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NUBRIC unveils Project Spark tech plans

Paul Wassel shows New Ulm's 3M building to begin his presentation. He acknowledged the 75th anniversary of D-Day and past accomplishments of the New Ulm area.

NEW ULM–The New Ulm Business Resource and Innovation Center unveiled Project Spark at the New Ulm Community Center on Wednesday.

The Project, created as a collaboration between NUBRIC and the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), explores the idea of building and supporting a technology economy in New Ulm. This includes incorporating more tech into current sectors like agriculture and creating a place for companies focused on tech.

NUBRIC’s president and CEO Paul Wessel was the first speaker for Project Spark. He stressed technology is vital for the success of manufacturing and agriculture in the future. Of the top eight trends in both manufacturing and agriculture, the main theme is software.

“AI, software. Advanced robotics, software. Additive manufacturing, software. Cybersecurity, software. Precision and regenerative agriculture, software.” Wessel said.” “You see a theme occurring here… it ain’t your grandpa’s farm anymore.”

Wessel ended his presentation by displaying the power of artificial intelligence. A computer program called ChatGPT was asked to do tasks previously only done by humans. These included creating a logic program for automatically shutting off lights and writing a press release for the city of New Ulm.

Matt Dunne emphasizes a point as he concludes his presentation. He believes New Ulm is a good fit for a tech economy.

The program was able to complete these tasks with human-like accuracy and depth in thirty seconds or less. He used this to explain AI like ChatGPT can greatly enhance the development of software for manufacturing and agriculture businesses.

NUBRIC and CORI have several partnerships planned and already running to increase Project Spark’s possible success in New Ulm.

The Rural Innovation Initiative enables strategic planning of a tech economy over a three-year period. CORI is currently working on bringing New Ulm into this. And if successful, New Ulm could join 38 other communities from across the country called the Rural Innovation Network. This network seeks to strengthen planned tech economies in these rural areas.

Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is bringing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics focused learning to children of all ages in New Ulm Schools. The program is already approved and has been implemented in four area schools, such as Minnesota Valley Lutheran and Martin Luther College. NUBRIC is currently working on bringing the curriculum to New Ulm’s public schools as early as this year.

Founder and Executive Director of CORI Matt Dunne spoke next. Before CORI, Dunne had created and run Google’s Community Affairs division which sought to bring fast internet across rural America.

State Representative Paul Torkelson listens to the Project Spark presentation.

Dunne created CORI in 2017 to build prosperous economies in rural areas. He used how the 2008 recession continued to negatively impact rural communities after the fact as a catalyst for this idea.

“After the 2008 recession, there was not an equal recovery.” Dunne said. “Urban places came roaring right back, but rural, not so much. And COVID hit, everyone went down. Rural went to a new low in terms of jobs and the recovery once again has not been equal after that economic shock.”

Dunne has found the tech economy is what the manufacturing economy was 40 years ago. “They are the best opportunity for communities to import cash and export value.” Dunne said. “To be able to add jobs that have been growing at three times the average rate, but also ones that are able to bring higher paying jobs for the longer term. And for each computer and math job. There are usually other jobs that come along with it.”

He believes that widespread access to fast internet and increased venture capital in rural communities make New Ulm a uniquely strong area to develop a tech economy.

He ended by joking about the characteristics New Ulm has for success. “The real keys to rural economic development are the three b’s which are broadband, blues and beer. You can imagine New Ulm is already way ahead.” Dunne said.

Wessel added after Dunne’s presentation that New Ulm using an independent energy grid provides even more strength as it significantly reduces blackouts and brownouts. These outages could compromise cybersecurity and cripple companies and sectors that rely on tech.

The event ended with Paul Wessel announcing plans for a Project Spark technology campus located in New Ulm.

“It includes a state-of-the-art stem, robotics, and automation lab, college level classrooms, software development suites, eight business incubator and accelerator spaces, and commercial warehouse rental space.” Wessel said.

The campus would cost $6-8 million. NUBRIC and CORI are pursuing several funding avenues for this project, including federal and state grants, selling energy from a proposed solar farm, and taking a percentage from business using the warehouse and business spaces.

State Representative Paul Torkelson believes Project Spark could be successful with the trend of migration to New Ulm. “I think it’s very positive. New Ulm has a tremendous amount of potential.” Torkelson said “We’ve already seen some demographic changes where people are moving, especially to the Lakes Region in Minnesota establishing permanent homes and working from home. I think we could see the same sort of movement here into New Ulm.”

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