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Des Moines: Wrapping up 2017 to preview 2018

Des Moines

Our review of 2017 and preview of 2018 ends in Des Moines.

A lot can happen in 365 days and we wanted to speak with somebody who’s submerged in the Des Moines startup community to give us an insider’s view.

Mike Colwell, the Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Initiatives at Square One DSM, works with a lot of entrepreneurs and startups companies in Central Iowa.

We asked him to put a bow on 2017 and preview what’s in store for the Des Moines startup ecosystem in 2018.

Our Q&A is below:

Talk about the growth with Iowa’s startup ecosystem and specifically Des Moines during your time with the Partnership and Square One…

MC: In eleven years, I have seen a “non-ecosystem” become a fairly strong ecosystem. In 2007, the idea of a startup was a foreign concept to most business people. Few could identify a startup in Iowa. Angel investors were hard to come by. Some were active but on their own or in a private network. There was almost no peer networking.

All of that has changed.

What did you not expect that turned out to be a welcome surprise? And what challenges have you faced that you weren’t anticipating?

MC: I did not expect the explosion of interest in startups in 2009 and 2010 during the economic disaster. While some came into the startup world primarily because they could not find a job, more came into the world to become a builder.

Look back at the year of 2017, what were some of the biggest stories to come out of the startup community in Central Iowa?

MC: 2017 saw a lot of maturing. I am not sure there was one big story. To me a big story was the number of new investors both in the Midwest and in central Iowa.

How did The Partnership and Square One help?

MC: I think a key benefit we are providing is in the area of getting ready to raise capital. As the ecosystem matures, more startups are seeking larger rounds of capital. In 2017 we started a specific program to help those raising “A” rounds and other large rounds.

Look ahead to 2018, what are you anticipating for Des Moines in 2018?

MC: I believe we will see a further expansion of capital raised. We have several startups and growth companies raising large rounds of capital next year.

Anything we should be anticipating from Square One?

MC: More focus on financials for startups and raising capital

What companies should we keep an eye on in 2018?

MC: Too many to name! If I had to pick one, it would be Rocket Referrals. Successful startups are rare. Successful boot-strapped startups are very rare. Carl and Tory are doing great!

What industries should we keep an eye on in 2018?

MC: Insurance and Ag.

If you were bringing a newcomer to Des Moines and wanted to show off the city and the startup community to them, where would you go?

MC: I would introduce them to a number of peer startups in the ecosystem. That would give them a broad view of the environment.

Des Moines: Wrapping up 2017 to preview 2018 | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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