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Winners of the 21st Annual John Pappajohn Student Entrepreneurial Venture Competition

The 2021 John Pappajohn Student Entrepreneurial Venture Competition was held virtually with 13 students advancing to the final presentation round, where plans were reviewed by John Pappajohn and his team. 

Student entrepreneurs entering the competition came from Drake University, Iowa State University, North Iowa Area Community College, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa.  The following businesses emerged as winners of this year’s competition, with each venture receiving $5,000. 

Thuy Nguyen, founder of Optic Origin, University of Iowa.  Optic Origin provides vision correction to underserved communities through an intelligently prescription match platform.

Mason Weh, founder of Mentoring for Change, Iowa State University.  Mentoring for Change aims to mentor disadvantaged youth ages 15-19 through sports and art to help them reach their full potential.

Anthony Piscopo, Hawkeye Surgical Lighting, University of Iowa.  Hawkeye Surgical Lighting has developed a light worn by surgeons that lights up tumors during a surgical procedure.

Other finalists, each receiving $500, included Raymond Schmidt and Dillon Jensen (Iowa State University); Holly Bennett (University of Iowa); Maddie Palmersheim, Emma Slagle, and Isaac Hackman (University of Northern Iowa); Emily Hedgecock, Rachel Payton, and Ryan Johnston (Drake University); and McKelery Robertson (NIACC).

“Over the years, John Pappajohn has generously contributed more than $450,000 in prizes for this competition since the first award in 2000.  John’s focus on generating support for Iowa’s future entrepreneurs is unparalleled,” said David Hensley, director of the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

Winners of the 21st Annual John Pappajohn Student Entrepreneurial Venture Competition | 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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