Bharat Pulgam skipped school when he was 14 to attend his first Twin Cities Startup Week event six years ago.
He has returned to it most years since, meeting angel investors and connecting with other young entrepreneurs who are now part of his team.
“I would print 50 business cards and would make sure I handed out all 50 by the end of the event,” said the 20-year-old, who is now working on his nearly two-year-old startup, Pikup, which helps neighbors connect so they can grab groceries for one another.
This year, such networking will be more challenging as Twin Cities Startup Week is going nearly all online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Pulgam said he will be part of the events, which start on Monday and will actually go on for the rest of the month.
“People who want to make the best of the opportunity will, even if it’s all virtual,” he said. “It’s one time for the community to come together so I definitely want to be a part of that.”
They will have a lot to discuss, such as how the pandemic has brought more interest to some startups, while throwing a wrench into the business models of others. It’s also led some startups such as Pulgam’s to pivot in new directions.
More than 17,000 people attended last year’s startup week, which has been growing every year. While organizers aren’t sure if they will top last year’s attendance, they note that having a virtual conference will open it up to a broader audience to those who live in other parts of the state or the U.S.
Casey Shultz, executive director of Beta, which organizes startup week, knows it will be difficult to replicate the spirit of some of the events online, such as an annual showcase of startups, which brought 1,100 people to TCF Stadium last year.
“You can only imagine the energy, the connections, the organic meetings that take place at an event like that,” she said.
“I think people are feeling a little sad that it’s going to look different this year, but we’re also trying to bring as many of those elements to it.”
One key way is by picking a software platform, Hopin, which will allow attendees to virtually connect with each other in many ways, including one feature that randomly pairs participants for a five-minute video chat.
There will be a couple of in-person, socially distanced events, too, including the kickoff party on the patio of Lake Monster Brewing, but the vast majority of panels and events will be online.
Another adjustment this year is that startup week’s 200 events will be spread out over three weeks instead one so attendees don’t get burnt out from staring at their computer and still have time to get other work done.
“This is an incredibly important event for our state to shine a spotlight on our startup community,” said Neela Mollgaard, executive director of Launch Minnesota, a state-run initiative to nurture entrepreneurship across the state.
“And so for Beta to be able to pivot and still be able to have this even in a virtual platform, I applaud their efforts.”
While there have been some increased challenges for startups such as securing funding during the pandemic, she noted that there’s been a 21.6% increase in new business filings in the state from June to mid-July compared to a year ago, a sign that entrepreneurs are seizing the moment.
At the same time, Ryan Broshar, a Twin Cities-based partner of venture capital fund Matchstick Ventures, said he’s seeing more willingness from coastal firms to invest in startups in this market since they are now doing most of their meetings remotely.
“There’s less of a need for them to jump on an airplane,” he said. “They’re more willing to hop on a Zoom.”
And he said the pandemic has also spurred some people who live on the coasts who have roots or connections to Minnesota to think about moving back here, providing a potential pipeline of more talent to the region.
Twin Cities Startup Week has a fly-in program that usually brings in 50 people from outside the region to try to convince them to do just that — relocate here. It’s what led Shultz to move to the Twin Cities herself a year and a half ago from San Francisco.
This year, that program will also be virtual with participants being connected to a concierge recruiter who will help connect them to local companies that are hiring.
Pulgam, of Pikup, said he’s looking forward to catching up with colleagues during startup week.
Before the pandemic, he used to run into people on the streets downtown or when visiting WeWork offices and get quick updates on how they’re doing. But that’s not happening as much anymore with most startups now working remotely.
He has a lot of news to share himself. His startup, which was initially called Runerra, was focused on college campuses.
But when students packed up as universities moved to online instruction in March, his target audience disappeared. So he and his team hustled to use the same idea but to apply it to helping neighbors pick up groceries for one another.
“We’ve had a lot of success with that,” he said. The app is now being used in about 250 neighborhoods across the Twin Cities and has landed a partnership with the Kowalski’s grocery chain.