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Quad Cities: Forming a startup ecosystem

Quad Cities Startup Community

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.”

Quad Cities: Forming a startup ecosystem | 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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