Organizations are cultivating talent and showing what a little grit and community support can achieve.
Ag Tech Disruptors
Hannah Klitz of Invest Nebraska spoke to envelope-pushing efforts through the lens of The Combine, an AgTech incubator.
“The Combine has numerous companies that range from Sentinel Fertigation, which helps farmers manage nitrogen through fertigation, to Bluestem Biosciences, which is working to enable existing infrastructure in the Midwest for industrialized synthetic biology,” the communications coordinator said.
Technologies may vary widely, but founders generally have a common goal: “Positively impacting agriculture in our state, nation and even globally,” Klitz stated.
The Combine accepts applications from food and ag tech startups in Nebraska on a rolling basis and assists on an individual basis — everything from in-person and virtual curriculum for initial goal-setting to coworking at Nebraska Innovation Campus.
“There are many innovating startups founded by Nebraska residents, but the work we are doing also attracts companies to relocate to Nebraska,” Klitz added of her team’s goals. “Our goal is to be a program that ag tech startups want to be a part of so much so that they relocate to our state, which has already been the case a few times.”
Specific “stars” on The Combine front include Grain Weevil, a robot that is transforming the industry for the better by handling an array of functions within grain bins.
“Grain bins are a dirty, dangerous place,” Klitz explained. “So, with the help of the Grain Weevil robot, farmers do not have to crawl into grain bins where they are at risk for a life-threatening situation.”
Omaha-based Scoular is powering innovation in the grains industry and via other ag supply chain solutions.
“This is a very dynamic and exciting time in the agriculture industry,” said CEO Paul Maass in early March. “Innovations related to production agriculture (that support production improvement) give me confidence that the agriculture industry will continue to increase production, and with less inputs.”
It’s about “making more with less.”
“Investments in innovations that enable efficiency growth will continue, not only the agronomic growth, but growth in automation – which is especially important now when there are not enough talent resources available,” Maass explained.
When asked about breakthroughs in this space, Maass spoke to technology disruptions.
“ … we are pushing our organization to remain externally focused, engaging with new innovations or technology capabilities, and allowing those experiences to shape our strategic planning,” he said.
Specific examples of “transformative,” company-driven innovations span far southwestern Nebraska (Grainton), whereby Maass said Scoular expanded its capabilities to ship via 110-car shuttle trains – a marked improvement.
“This improvement will expand the market reach of grain produced in this region,” he said. “Beyond our grain facilities, we created Petsource to provide freeze-dried pet food ingredients to the growing pet food industry.”
At present, Petsource is expanding its production capabilities in Seward, tripling its size to fulfill customer demand.
“Freeze-dried pet food ingredients, produced in Nebraska, are another example of adding value that ultimately improves the Nebraska food and agriculture industries,” Maass summed up.
Evolving Silicon Prairie
TThe Managing Attorney of 402Legal, Karine E. Sokpoh, put on her Midlands African Chamber (MAC) leadership hat to address traction related to startups in the state. Sokpoh, who is the CEO and founder of MAC, isolated resources available through “various entities in the community,” with a notable caveat.
“There are a plethora of different nonprofits and for-profit companies that have programs and resources and different funding opportunities to assist startups, such as our members Nebraska Enterprise Fund and Omaha 100. There are grants such as the prototype grant, the SBIR /STTR programs through the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.”
However, Sokpoh underscored how very little of that funding went to BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color), or immigrants or refugee entrepreneurs.
Enter organizations such as MAC, which Sokpoh characterized as a catalyst and accelerant within the broader ecosystem.
“The Midlands African Chamber is a Nebraska-only Black chamber, which serves primarily Black and underserved entrepreneurs,” she continued. “We connect, champion and empower small businesses, in a bid to grow economic equity. We help traditionally marginalized community members access resources and opportunities to build intergenerational wealth through entrepreneurship.”
It will have served a reported 50 small diverse businesses, funding a collective $82,000, since 2020.
“We offer many different programs and services to assist startups and entrepreneurs,” Sokpoh stated. “We are currently operating our first cohort of the Pitch Black Accelerator program. This equips entrepreneurs with vital training and resources during a nine-week program and, at the end of the program, they each receive $1,000 for startup costs – not to mention, if they win the competition, they can get up to a $15,000 equity-free award.”
Lastly, Sokpoh underscored heightened exposure for MAC members, noting their ability to connect with mentors and other companies who can assist in establishing and growing respective businesses.
The Greater Omaha Chamber Vice President, Economic Development Mark Norman further spoke to support and resources through the “lifecycle” of organizations at various stages and across myriad backgrounds.
“Omaha remains a highly competitive city for prospective businesses looking to set up an operation,” Norman said. “Corporations are drawn to communities and to specific areas within those communities that are demonstrating growth, those areas that provide the lifestyle and amenities that their workforce of the future desire.”
Norman isolated Omaha’s “urban core” as providing a lifestyle and amenities that continue to attract companies.
“But we cannot relax,” he said. “We must continue to improve and tell our story to prospective companies to build on this growth.”
Norman said the chamber is committed to aggressively recruiting companies to the area.
“We assist all the parties involved in a project, from first initial contact to final announcement, and then establish a long-term relationship to ensure continued growth through our Business Retention and Expansion program,” he said. “These activities can range from facilitation to business growth incentives, connections to workforce resources, to assistance with navigating the entitlement and regulation processes.”
Norman further isolated, within the urban core, Mutual of Omaha’s investment in the area via Project Beacon.
“It demonstrates that the value proposition of our region, and the urban core, is still strong,” he said.
