Planting seeds of innovation: the 3M Venture Fellows program
December 7, 2020

Both 3M and the University of Minnesota have introduced innovations that have changed the world. And when we partner with each other, this impact only grows. The 3M Venture Fellows program, launched by leaders at 3M and the U’s Venture Center, is one of the latest examples of all that is possible when we combine our strengths.


The 3M Venture Fellowship experience

The 3M Venture Fellows program was created to help high-potential 3M employees gain expertise in launching startups, while lending valuable insights to U researchers who are eager to share their innovations with the world

Piloted during the spring 2020 semester and held virtually due to COVID-19, the fellowship program has trained five employees so far from across 3M, including:

Mariah Swanson, transportation and electronics business group
Brooke Ortega, global safety training group
Lacey Smith, project management office
Corinne Lipscomb, corporate research lab
Priyanka Nepal, marketing analytics and business intelligence leader

The program featured seven sessions led by guest speakers from academia and industry who shared expertise on topics ranging from developing value propositions, to evaluating startups, to creating a pitch deck to earn investment. The fellows also participated in startup ecosystem events, met with local funding leaders, attended MIN-Corps startup classes, and discussed takeaways from a podcast called “The Pitch."

One of the highlights of the program was the opportunity for fellows to hear from and advise two University faculty members who are working to launch a startup that uses AI to improve communication between hospital patients, their physicians, and their care teams.

Mary MacCarthy, former 3M-er and program manager of the U’s Venture Center, says the experience delivered significant value to both the faculty and the fellows.

“Both of these faculty members are brilliant, very entrepreneurial, and want to learn. Pairing them with the 3M Venture Fellows was very valuable. The faculty received excellent insights into the functionality of their software, user experience, and more, while the fellows gained real-world experience in launching a startup.” As of fall 2020, the faculty were working on contract negotiations for a licensing agreement and had released a beta version of their software for testing by a major health care system.

Investing in women

Another benefit of the 3M Venture Fellows program has been its emphasis on getting women engaged in venture capital and startup work.

Ben Wright (pictured right), U alumnus and managing director of 3M Ventures, helped get the fellowship program off the ground. The fact that all of the inaugural Venture Fellows were women wasn’t by accident, he says. As a whole, women are underrepresented in these fields.

“This isn’t an issue that’s unique to 3M,” Wright explains. “It’s something that a lot of us are trying to focus on, whether it’s the tech industry, the finance world, and so on. To us, this is a great way to get women exposed earlier in their careers and to even train future recruits to 3M Ventures.”

Mariah Swanson (pictured left), U alumna and 3M data analyst, agrees. Swanson, one of the inaugural 3M Venture Fellows, served with Wright on the board of the 3M Women’s Leadership Forum and was instrumental in the launch of the Venture Fellows program. In partnership with Wright and MacCarthy, she worked with the forum to recruit high-potential women from across 3M to participate.

“There are a lot of gaps for women in the funding arena,” says Swanson. “The 3M Venture Fellows program was a reminder that if you have a great idea, you can make it into something. It introduces women to topics they might not be as readily exposed to in the workforce. Women are capable of doing anything they want, it’s just a matter of giving them the opportunity and exposure to new ideas or skillsets.”

On a personal level, Swanson explains that the fellowship helped her gain a new level of confidence when it comes to all that she is capable of in her career.

“I initially doubted my ability to help someone who’s starting a business,” she says. “The fact that I was able to advise a startup was a great reminder that I’m capable of helping someone understand what it takes to get a business up and running. The fellowship program changed how I look at my career and my experience at 3M.”

What’s next

Today, there is strong interest from both 3M and the U’s Venture Center in building on the Venture Fellows program. Plans are underway to further develop the program based on participant feedback and to offer it in the future to both 3M employees and employees from other local corporations as a certificate course called “Applied Venture Management.”

And at 3M, the desire to connect staff with professional development opportunities that grow expertise and encourage out-of-the-box thinking remains strong.

“We are always looking at disruptive technologies or business models that can change the world and impact our customers in a positive way,” says Wright. “The 3M Venture Fellows program offered a great way to get more 3M-ers engaged with the local startup ecosystem. By incorporating learning from the outside world, we increase startup thinking across the company and further accelerate that innovative spirit we have at 3M.”

“We are tapping into an existing innovative network with the U,” Swanson says. “It was refreshing to learn something new and to get connected with people from the University. To me, it’s forward-thinking. Our company is built on innovation, and it’s invigorating to look at new ways to carry that into our work."

To learn more about the 3M Venture Fellows program, contact Mary MacCarthy, University of Minnesota Venture Center program manager, at [email protected].

Photos courtesy of the University of Minnesota Venture Center, Ben Wright, and Mariah Swanson.

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