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Startup Roundtable examines industry clusters, explores edtech in Iowa

The Technology Association of Iowa (TAI) yesterday hosted a Startup Roundtable in Coralville.

It was an interactive panel and group discussion that looked at industry clusters within the state of Iowa and how companies can leverage them to their advantage.

Exploring edtech

While the subject of yesterday’s roundtable was industry clusters as a whole, the discussion largely focused on Iowa’s edtech clusters and ways in which it has room to improve.

“Iowa has a strong history in education. A lot of great education companies around it,” said Alec Whitters, CEO of Higher Learning Technologies. “I think there is opportunities for education in Iowa much more so than in other places because of the history, the talent and the people that are here.”

Whitters says going forward he hopes to see more collaboration between edtech companies than exists today in the state.

“I have a lot of people come to me and say, ‘edtech is a big thing in Iowa and we need to make this happen,'” said Whitters. “It seems like everyone wants to make it happen. It just doesn’t seem like its quite happening to the degree that it could be yet.”

Eric Engelmann, Executive Director of NewBoCo, talked about the importance of having access to capital and investors that are aligned with specific industry sectors so that investors would understand the ins and outs of the sectors so they can make good investment decisions.

“One of the projects we’re trying to do right now is building this investment fund that would be fifteen to twenty times the size of what we have right now. Part of that is finding investors who know how to navigate specific industries and have the right connections,” said Engelmann. “Because that doesn’t exist here today. If you want to raise $10 million dollars, there’s people who invest, but there’s no fund you go to that knows the [education] sector.”

Fintech and agtech in Iowa

Two panel attendees — Ben Rempe and Amos Peterson — shared their experiences on their respective industry clusters, fintech and agtech.

“There’s a long history of fintech in Des Moines that goes way back,” said Ben Rempe, COO of LenderClose. “I was fortunate that I knew a lot of people so when it was time for us to get LenderClose going we had all the right connections and people already there. I lot of that was luck for us. The cluster was there. A lot of the people who helped Dwolla get going were the same people who helped us get going.”

“We’re technically headquartered in Iowa City but I spend most of my productive time in the Des Moines area,” said Amos Peterson, CEO of FarrPro. “They have an accelerator network and mentors coming out of the woodwork. Somehow I created a company in Iowa City and all of my help ended up coming from a different area.”

Save the date

The next Startup Roundtable will take place Aug. 19 at Gravitate Coworking Downtown from 3 – 5 pm.

Startup Roundtable examines industry clusters, explores edtech in Iowa | 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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