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ISU project named finalist for rural broadband initiative, wins $300,000 grant

A project led by Iowa State University has been selected as one of two finalists in a national competition to get a city-scale testbed that’s aimed at studying how to bring down the cost of delivering broadband to rural communities

The ISU project and the other finalist, a project led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will each get $300,000 from the National Science Foundation. Those teams will use the grants to optimize their proposals, with one expected to receive the final full grant next year.

If awarded, ISU’s project, “ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities,” would be the fourth such testbed in the United States, according to an ISU news release. Whoever wins will join the existing three wireless testbeds in New York City, Salt Lake City and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

The project would provide a wireless network platform across ISU, Ames, Nevada, and other surrounding rural cities, communities, and farms. This network is not intended as an internet service provider for individual customers, but rather to provide a platform for a “living lab” or wireless research related to municipal services.

Leading the project for Iowa State is Hongwei Zhang, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“ARA has been planned to contribute to the U.S. leadership in advanced wireless research and innovation and to address the long-standing challenges in rural broadband,” Zhang said in an announcement.

According to an Ames city document from last Dec., ISU submitted a similar proposal in 2018 which was short-listed as one of the very few finalists but ultimately not selected for funding. The proposing team was strongly encouraged to refine and resubmit its proposal.

ISU project named finalist for rural broadband initiative, wins $300,000 grant | 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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