Quad Cities: Forming a startup ecosystem

As the organizer of the Ignite Quad Cities Entrepreneurs Meetup, Julie Forsythe remembers when she would be having coffee with herself or one other person.

But now Forsythe—the Vice President of Entrepreneurship & Innovation for the Quad Cities Chamber—doesn’t have that issue anymore.

The growing attendance is part of the plan to “Ignite Quad Cities,” a spotlight series of meetups for entrepreneurs around the six-county area in Iowa and Illinois that is considered the Quad Cities. Rock Island, Ill. hosted the first meetup, which included a panel discussion on what resources are available to local businesses. Meetups are planned for Moline and East Moline in Illinois and Davenport, Clinton and Muscatine in Iowa.

“The whole point is to make sure we are as much as possible, letting people know the resources that can help in the region for whatever stage you might be at,” Forsythe says.  “This is useful to people looking to start a business but also useful to even small businesses in existence.”

Where it started from

At the suggestion of David Tominsky—Iowa State Accelerator Program Manager—Forsythe started the first meetup two years ago. She now hosts three different meetups each month, two in the morning and one in the evening.

The evening meetup features the startup series discussion.

“People are thirsty for information, specifically in the areas of technology, digital marketing, sales and social media,” Forsythe says. “So we’ve brought in speakers to help these people understand how they can build their business better.”

Forsythe says at these meetups, businesses collaborate with each other for business and their own services.

“Whereas before, those conversations weren’t happening,” Forsythe says.

Riverbend Angels

Because of the Ignite Quad Cities meetups and an existing partnership between Eastern Iowa Community College and the University of Iowa, Riverbend Angels formed in 2017.

Tom Trone retired from John Deere in 2015 but remains an entrepreneurship professor at Illinois State University. He is one of the founding Principals of Riverbend Angels.

Trone said Riverbend Angels is looking for early-stage companies and currently has five investors. He hopes to increase that number to 12 by the end of 2018.

“It’s a network of people with like-minds who have a sincere interest in helping seed new ventures in our states,” Trone said. “But not somebody saying my wife and I were thinking about starting a restaurant.”

The Riverbend Angel portfolio includes two Iowa-based companies:

  • Terva – An AgTech company based in Ames
  • Watchpoint – A cybersecurity firm based in Cedar Rapids

Trone said Riverbend Angels also has two out-of-state investments, a hydraulics company in California and an AgTech company in Ireland.

“A variety of different investments but in each of these cases they are in sectors that we as individuals have experience with,” Trone said. “So any money investment comes with expertise and experience that the entrepreneur needs as much as money.”

Trone said the Angel Investor Tax Credit was also a motivator.

“The fact you can take your credit off your state taxes in local businesses is a strong incentive,” Trone says.

Riverbend Angels haven’t a set number of businesses for its portfolio but each individual investor is asked to invest $50,000 a year.

“And I’ve been working to network with the angel investment and venture capital networks in Iowa and Illinois where our group can connect into a larger deal,” Trone said.

Venture school partnership

Forsythe said the Quad Cities has a variety of businesses at various stages of development, from retail to technology-based solutions and graphics creation.

She says 24 companies have gone through venture school and another cohort is starting this month. The program is eight weeks and is offered through a partnership with Eastern Iowa Community College and the University of Iowa.

“There’s a gentleman…his product through venture school uses UV light to clean services and eliminates serious pathogens,” Forsythe explained. “We are always recruiting teams and letting them know this opportunity exists for their business.”