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App to tackle loneliness: Working out of what once was the ballroom in Sinclair Lewis' Duluth home, MC-Cubed’s staff develops new technology

MC-Cubed CEO Nate Lipinski poses for a portrait in the startup's office space with a 3D printed logo for his new app Platonic on Wednesday. The non-dating app will allow people to connect in a platonic way. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service1 / 5
MC-Cubed’s new product, a social media app called Platonic that, as the name suggests, is about friendship, not dating. Submitted photo2 / 5
MC-Cubed product design engineer Trace Drechsler works on his computer in the startup's office space Wednesday. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service3 / 5
Members of the MC-Cubed team work in the startup's office space Wednesday afternoon, April 17. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service4 / 5
Gov. Tim Walz (left) and Melissa Hortman, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, asks questions of Nathan Lipinski, the CEO of MC-Cubed during a“Shark Tank” style event at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Hermantown on Wednesday, April 17. Clint Austin / Forum News Service5 / 5

DULUTH --This is what the 4 p.m. meeting looks like at MC-Cubed, one of Duluth’s newest startups and the only one that has its headquarters in the top-floor ballroom of the home once owned by author Sinclair Lewis:

Trace Drechsler, the product design engineer, and Cole Fisher, the HR director, are sitting at a rectangular table in a part of the room called The Box, Drechsler working at a laptop, Fisher taking notes.

Darren Shuster, the PR guy from Los Angeles — in for the week — is leaning back in a chair at a round table to the side, encouraging the others to take slices of pie from two boxes of Pizza Luce.

Nathan Lipinski, the 25-year-old CEO, passes through, smartphone in hand. All are in stocking feet — house rules. Most of the 12-person crew has not arrived. Some still are in classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Franklin the dog wanders in and out.

It’s an unconventional staff meeting in an unconventional space that’s the heart of an unconventional — at least by Duluth standards — company. To an outsider, it’s difficult to see what is work and what is play.

“This is exactly what startups look like in Silicon Valley,” says Shuster, whose company is called Pop Culture PR. “Colorful, fun and designed to express creativity and a work-lifestyle balance. And no cubicles.”

Lipinski, from Zimmerman, Minn., has appeared in these pages before, for his development of StarShip, a device that can determine if shipped items such as vaccines are at the proper temperature. As a first-year medical student two years ago, he won the UMD Shark Tank competition with the gizmo, which MC-Cubed still is in the process of developing.

But Shuster was brought in — at his instigation — to help market MC-Cubed’s new product, a social media app called Platonic that, as the name suggests, is about friendship, not dating.

“Dating apps are for dating,” Lipinski said earlier this week. “Facebook is for friends you already have. And Twitter is for people who don’t have anybody to text to. So, we wanted to create this activity-driven platform.”

Already being marketed to the 18-34-year-old demographic, Platonic will be available in the app store by May 1, said Lipinski, who is taking a year off from medical school to develop it and his company.

It works like this:

The user clicks on to the Platonic app and can choose between two broad categories: active or social. Each has four subcategories — outdoor, crafts and hobbies, workout and team sports for “active” and nightlife, food and drink, games and movies and sightseeing for “social.”

The person clicks on one of the subcategories, known as “bins,” and then can type in the completion of a sentence that begins “I would like to …” but only has 15 letters to do so. Lipinski’s example is “watch anything Disney.”

That “headline” appears for six hours, allowing other people in the same area with similar interests to spot it and agree to get together and watch Disney.

Lipinski came up with the idea for the app, he said, as a response to the loneliness epidemic. That really is a thing. Cigna Corp., the insurance company, produces an annual survey on the topic. Last year, Cigna reported that nearly half of Americans surveyed said they sometimes or always feel alone or left out.

He saw loneliness around him in medical school, said Lipinski, a UMD graduate in biochemistry who attended the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota Medical School for two years.

“I saw (loneliness) was an equal-opportunity offender,” he said. “It didn’t matter where you came from, what kind of person you were. It affects everybody.”

He thinks people can uplift one another’s moods better than any drug can, Lipinski said. He wants to use Platonic as a means to bring people with common interests together.

The purpose may be altruistic, but Lipinski has identified five ways in which Platonic will produce revenue. Among them is data acquisition, he said. Although individual identities will be protected, companies relish the general information that will be available.

“Where are males, ages 20 to 34 … going?” Lipinski asked, rhetorically. “What are they doing? … What’s popular right now? So that data is very valuable.”

Lipinski seems to have an uncanny ability to attract support. He raised more than $6,500 in a Kickstarter campaign and a couple of investors, he said. He hired six part-time employees, but the rest of the staff are working without pay.

Fisher, who processes the payroll, isn’t on the payroll. She became friends with Lipinski after meeting him a few years ago in a biology lab at UMD, and she wants to help out.

“I’m a sucker for a good cause,” she explained. “Nate’s been a good friend.”

Drechsler, who graduated last May with a degree in industrial engineering, is paid but had job offers that would have paid more, he said. The Cloquet native wanted to stay in the area and liked the idea of a startup.

“The work atmosphere is great,” said Drechsler, 24. “The culture is awesome. … I came in as a design engineer, and I’ve been doing things that I would never have dreamt of doing as a design engineer.”

Lipinski said he’s excited about the opportunity to keep engineering talent in Duluth. In a presentation to Gov. Tim Walz at the Natural Resources Research Institute on Wednesday, he crunched data from job listings and the number of computer science and engineering students in Duluth to conclude that the city loses 1,800 talented individuals over four years because there are no jobs to match their abilities.

Walz asked if the people on Lipinski’s staff would leave Duluth if it weren’t for the opportunity at MC-Cubed. “Yes,” Lipinski said.

That staff is taking on additional challenges as an engineering incubator and in app development. Silverware, a version of Platonic adapted for the 50-65-year-old set, will come out late this year or early next year.

“I don’t think (Platonic) is my last endeavor at all,” Lipinski said. “I think we’ll keep creating and developing new applications and software.”

Online

Learn more about MC-Cubed at mc-cubed.com

Learn more about Platonic at beplatonic.com