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BLAEDC: Entrepreneurs find a technology-friendly home in the Brainerd lakes area

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Brent Backhaus2 / 4
Ben Gibbs3 / 4
Jim Mayne4 / 4

Brent Backhaus knows a thing or two about technology, but that's to be expected from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who helped pioneer teleradiology and telemedicine, and whose name is on a lengthy list of patents and multi-billion dollar technology contracts with the U.S. Navy.

Backhaus is a proven problem-solver and entrepreneur, who spent two decades helping develop technology that changed the healthcare industry. But the Crosslake man's recent technological project hits a little closer to home and is far more personal—and unique. It's called Living Window, a way for Alzheimer's patients to enjoy personal videos.

The idea came to Backhaus after realizing that his father-in-law, who has Alzheimer's, wasn't entertained by normal cable TV programming. But when he watched family videos, he was thoroughly engaged. So Backhaus went to work.

Months later, Backhaus had developed a system for Alzheimer's patients to easily turn on the TV to watch videos from a playlist created by their family members. The components include a TV, a mini computer-like Chromebox that attaches to the TV and software that Backhaus developed.

The TV is decorated like a window, with trim around the edges and curtains that match the room's décor. When the curtains are opened, sensors turn on the TV and start the video playlist, which could draw from YouTube or other related websites. Family members can update the playlist remotely using an online application. The idea is to give Alzheimer's patients the feeling that they're looking through a window at familiar people, places or activities, and to give family members who may live far away the ability to maintain direct and intimate involvement with their loved one.

Backhaus is convinced that Living Window (www.mylivingwindow.com) will be effective when it eventually hits the market later this year, he said. It's still in the development and testing stages.

The one thing that made it easier for Backhaus to develop the product was the availability of reliable high-speed internet service, which is provided through a fiber optic network throughout the Brainerd lakes area, including Crosslake, Crosby, Motley and down to Little Falls, he said.

"The reliability and speed has been exceptional," Backhaus said. "That part of the technology is better than anywhere else I've worked. Throw the Cloud into the equation and the area's capabilities become as good as any data center I've ever used."

Entrepreneurs like Backhaus are thriving in the Brainerd lakes area because of the high-speed internet service available here through a fiber optic network, which is available in few other rural markets throughout Minnesota. Homegrown entrepreneurs are taking advantage of it but the area also is attracting others from outside the market for that same reason, said Sheila Haverkamp, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation.

"The area's high-speed internet service plays a critical role in the decision-making process of many entrepreneurs considering markets in which to start a technology-related business," she said. "For the last decade, our fiber optic network has been an important factor in helping startup companies grow and succeed here. And now we're getting noticed from others throughout the state."

Ben Gibbs is another successful entrepreneur who owns online businesses that require high-speed Internet access. The founder and owner of Crosslake Sales, Gibbs moved his family to the Crosslake area from the Twin Cities in 2003. While cellphone coverage was spotty at the time, "we had better internet service here than we did in the Twin Cities," he said.

The internet connection allowed Gibbs to sell his business in the Twin Cities and start up Crosslake Sales in 2006.

"You can live anyplace as long as you can stay in contact with others," Gibbs said. "We needed high-speed internet when we started the business, and we knew Crosslake had it, so it made our decision easy."

Crosslake Sales specializes in liquidating bicycles and bicycle components and accessories. Gibbs buys and sells products from around the world and has more than 50,000 square feet of warehouse space in the Brainerd lakes area for warehousing. He also has two other sporting goods-related companies to complement his online businesses. He has more than 10 full-time employees.

Jim Mayne was in the same boat in 2000 when he moved to Deerwood from the Twin Cities to start Deerwood Technologies after working in information technology for more than 20 years.

Offering technical services requires reliable and fast internet service, Mayne said, which allows him and his five technicians to easily connect with customers.

Like most tech companies, Deerwood Technologies has had to continually modify the types of services it offers to reflect the changing needs of its customers. Currently, the company helps its customers move their business systems to the Cloud, manages computer security services, and provides network and server support.

Mayne said most of his customers are located within 60 miles of Deerwood but others are located throughout the state, some with international offices.

"We don't require the bandwidth of high-speed internet here because we don't host client data or systems on the premises," Mayne said. "What we need is reliability. The infrastructure is a big, big plus here. If we didn't have it, we'd probably be located somewhere else. We are every bit as dependent on the infrastructure—you have to be connected."

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