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Startup Stories: Evolving alongside the ecosystem

Des Moines Startup Ecosystem

Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it can’t be done differently.

After five years of hosting a monthly meetup and recording an interview with a local entrepreneur, Square One DSM and its monthly Startup Stories event is turning into a podcast, hosted by Mike Colwell, the director of entrepreneurial initiatives for Square One DSM.

Colwell is the long-time host of Startup Stories who said as the Des Moines startup ecosystem has matured and podcasting has become more convenient, he felt it was time to change formats.

“Get people and their stories out there but also about what they learned, what did you take away, what didn’t work?” Colwell says. “I personally want to hear what doesn’t work, why make the same mistake twice?”

Starting this month there will be two podcasts a month, one recorded live during the monthly meetup and another recorded in a studio. The guest for March is Amos Peterson, CEO of FarrPro, an Iowa City-based AgTech company.

Christina Moffatt, founder of Des Moines-based desert bar Creme and Director of Small Business Resources at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, will rotate hosting the twice-monthly podcast.

To listen to the first podcast, click here.

Impacting the community

Des Moines
The first 200 people who register for Accelerate DSM will receive this shirt, created by RayGun. Photo courtesy of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

When Colwell first moved to Des Moines in 2007 he remembers a startup ecosystem with very few companies and even less mentors and angel investors. Most startups that did gain traction, would leave Iowa for the East or West coast.

But he said the economic downturn in 2008 helped boost the number of people joining the startup ecosystem in Des Moines and the launch of the Global Insurance Accelerator in 2014 increased the number of mentors available in the ecosystem.

“It brought in a lot more mentors,” Colwell says. “And what I’ve seen is maturity, we’ve got more startup people mentoring startup people now. I’ve seen startup folks have an exit, come right back and do it again.”

Colwell said the Greater Des Moines Partnership has shifted from more offering more education-based resources and events to more programming specific to founders and current business owners. He focuses on mentoring and said the raising capital seminar—held twice a year—and an event like Accelerate DSM can help entrepreneurs grow their network and hopefully, their businesses.

“We focus more on local,” Colwell says. “This is about building a business and mentoring each other. So you may meet somebody who can help you that lives two miles from you.”

Colwell said Square One DSM and the Greater Des Moines Partnership chart how much capital they directly impact to companies each year. A typical year is anywhere from four to six million dollars each year.

In 2018, Colwell said they are on track to do more than $10 million, bringing the total to over $30 million since 2007.

“I am seeing a lot more later stage rounds, which tells me we are getting that build of companies that are maturing passed the seed money,” Colwell says.

What’s next for Iowa

Colwell says Iowa companies have more access to seed capital than ever before. And that the capital is coming from all directions.

“We see more funds looking at Iowa,” Colwell said. “That shortage of seed is starting to be filled by people outside of the area. And it’s healthy competition.”

Colwell said there is a lot of value to the Innovation Fund and Angel Investor Tax Credits and hopes those programs continue.

“I wouldn’t push much more because I don’t think a lot should come from the government to begin with,” Colwell says. “The corporations can do a little more, I’d like to see more get involved.”

But even as more resources become available, the shortage of technical talent is going to be something discussed for the next five years.

“We are still way cheaper than the Valley,” Colwell says.

Past Startup Stories coverage

Startup Stories: FarrPro CEO Amos Peterson on saving baby pigs – March 22, 2018

Powerpollen: An AgTech startup turning a problem into a solution – Jan. 22, 2018

Startup Stories: Buying and selling land through Terva.Ag – Nov. 21, 2017 


Startup Stories: Evolving alongside the 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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