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Brain exchange: An old building rises to prominence as a creative tech center


A historic Minneapolis building, once given over entirely to commodities like wheat and rye, is turning into a major high-tech center in the Twin Cities.
This story originally appeared in The Line.

Constructed in 1901, the Grain Exchange building still holds much of its original charm, with intricate flourishes in the ceiling, a hushed marble lobby, and small hallways that seem perfect for grain traders rushing like rabbits to get back to their warrens.
 
Grain is still exchanged here, in fact, but other offices are taken by a wealth of law firms and government agencies. But there's more. Nestled at the corner of 4th St. and 4th Ave. in downtown Minneapolis,the building seems an unlikely place for a major technology hub, but that's precisely what's happening.
 
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called the building "the brain exchange," and although that sounds vaguely neurological instead of digital, there's plenty of exchange occurring. From the vast, open floor of coworking space CoCo to the brightly hued offices of the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA) to the unrented spaces that have entrepreneurs making expansion plans, the Grain Exchange has become less about commodities and more about high-tech community.
 
The CoCo effect
 
"There's such a cross-pollination here, in terms of design and programming and strategy. This building has become a great intersection point."A major part of the Grain Exchange's rise to prominence as a technology center stems from CoCo's place on the former trading floor. Entrepreneurs and innovators rent desks, or just work at one of the many long, open tables. The arrangement inspires conversation, creating networking opportunities that might not have happened otherwise. When companies grow enough to need their own offices, they often begin looking within the building, so they can still tap into CoCo's rich blend of talent and connections, says CoCo co-founder Don Ball. "Coming here was a function of opportunity, it had the space we needed. But as we started to look in other parts of the building, we realized what an amazing opportunity this presents."
 
He notes that CoCo is looking at some open offices on the same floor as its main space, and thinking about creating some "war rooms" for project development meetings.
 
Startup central
 
MHTA, which recently moved its offices from Roseville, chose the Grain Exchange because of proximity to CoCo--the tech association moved in right next door to the coworking group--and also because it saw an opportunity to be in a central location for technology startups. "We impact a broad variety of technology industries, but we felt that we could be doing more with emerging companies," says Andrew Wittenborg, MHTA's Director of Communications. "This building seems to be a center for that activity, so it made sense for us to come here and develop those relationships."
 
Part of the appeal for startups, as well as the tech association, is that rents are quite reasonable in the building, which fosters entrepreneurial growth. Also, since the building is located on the north edge of downtown, parking isn't much of a problem. Those factors are in contrast to an area like the Warehouse District, where popular restaurants, shops, and the Target Center can push rates up and limit parking options. Wittenborg's office looks out over a courthouse building on one side, and the police department on the other. There's not much traffic here, and that's another advantage. He says, "It's actually a pretty quiet part of downtown. That's nice, it gives you a chance to concentrate."
 
Moving on up
 
Some companies see the Grain Exchange building as a way to move downtown, while still staying connected to the technology community. When St. Cloud-based W3i began experiencing significant growth for its mobile monetization business, it looked to the building as a way to attract more developers. At first, the company rented an 8-person pod in the middle of CoCo, and then grew out of that space. "We were getting a little too big there, so we decided to open our own offices," says co-founder Rob Weber, noting that the company took a 3,000-square-foot space on the 10th floor.
 
"I think you'll see other companies taking our path," he says. "They might go to the building to network and connect with contractors, and then realize that it makes sense to have a more solid presence by locating offices there. I'm really interested to see how it gets built out in that organic way."
 
Culture shift
 
Although this is a digital age in which telework can bring the world together into a single computer screen, some entrepreneurs are finding that projects get done faster and better the old-fashioned way: face to face. "Technology companies are highly collaborative," says Ball. "They require deep expertise in certain skill areas, and having all that work done in person can speed up a project."
 
Non-virtual offices also prompt more casual conversation, which can lead to stronger idea generation, project development, and talent sharing. In a building like the Grain Exchange, just popping down to CoCo for a cup of coffee or stopping into the MHTA offices could kick off a business partnership.
 
"We have very sophisticated Internet tools, but having a core group here makes a lot of sense for what we do," says Alan Yelsey, founder and CEO of Knowledge Visualization Systems, a technology company on the 7th floor of the building. "We can go to CoCo and find some contractors when we need them. There's just such a great sense of knowing we're not alone here, we have resources that just an elevator ride away."
 
Another technology firm in the building, JAMF Software, also relies on the coworking group for talent. Managing Partner Chip Pearson notes, "There's such a cross-pollination here, in terms of design and programming and strategy. This building has become a great intersection point."
 
Growth -- and history
 
As more companies expand out from CoCo and move into open offices the Grain Exchange, it's likely that the building will become even more of a technology center than it is already. JAMF Software, for example, is pondering expansion into another floor. Wittenborg says, "There's quite a growing buzz here. I think we're all excited to see how this develops, and what happens when we have so many innovative technology companies in one place."
 
Although there's a strong and growing focus on innovation, there's also some comfort in the building's history, tying together the past and future for the companies that land there. "As you walk in, you just feel a sense of solidity, of beauty," says Yelsey. "There's so much history here, and it makes your pulse race a little bit. That's a great way to start a day."
 
Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.
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