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Blockchain: Iowa’s crypto community is educational

Illustration by Nathan Wright

When Brock Hager saw a story about bitcoin in the Marshalltown Times-Republican earlier this year he realized digital currency had gone mainstream.

Hager is a member of the Iowa Blockchain Network, a group of Iowans that meet monthly in Des Moines to discuss digital currency and blockchain technology. Hager—who works in information technologies—first was introduced to the concept of digital currency in 2013 when there were less than 10 people in the Iowa Blockchain Network.

Now the group has nearly 300 members across its social media platforms.

“People in crypto think it’s going to take off,” Hager says. “A lot of people compare it to the internet, where nine years into the internet it was only in government and education. But as it becomes more user-friendly, I think more people will start looking into it.”

During their monthly meetups members of the Iowa Blockchain Network discuss the latest news, provide education and invite guest speakers to host open discussions on digital currency.

The crypto magnet

It was 2011 when Tim Spencer first heard about digital currencies as he searched various online forums for information. Nearly three years later Spencer would come across the Satoshi White Paper and after reading that study, he started investing in it.

Now he’s known as the “crypto magnet” to his fellow members in the Iowa Blockchain Network. He says a lot of the activity in their group depends on the price of Bitcoin, which has fallen the last few months.

“People aren’t as excited about it,” Spencer said. “As the price goes up, people get more excited and I think it should be the opposite. As the price goes down, we should get more excited and get more people into this.”

Spencer says he likes to trade and mine Bitcoin and last year alone, he made enough money to put himself into a position to build a $6,000 computer dedicated to mining.

“The easiest way to explain mining is you are approving transactions on a blockchain,” Spencer says. “And you are getting rewarded for it with bitcoins. That’s really the basics of how it works.”

But as more miners come on board, the harder it is.

“It’s more like a lottery,” he explains. “Your computer figures out a math problem and you get rewarded for it if you are the first one to figure it out. And now because more miners are coming on board, the math equation becomes harder and harder. So people are starting to pool together, so you get paid based on what your computer is capable of.”

How Iowa stacks up for mining

Some developers believe that because of Iowa’s commitment to alternative energy, it will attract more people to the state who want to mine. Cheaper electricity is good for mining bitcoin.

“Iowa has a lot of green electricity so that’s a good thing,” Hager says.

Spencer—who lives in Ankeny—said his mining operation goes through Alliant Energy, which charges eight cents per kilowatt hour.

Do any companies accept bitcoin as payment?

Both Spencer and Hager hadn’t heard of any Iowa companies who accept bitcoin as payment, but it’s not uncommon to see items posted on Craig’s list that do.

The website CoinMap offers a map that shows locations that accept digital currency. But when Clay & Milk reached out to several of the places in Iowa, they either said they don’t anymore or never have.

Regardless, it’s something that is on the horizon.

“There’s so much technical stuff that people don’t understand and a lot of people want to get in and make money,” Spencer said. “Until that is more simplified I think it will take a little bit longer to become more mainstream. It’s got to be easier for people.”

Blockchain: Iowa's crypto community is educational | 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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