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Coffee talk: 1 Million Cups lets local entrepreneurs begin percolating their ideas

Jon Walters kicks off Fargo's 1 Million Cups event July 30 at The Stage at Island Park. Sherri Richards / The Forum

Fargo - The best ideas and relationships are often born over a cup of coffee.

Each Wednesday, hundreds of community members gather here, many bringing their own coffee mugs, to listen to local entrepreneurs and offer their feedback and help.

1 Million Cups is a weekly event held in more than 40 cities, including Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Miami and San Diego.

Fargo, which launched its 1 Million Cups on Jan. 22 as a six-week pilot and has continued since, has had the largest single event attendance of all of them – 351 people. More than 200 typically show up every week.

Local organizer Jon Walters, who moved to Fargo in December and works for Myriad Mobile, credits the popularity of 1 Million Cups here to the fact that it’s frequent, free and fosters community.

“It’s showing entrepreneurs that there are other entrepreneurs in the area. It’s showing them they’re not alone. It’s showing them there’s a support system,” Walters said.

He also said Fargo is the “perfect size” for this kind of event. “Everyone wants to be engaged in this community.”

About 50 people showed up for the first 1 Million Cups at the Plains Art Museum. “We were pretty impressed with that,” said Lisa Gulland-Nelson, fellow organizer and vice president of marketing and public relations at the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

But as the weeks went on, the event quickly grew, with attendance jumping to 70, 100 and more, outgrowing its venues.

Now 1 Million Cups is held at 9:15 a.m. Wednesdays at The Stage at Island Park.

Gulland-Nelson said people often tweet about the energy and excitement. Some call it the “best hour of the week.”

She said it provides an easy entry point for participating. It’s not as intimidating or time-intensive as a Startup Weekend.

Weekly format At each week’s event, audience members are invited to make announcements. A live job board is held once a month. A pre-selected speaker makes a six-minute presentation about his or her concept, followed by a 20-minute question-and-answer session.

The goal is to help the presenter refine his or her thinking and bring new ideas to the surface.

This week’s presenter was Andrew Dalman, a manufacturing engineering student at North Dakota State University. He’s the leader of a Bison Microventure team that is working to create an artificial human jawbone.

Dalman said to have an artificial product that behaves like real bone would reduce the need for cadavers. It would be easier and less costly for scientific research to be done.

The Department of Defense has expressed interest in the team’s research for uses such as testing body armor, he said.

Dalman said he needs “human body data,” such as CAT scans and MRIs, as well as funding, such as through a Kickstarter campaign.

Kansas City roots 1 Million Cups was born out of the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.-based nonprofit focused on entrepreneurship and education.

Kauffman staff didn’t really know the entrepreneurs in their own backyard, said Taylor Brown, program coordinator. And they found the entrepreneurs there weren’t talking about what they did, especially across industries, she said.

The first event in Kansas City had 12 people in the audience, including Kauffman staff. Slowly it’s grown to more than 250 a week, Brown said.

The first 1 Million Cups in another city was in Des Moines, Iowa, in November 2012. As of January, it was in 23 cities, and by next week it will be in 50, Brown said.

Brown described the success of Fargo’s event as “a little dream.” She credited its organizers and the energy of the event.

“Some of our more successful 1 Million Cups, they’re not necessarily in the really big cities,” Brown said. “They’re in the cities that need it.”

Sherri Richards

Sherri Richards has worked for The Forum since 2002. She is the features and business editor, overseeing Variety, SheSays, Farmers' Forum, the daily Business pages and Saturday Business section.     Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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