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Our top stories from 2020

It’s tempting to look forward to the new year — especially after such an abysmal 2020 for so many. But before we do, let’s not forget all that happened in Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem this year.

Here are some of our most popular stories from 2020.

Expanding Broadband Access Across Iowa

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the massive shift of daily life to an almost constant online presence, highlighted just how crucial broadband access is and just how much work remains in Iowa to provide adequate access. 

According to BroadbandNow, Iowa ranks as the 45th best-connected state in the US. Despite relatively even broadband coverage throughout the state, speed tests reveal that Iowa’s average download speed is 47.1 Mbps, which is the second-slowest nationwide. Only Alaska’s average speed is slower than Iowa’s.

Despite Iowa’s poor ranking, efforts by the state to expand broadband access have begun to take place in recent years.

Roboflow is streamlining the development of computer vision apps

A new Des Moines based company—Roboflow—is removing the pain points that developers come across when creating computer vision and AR apps. Founded by Brad Dwyer and Joseph Nelson, Roboflow offers toolsets that make developing computer vision and AR apps easier.

This summer, the company was accepted into Y Combinator’s (YC) 2020 Summer Batch. The Summer 2020 batch of companies was the first fully remote cohort, with the ongoing pandemic leading the YC accelerator to take its program entirely virtual.

The company won third place in the 2020 Pappajohn Pitch Competition in October and was one of 14 companies that pitched at Pioneer’s Demo Day in March.

Techstars Iowa Demo Day 2020 Showcases New Class of Startups

The inaugural Techstars Iowa cohort took place this year and ran for 13 weeks, beginning in September. Of the ten accepted startups, three Iowa companies—OpenLoop, Dhakai, and deetz—were accepted into the cohort.

Techstars Iowa partnered universities across the state including Grinnell College, Iowa State University, and the University of Iowa. The investment office of Grinnell College is providing the initial funding for Techstars Iowa, committing enough money to support the program through its first three years. The program was led by Techstars Iowa Managing Director, Kerty Levy along with TJ Salyars, the accelerator’s Program Manager.

On Dec. 3, the ten companies in the 2020 cohort pitched their businesses as part of Techstars Iowa 2020 Demo Day.

Coralville biotech company to produce millions of test kits for coronavirus

In March, Integrated DNA Technologies, a biotech company based in Coralville, became the first company in the nation to have coronavirus test kits approved by the UCDC. As of mid-March, IDT had already manufactured more than one million CDC-approved tests primer and probe kits.

“We are honored to be the first company in the nation to have our primer and probe kits approved by the CDC for use as a key component of the CDC EUA testing protocol for the diagnosis and detection of COVID-19,” said IDT President Trey Martin.

The company has previously developed components of tests for the Ebola and Zika viruses and H1N1.

Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson of BLK & Bold win the Black Entrepreneur of the Year Awards

Des Moines coffee startup BLK & Bold co-founders, Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson, won the OWBS Black Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in September.

The two received $5,000 to use toward their business as part of winning the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Cezar and Johnson launched their independent coffee and tea brand in 2018, after stepping back from established careers in retail merchandising and higher education. Earlier this year, BLK & Bold became available at Target and Whole Foods across the country, making them the first black-owned, nationally distributed coffee brand.

The company also became fully certified B Corp business this year. B Corps are businesses that use profits and growth to positively impact employees, communities, and the environment to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy. Five percent of BLK & Bold’s profits are donated to charitable initiatives, ranging from workforce development to supporting at-risk youth.

An in-depth look at Iowa’s new ‘G2M’ Accelerator

A new accelerator program launching early next month will look to fill the need for follow-on support programs for entrepreneurs who have completed one of the growing number of accelerator programs in the state.

The Iowa Go-To-Market (G2M) Accelerator is part of a $1.29 million program funded by the US Economic Development Administration as part of a Build-To-Scale grant to Iowa Innovation Corp, in partnership with Iowa State University Startup Factory and VentureNet Iowa.

The inaugural cohort will begin in early January and will last 7-8 months with a heavy emphasis on mentor engagement.

Our top stories from 2020 | 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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