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Cedar Falls: Supporting a startup ecosystem

Mill Race Coworking

A part-time project turned into a full-time job.

In 2015, a group of individuals in Cedar Falls saw the lack of a network for entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Cedar Valley. They wanted to do something to help, so in November, they purchased desks and chairs from an auction at the University of Northern Iowa and opened Mill Race—a coworking space—in a small building near the Cedar River.

“It was one of those that started as a side thing where we saw value in it,” said Danny Laudick, the manager of Mill Race. “I left my full-time job in April, incorporated the new nonprofit in June of 2017 and finalized partnerships these last six months.”

Those partnerships are with:

  • City of Cedar Falls
  • Cedar Falls Utilities
  • Hawkeye Community College
  • University of Northern Iowa
  • Wartburg College

Laudick said they will provide funding for three years as part of a new regional initiative focusing on supporting early stage companies and entrepreneurs.

Laudick also said they are working to establish a formal seed capital fund in the Cedar Valley and are working with a group of investors in the area. He said the fund is making progress but there’s still development to do during the next several months.

“As a Northeast Iowa region, we haven’t done a good job of telling the stories of the companies we have here,” Laudick says. “We realized we need to do more to help plug entrepreneurs of those early-stage companies into the resources they need more quickly.”

Creating the network

Laudick first noticed the lack of network problem during his time working in economic development for the Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber.

After the first six months of Mill Race, Laudick said their group was approached to manage a much larger space in downtown Cedar Falls.

“That’s when we began to pull together partnerships across the region,” Laudick says.  “We were interested in doing more to support entrepreneurs, to pull together resources and make more connections for them”

Laudick explained that if an entrepreneur tried to access capital in the Cedar Valley, they had to hope they knew somebody willing to invest.


“It’s new to people but we just needed to do more to tell that story,” Laudick said. “Smaller firms, the ones creating new products, creating new markets and getting into new markets really drive job growth and the economy.”

He hopes that by partnering with the Technology Association of Iowa to host a monthly “TechBrew” and 1 Million Cups Cedar Valley, those can serve as entry-level pitches to potential investors.

“Hopefully make a few connections with people in the room who have connections and can help them out,” Laudick says.

Doing what you do best

By also partnering with the University of Northern Iowa and Wartburg College, the initiative offers an educational aspect. Laudick called those partnerships, “Strategic.”

“We partner with them tactically where that space and the services they have fit in with the overall community,” Laudick says. “We’re focusing on everyone’s core competencies and how we can best combine our expertise, networks and resources to help entrepreneurs.”

And Laudick said conversations are happening with the City of Waterloo and other private businesses to form more partnerships.

“Bringing more people into the process,” Laudick says.

Cedar Falls: Supporting 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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