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Drake University: Offering a class exploring the Silicon Prairie

Drake University

A four-week class at Drake University has students in the information systems program examining and exploring the “Silicon Prairie.”

The class—Exploring the Silicon Prairie—is offered in the Spring J-term and looks at how the term “Silicon Prairie” was first coined and what the Midwest, specifically Iowa, offers from a tech and startup perspective.

This is the second year the class has been offered.

“We start off with like history, background, explaining what is the Silicon Prairie,” Alanah Mitchell, associate professor of Information Systems, said. “Then we talk about technology evolution, innovative and disruptive technologies and emerging technologies.”

After a history lesson, Mitchell scheduled tours of six different companies around Central Iowa to give students a glimpse into what it’s like to work in a startup or corporate environment.

She has tours scheduled with Dwolla, Principal, Workiva and Blue Compass.

“I want to show the students that you don’t have to be in silicon valley to have exciting tech stuff happening,” Mitchell says. “We have exciting tech stuff happening here.”

Spreading awareness of the startup community

Last week Mitchell brought her class to the Gravitate coworking space in downtown Des Moines to expose students to the idea of coworking and what kinds of companies take advantage of the space.

“It exposes them to different places that they may want to work,” Mitchell says. “And while they’ve had internships, that’s just one or two experiences. They don’t know what they like about small companies or big companies.”

And because the students get to meet with the founders and CEO’s of these companies, Mitchell hopes students get to have their questions answered.

“They get to find out answers to things they wouldn’t normally find out,” Mitchell says.

Adam Lathan is a sophomore who’s currently interning for an insurance startup in Des Moines and he admits to not knowing that Des Moines offered so much in terms of startup companies and resources for those companies.

“It’s been interesting because I was expecting it—the class—to be more about the process of what happens with startups,” Lathan, 20, says. “But it’s really been a lot more about an awareness and here’s what is going on.”

Lathan said he can see himself working for a startup or in a corporate environment and that this class is helping him understand where he would fit best.

“I’m able to see both sides and it’s been really interesting,” Lathan said.

Drake University: Offering a class exploring the Silicon Prairie | 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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