Cedar Rapids: Putting a bow on 2017 plus a preview of 2018

Our review of 2017 and preview of 2018 continues in Eastern Iowa with Cedar Rapids.

Aaron Horn, Chief Operating Office of NewBoCo—the Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit that works with startup companies—looked back at what 2017 was like for the local startup community, companies to keep an eye on in 2018 and the future of NewBoCo.

Our Q&A is below:

Talk about how the first six months have gone in your new role first…

Aaron Horn, Chief Operating Officer of NewBoCo. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaplan/NewBoCo
AH: I took on the role of Chief Operating Officer at the beginning of September and added the responsibility of Executive Director the day Eric got on an airplane heading for Costa Rica (December 8th) to start his 8-month sabbatical. It has been pretty much exactly as I expected. Very fast paced, huge goals, and aggressive ideas! The staff at NewBoCo are some of the most driven and ambitious people I’ve ever met. We have really been working on laying out the plans and budgets for 2018 so we can continue executing on the big ideas we have.

What challenges have you faced that you weren’t expecting? What surprises have been welcomed?

AH: I don’t think I’ve been surprised by much since I was fortunate enough to enter the organization from the Board Chair position where I already knew the people, I knew the projects, and I knew the goals. It was largely a matter of switching from thinking about those things on a part-time basis to thinking about them full-time (which I love). I think one of the biggest challenges has been around explaining to the community outside of the “startup world” what it is that we do at NewBoCo. Even internally we seemed to have slightly different messaging, so we’ve been working on tightening up our communication around what our programs are and how they support the areas of Entrepreneurship, Education, and Corporate Innovation.

What were some of the biggest stories in 2017 to come out of the startup community in Eastern Iowa?

AH: The Rockwell Collins acquisition was obviously a huge story here in Cedar Rapids. We’re still waiting to see what the impact of that will be on our community, but it could be transformational. GoDaddy started GoCommunities, an entrepreneur support program with the Jane Boyd Community House in Cedar Rapids and I think it’s phenomenal. We also saw the first female founder focused coworking space, The Dostal House, launch in the NewBo district of Cedar Rapids in July, which is pretty cool. Another story that I’m not sure is getting as much attention as it should is how the NewBo City Market has really been acting as a sort of “restaurant incubator” for new food industry ideas that companies are really expanding out of. It’s a really cool thing to see happening in Cedar Rapids and we’re fortunate at NewBoCo to have it right across the street.
From a NewBoCo perspective, we had one Iowa Startup Accelerator team (SwineTech) close on $1.3M in investment and two of their founders were named to Forbes 30 under 30. We also brought back EntreFEST after a year-long hiatus and I think it was clear that it was missed, so we’re really excited to be bringing it to Cedar Rapids in 2018. We also launched the Corridor Angel Investors network in 2017 and have made early connections with other Angel groups in the Midwest to help boost the startup deal flow, which is great for both investors and startups alike.

Look ahead to 2018, what are you anticipating for Cedar Rapids and NewBoCo?

AH: NewBoCo launched quite a few new initiatives in 2017, so 2018 is really going to be a year of focusing on the growth of those programs. We launched the Corridor Angel Investor network and are partnering with ICAD in Iowa City to grow a really powerful mentor network. We are also designing a healthcare related mentor network with the MedQuarter Regional Medical District. Speaking of great partners, we’re going to bring EntreFEST to Cedar Rapids in 2018 with the help of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance! We’re actively reaching out to potential partners to grow and expand our DeltaV code school (the only adult code school in Iowa) beyond Cedar Rapids if there is a demand for it elsewhere around the state. Since we are the regional Code.org partner for the state of Iowa, we’re also looking to really grow the number of teachers who are qualified to teach computer science in their middle and high schools. Hopefully, you see a theme here that we aren’t doing these things alone. The word “Collaborative” is in our name for a reason.

Anything we should be on the look for?

AH: Like I said, our focus will be on “growth” more than “new”, but we’re not taking “new” off of the table completely! For example, we’re exploring the idea of launching a Social Good Accelerator in partnership with the United Way of East Central Iowa, which takes our expertise in the startup accelerator model and applies it to the nonprofit world. We are also introducing a new innovation program that we announced at Launch Day called the Intrapreneur Academy, which is a year-long academy for cross-functional teams that includes trainings, events, tours, and guest speakers through themed quarterly opportunities. We have some changes coming for the Iowa Startup Accelerator as well.

What companies should we keep an eye on in 2018?

AH: I’m clearly biased and will tell you that every team in our Iowa Startup Accelerator program is a team to watch in 2018! I think companies that have been building momentum like SwineTech and SmartScripts are going to have a big year, and the Corridor Angel Investors are currently doing due diligence on several interesting health tech companies.

What industries should we keep an eye on in 2018?

AH: Transportation, health tech, and blockchain (not necessarily cryptocurrencies, that’s different).

If you were bringing a newcomer to Cedar Rapids and wanted to show off the city and the startup community to them, explain what you would do?

AH: Obviously, I’d start by giving them a tour of the 415 building here in the NewBo district of Cedar Rapids. Preferably on a Friday at 3pm, because those tours end with our weekly “Whiskey Friday” community get together, where we celebrate the week’s wins over, well, whiskey and other beverages. I’d also introduce them to the work being done at the EDC, JPEC, the SBDC, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance (and more) and then ask them why they’d want to build their business anywhere else. To be fair, I’d also take them down to Iowa City and introduce them to people like Mark Nolte at ICAD and show them how connected our startup ecosystem is here in Eastern Iowa and what a powerful mentor and investor network we have.

Tell us something people might not know about the Cedar Rapids startup community and NewBoCo.

AH: I know it can seem as though NewBoCo “has a ton of programs” and sometimes it’s hard to see how it all connects, but I like to show people how it actually does.  Our programs are interconnected, they feed into each other, they build on each other, and they fill gaps in the ecosystem at large. We teach people the skills they need to become innovators, and we help them break down the barriers that hold them back – whether it’s teaching students how to code, helping entrepreneurs raise capital, or working with a large organization to build a culture where innovation thrives. I also like to reiterate that we don’t do it alone. We do value partnerships and working with other organizations (in Cedar Rapids, in the “Creative Corridor,” in Central Iowa, and at a state level). Our goals are huge, but we know that together we can accelerate world-changing ideas. After all, #thisisiowa.