Lindsey Hillesheim leads AI strategy and solutions development efforts at Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Before returning to her home state, Hillesheim was inspired by her experience providing scientific and technical expertise to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Washington, D.C. She aims to illuminate the science and engineering talent in Minnesota, applying the DARPA model to regional problem-solving. Hillesheim brings a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Minnesota to the task. ESAL interviewed Hillesheim about her path to engagement to help the state’s entrepreneurs actualize their ideas.
DR: What is your goal in the Minnesota science and engineering sector?
Hillesheim: I feel strongly that there is tremendous, untapped science and engineering talent in Minnesota. Scientists and engineers who have a spirit of innovation will be invaluable for addressing the biggest, hardest challenges this region faces. It requires that people with those technical backgrounds are supported and mentored to become entrepreneurial, and given room to innovate. The cutting-edge science and tech that occurs in this region should make it stand out as a renowned leader in solving fundamental problems. I think COVID-19 has been a chance for the state to see how those resources can be marshalled quickly to address challenges.
DR: What are Minnesota’s assets in terms of science and technology?
Hillesheim: Minnesota has a long history of innovation in areas such as food and agriculture (e.g., General Mills, Land O Lakes, Cargill), medical and healthcare technology (e.g., Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Optum, Ecolabs), and computer science around IT and security – innovation that is largely unknown outside of the state. The start-up ecosystem in Minnesota (the Twin Cities in particular) has launched during the last decade, with corporations playing a key role in supporting that growth. This points to a strong contingent of scientists and engineers who have appetites for, and the ability to deliver on, long-term critical technologies.
DR: How did you get inspired to take on this work?
Hillesheim: I gained a perspective on what it means to go after hard, real-world problems during the time I spent in Washington, D.C. First, I was a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow working at the Department of State on biodefense and environmental health issues, delving into international policy. This gave me an appreciation for the role of policy in shaping how and what science and technology is focused on.
Then, through Strategic Analysis, Inc., I provided technical expertise to DARPA, which really gave me a window into how science and engineering can be harnessed to solve big problems and the importance of grounding those problems in the end user (in this case various parts of the armed services).
DR: You brought that perspective back to your home city of Minneapolis?
Hillesheim: Yes – upon returning to Minnesota, I directed business development for a small R&D business focused on problems at the intersection of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and systems engineering. I was well-positioned to cultivate strategic relationships and identify seed funding opportunities with federal programs, such as DARPA, NASA, and other agencies. I helped that business secure nearly $30M in federal R&D funding, but after more than six years I was laid off.
DR: I think a lot of people can relate these days. Since then, you’ve done some really interesting work. How did it come about?
Hillesheim: Honestly, through a reassessment of my professional identity. In the short-term, it refocused my energies on how to make a difference in my community and region. It was a difficult life test, out of which I founded Skylark Science, joined the advisory board of Launch Minnesota, became an advisor for U. Minnesota’s Venture Center, and a mentor for the MIN-Corps program.
DR: People say that every door closing opens other doors. It sounds like you were ambitious enough in your goals to open a variety of doors. How do you do it?
Hillesheim: I knew I had the background and knowledge that few people in the area have, with my Ph.D. plus experience in Washington, D.C. I realized that my professional identity stems from my own expertise and goals, not just who I worked for in that moment. That may seem obvious in retrospect, but it was a turning point for me. There are things in your career you cannot control, but there are things you can. I think as scientists and engineers we are wired to solve problems and be part of the solution – and even if you’re laid off, you can always find ways to solve problems and contribute to your community.
DR: Tell us about some of that new engagement you discovered. What is MIN-Corps, for example?
Hillesheim: MIN-Corps is a Minnesota innovation group funded by NSF. What I love is its mission to train STEM people at U. Minnesota – undergrads, postdocs, faculty – to translate their ideas and research into real products that can solve problems. I would have appreciated that training when I was a grad student because of the context it provides for your research.
Once someone gets some practice with design thinking, customer focus, and market analysis, etc., they start using it in other settings. A student may go on to a postdoc, but they will bring the new mindset.
DR: How does MIN-Corps relate to the U. Minnesota’s Venture Center that you also mentioned?
Hillesheim: The U. Minnesota Venture Center’s is sort of the next step from MIN-Corps. The Venture Center helps launch businesses based on UMN technologies. I am part of their advisory group. Both programs have been ways for me to contribute and learn myself from the other mentors who have deeper experience in marketing, product management, managing the regulatory environment, etc., than I possess.
DR: Do you feel that these U. Minnesota programs are getting attention at the state level?
Hillesheim: They are. Recently through a new, statewide initiative called Launch Minnesota, spearheaded by Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, they have rolled out virtual programs for MIN-Corps to support innovators across the state, not just those associated with UMN and/or the Twin Cities metro area. More broadly, Launch Minnesota aims to amplify Minnesota as an innovation leader through capital and community building.
One of the critical roles for government is to convene stakeholders and fill in gaps. For Minnesota, this means supporting start-ups and founders outside the Twin Cities, as well as those led by women, minorities, and veterans. We’re only a year into the program, so still learning, but I see some solid success. For me, the board has been a way to leverage my experience in grant programs (both reviewing and proposing), bring my policy experience to the state level, and support promising start-ups who have had more limited access to resources and opportunity.
DR: You have a small company yourself. Does that help you mentor other entrepreneurs?
Hillesheim: Yes, my company SkyLark Science helps small businesses get federal funding for R&D. This includes identifying opportunities, writing proposals, and strategizing for the long term. Minnesota has great science and engineering talent, but does not capture the federal funding for research and development to complement and grow our capabilities. I would like to see people view Minnesota as one of the top five technology states in the U.S. and capturing more federally funded R&D is a piece of that.
DR: How did your Ph.D. training shape your ability to do this hybrid science-business work?
Hillesheim: I specialized in biophysics, which is an interdisciplinary field. I was exposed to engineering, programming, machining, optics, photonics, all kinds of things I needed in order to do the research. I am naturally a generalist, having worked with a range of technical areas since my PhD – quantum physics, combustion physics, AI, cybersecurity, and systems engineering as well as applications in policy and business. I also have a graduate minor in history and philosophy of science, which helps ground me in the wider arc of scientific ideas and technology development and the people that shaped (or weren’t able to shape) those things.
DR: I would imagine that much of this work requires patience in waiting for outcomes, as launching businesses takes time. How do you stay grounded in the meantime?
Hillesheim: I stay grounded quite literally – through gardening! My young daughter and the Nokomis East Giving Garden help me find a space to connect on a very local level to my neighborhood. I spend so much time on the screen, so volunteering for the Giving Garden is a welcome respite that my 3-year-old can participate in. We bike to the gardens, get our hands in the dirt, and know that the food produced will go to needy neighbors.
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