More broadly, Norman noted: “The chamber has made a commitment to grow our urban core by 30,000 new residents and 30,000 new jobs over the next 20 years.”
He indicated projects like those undertaken by Mutual add to the metro’s excitement and vibrancy.
Deepening Roots for HQs
Leadership with Mutual of Omaha spoke at greater length to Project Beacon, its new facility that Chief Customer Service Officer Shannon Hite said will be a “beacon” for both the company and community.
“ … this new facility will be a ‘beacon,’ both for Mutual of Omaha and the City of Omaha,” Hite said. “It will offer our associates a new, modern workplace that will support collaboration, innovation and hybrid work on behalf of our customers. It will also add to Omaha’s skyline and urban core, standing at 677 feet with 44 floors, making it the tallest building in the region.”
Officially kicked off in January, the project spans 800,000 square feet of amenities, conference, collaboration, and individual workspaces, with a “sky lobby” featuring food services, a fitness center, wellness service, concierge technical support, and flex-conference and meeting space.
Over the next six to eight weeks, most of the construction will reportedly be below-ground, followed by construction of a 15-story parking garage through 2023, and tower levels build mid-2024.
Hite also acknowledged the redevelopment of its current Midtown campus.
“We envision new vitality both downtown and in Midtown, much of it driven by the modern Omaha streetcar,” she added.
Hite indicated its commitment further spans $6.2 million in funding to 120 area nonprofits through its foundation in 2022 alone.
In its 25th year, Omaha-born Scooter’s Coffee is growing its local and statewide commitments, while also representing one of the fastest-growing specialty coffee drive-through companies in the country – on pace for more than 1,000 stores nationwide in 2024.
“Our dedicated franchise partners have opened approximately 40 new stores in Omaha and surrounding communities over the past 10 years,” said Chief Community Officer Bill Black.
Also, its supply chain company, Harvest Roasting, launched a new Omaha distribution center to ramp up production and support systems for franchisees. Additionally, Scooter’s relocated its Sapp Brothers Drive headquarters to a new, more than 101,000-square-foot space at 11808 Miracle Hills Drive.
“Moving our corporate offices allowed us to expand our affiliated internal roasting and packing operations at our former headquarters building,” Black explained.
Such investments, according to Black, resulted from the unprecedented brand growth associated with the drive-through kiosk franchise model, which resonated with customers during the pandemic.
Beyond physical spaces, Black said Scooter’s is hosting its annual Grow Conference, which will attract 1,500-plus execs, franchise owners and coffee growers to CHI Health Center Omaha in late March.
Additionally, since 2018, Scooter’s has raised more than $154,000 for Wounded Warriors Family Support to fund services such as a caregiver respite program that helped 44 families. Current local support also extends to Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands, with a portion of proceeds supporting the national organization and local chapter.
“Across our franchise network, we promote giveback programs and days of giving to support important causes in the hometown communities of our Scooter’s Coffee stores,” Black said, referring to everything from coat to blood drives.
Game Changer for Student Athletes
It’s been called the most significant change in college sports in a generation: NIL (name, image, likeness). More specifically, this transformation reflects NCAA rule changes and state legislation to afford protections and opportunities to athletes to sell their personal brand/NIL. Nebraska Athletics announced #NILbraska in June 2021, an initiative to “prepare student-athletes to take advantage” of NIL legislation. It was touted at the time as an “example of Nebraska leading the nation.”
Former Athletic Director Bill Moos furthermore touted its status as the first athletic department to partner with Lincoln-based Opendorse. Opendorse is described as a NIL deals platform and marketplace for athletes to build and monetize their “NIL value.” More recently, in an updated blog post from late January on its site, Opendorse provided a state-by-state breakdown of NIL legislation. While the reported fourth state to enact such laws, Nebraska’s legislative language was written in “opt-in” fashion, meaning institutions in the state could remain under NCAA regulations until adoption of the state law, resulting in a “split.” Creighton University has decided to apply the law, while the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is remaining under the school’s policy. Further amendments to NIL regulations, courtesy of additional legislation, were also noted.
Teresa Freisen and Kristin Stone started SheMate in 2021, reportedly as a “response to inequities in newly developed NIL opportunities for college athletes.”
“When we started SheMate, we thought we would be an NIL business for women athletes,” Friesen said. “We quickly discovered that we could do more and we could do better if we worked in partnership with NIL companies, instead of creating another NIL business.”
Since this adjustment, the CEO said SheMate pays women (via reputable NIL companies) to hold virtual mentoring sessions for young people that look up to them.
“Consequently, we have developed great partnerships within the NIL ecosystem, while further progressing the SheMate mission to better the sports industry for women through community and publicity,” Friesen said.
In fact, during its first year, 200-plus athletes applied monthly to engage in SheMate work.
“We are now working on strengthening our community and offering more opportunities for women to connect with, learn from, and tangibly support one another,” Friesen added.
In recognition of women athletes not getting enough paid sponsorships and the lack of access to positive role models, Friesen said SheMate solves both problems: paying women to offer virtual group mentoring for middle and high school students, while the NIL “world” is allowing SheMate to pay these athletes for their work.
“We are constantly driven by our mission to increase positive representation of women on-screen,” she summed up. “Seeing women athletes on screens means seeing expanded views of how women ‘should’ dress, act or style; it means seeing women who expand our examples of what it means to be strong, driven and motivated.”
Friesen continued: “When we increase this positive, diverse and intersectional representation of women on-screen, more youth feel seen, understood and encouraged for their futures.”
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