Across a range of industries, Iowa sets the pace for innovation.
Powerhouse research assets, a talented workforce and a diverse industry base are a few of the factors that create a breeding ground for technology-oriented ventures in Iowa.
In industries as diverse as financial services, education and food production, Iowa is on the lead lap of innovation.
Iowa’s legacy industries have a long history of “fueling” innovation. The state’s rich history in agriculture spawned advances in biodiesel products, and the state now turns out more than a quarter of the nation’s ethanol.
That legacy in agriculture also is cultivating groundbreaking work in food production. PURIS, a family-owned company, founded in Oskaloosa and a key supplier of Beyond Meat, is building a food system to meet surging global demand. PURIS manufactures a spectrum of non-GMO, plant-based ingredients made from soy, pulses, lentils and corn. New products coming to the market include pea syrup as an alternative to brown rice, corn and tapioca syrups and sweet lupin flour, a low-carb, high-protein product perfect for baked goods.
Iowa is one of the nation’s top headquarters for finance and insurance, home to 6,800 companies in the sector. That deep bench has created a burgeoning financial technology component that includes companies such as Des Moines-based Dwolla, which provides online payment systems and mobile payment networks.
LenderClose, a West Des Moines company, develops technology geared to credit unions and community banks that helps them speed the loan underwriting process. It offers remote online notarization (RON) that lets borrowers sign documents from literally anywhere, including their homes, via secure video conferencing. It’s a technology the LenderClose team had been pushing hard on well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, in spring 2019, several of the company’s leaders actively lobbied the Iowa Legislature to legalize e-notary, which uses electronic services to notarize documents. Although e-notary and RON are different, e-notary’s approval was an essential first step that ultimately made it easier for Gov. Kim Reynolds to fast-track RON’s legalization in March 2020.
Andrew Deignan, LenderClose vice president of product & operations, says that in addition to proximity to Iowa State University and a slew of heavy-hitter business leaders, Iowa’s other attributes for financial technology innovation include a robust and open-door investor scene and a strong and active financial services community.
“The RON story is a perfect illustration of an essential fact – innovation is about much more than technology,” Deignan says. “Even when a fintech or another type of innovator moves fast, external forces have to be considered and actively pursued. Our world-class RON technology would still be sitting on a shelf if we did not take into account and take ownership of lawmakers’ understanding of the significant impact RON would have on our banking community and the state’s economy.”
Iowa nurtures technology enterprise through specialized accelerator programs that target some of the state’s fast-growth industries. The Global Insurance Accelerator, the world’s first business accelerator focused on insurance technology, was founded in 2015 and is based in Des Moines. The accelerator supports startups targeting the global insurance industry by giving them access to more than 75 insurance-focused mentors as well as office space and other benefits.
The Iowa EdTech Accelerator in Iowa City, an intensive, highly focused 14-week program, aims at early-stage (pre- or early-revenue) companies located in Iowa. The first cohort of four companies completed the program in July 2020. The EdTech Accelerator collaborates with regional business resources and education industry leaders, including Iowa City Area Development Group, the University of Iowa, Higher Learning Technologies, ACT and NewBoCo, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Head of the Class
Building on its heritage as home of companies such as McGraw-Hill and Higher Learning Technologies, Iowa is also a hub of education technology. Iowa’s emergence as an ed-tech hub has put it at the forefront of the COVID-19 response.
One example is Pear Deck, an Iowa City company whose student engagement platform is used by schools around the world to foster connections with students of every age and ability.
“When educators had to quickly transition to remote instruction during the pandemic, all of their normal routines got much harder or had to be changed entirely,” says Michal Eynon-Lynch, Pear Deck co-founder, COO and chief educator.
Since Pear Deck was already designed to give teachers individualized insight into student learning, the company became an essential way for teachers to stay connected to each student in their remote classroom.
During the spring pandemic school closures, Pear Deck added support for 250,000 new educators and 6 million students in remote classrooms worldwide. A survey of more than 1,000 Pear Deck users during the spring’s school closures revealed that over 91% of teachers considered Pear Deck to be an effective and essential tool for remote teaching.
“When building a technology startup, the implication is that you should move to the coasts to be near tech investors and mentors,” Eynon- Lynch says. “But for us, Iowa had the community and pace of life we wanted. Our goal isn’t incredible riches at all costs; our goal is to do good for the world while living a balanced and healthy life.”
Investors have taken notice of Pear Deck’s usefulness as an educational tool and in late 2020, the company merged with California-based GoGuardian to continue building upon their shared suite of offerings.
Mastering Material the ‘Mobile Way’
Developed in 2012, Higher Learning Technologies (HLT) is the market-leading platform for mLearning applications. Through the platform, students are able to use their smartphones to study for college admissions tests, classroom courses, professional certifications and licensure exams anytime, anywhere. CEO and co-founder Alec Whitters came up with the idea when he was a third-year dental student at the University of Iowa and was trying to find a mobile solution to flashcard studying.
HLT offers bite-sized, interactive content, which is perfect for busy learners, progress tracking, customized study plans and practice questions. Solutions are available for nursing, dental, medicine, business services, the military and college prep courses. Since its launch, the company has collected a number of accolades. In fact, 20 of its study solutions are on the App Store’s Top 100 grossing list.
If you’d like to learn more about Iowa, check out the latest edition of This is Iowa.