A supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem delivers returns for the state.
Entrepreneurs in Iowa have a history of turning good ideas into successful businesses by leveraging a highly developed ecosystem that nurtures fledgling companies and helps them grow.
Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem includes world-class educational institutions, two research parks and highly regarded business incubator facilities and accelerator programs around the state.
John Pappajohn, a renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist, also organized and financed the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers at five different universities and colleges in the state, including the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. These centers have helped create and launch more than 1,000 companies.
“The climate is extremely welcoming, with many entrepreneurs and those who support them willing to help in any way they can,” says Jim Register, president and CEO of BioConnect Iowa. This public-private partnership promotes entrepreneurship in the state, particularly in the bioscience sector.
That support system reached out to help Jayson Ryner with the launch of ReEnvision Ag in Nora Springs. The startup company is fine-tuning a technology that will change the row crop farming industry.
Ryner’s system, called ReEnvision Ag Planting (REAP), improves soil conservation, sustainability, productivity and, ultimately, farm profitability.
Time For a Change
He began developing REAP following his decision to return to his family farm after pursuing a career in education and music.
After deciding “this is just how we do things” was not a good reason to continue with existing practices on the farm, Ryner tapped the resources of the North Iowa Area Small Business Development Center (SBDC) as well as the North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. He graduated from the NIACC division of the University of Iowa Venture School.
Almost all businesses in Iowa, 99% of them, fit the description of small businesses, and they are essential to a strong economy, says Stacy Dreyer, associate state director for America’s SBDC Iowa.
“The business counselors at America’s SBDC Iowa are passionate about working with entrepreneurs to help them not only launch and grow their business, but to be there every step of the way to provide training and resources needed for them to succeed. Their success is important to the business owner, their employees and their communities,” Dreyer says.
Gross-Wen Technologies is another business that is thriving in Iowa’s favorable climate.
The company was founded by Dr. Martin Gross and Dr. Zhiyou Wen to commercialize technology developed at Iowa State University. The technology is a cost-effective way to recover nutrients from wastewater.
In addition to being more affordable, Gross-Wen’s system produces algae biomass, which can be sold as a fertilizer or bioplastic.
The company has created 14 full-time jobs, mostly engineering and scientific positions. Gross expects revenues to grow from $500,000 in 2020 to $4 million in 2021.
The company has won USDA Small Business Research Innovation grants and the top prize in the 2017 Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition.
At BioConnect Iowa, the primary focus since 2018 has been on fostering growth in several bioscience areas, particularly with very early-stage efforts, many emerging out of universities. Measures like numbers of new startups, technology licenses out of those universities and investment are crucial, Register says.
BioConnect Iowa manages Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Research Outreach Program, which provides financial support to startups pursuing these federal grants as well as companies that receive these highly competitive awards.
Another focus is on federal funds that come back to Iowa in awards relative to the investment the state makes in the program. That tends to run between $5-to-$1 and $10-to-$1 for any given year, says Register.
“Because this program has been in place for several years, we have evolved from measuring numbers of applications supported to focusing on percentages of applications that receive awards,” Register says. “For several years, that has run well above national rates.”
Iowa’s innovation engine is powered by assets, including the state’s public research universities (the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa), which combined for more than $850 million in research expenditures in 2017 alone. That research often leads from the lab to the market, creating new companies and boosting Iowa’s economy. Iowa State’s Startup Factory, a 52-week program located at Iowa State University Research Park, moves startups from inception to investor-ready. Plus, the University of Iowa offers the Hawkeye Startup Accelerator, an 11-week program that includes workshops, sessions with experienced mentors, weekly pitches and lectures. The University of Northern Iowa offers the Early Founders Program, which allows students or recent graduates to focus on their startup or business idea over the course of eight weeks.
If you’d like to learn more about Iowa, check out the latest edition of This is Iowa.