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Board of Regents approves new rural broadband research center at Iowa State University

The Iowa Board of Regents has approved the formation of a new Center for Wireless, Communities and Innovation (WiCI) at Iowa State University.

The mission of the WiCI Center is to “advance the frontier of wireless and applications as well as the platforms and practice of research, education, innovation and community empowerment.”

The driving force behind the formation of the WiCI Center is the dual need for expanding affordable, effective rural broadband services and for rural participation and leadership in broadband innovation.

“Broadband is just as essential a utility for rural communities and industries in the 21st century as electrification was in the early 20th century,” said Hongwei Zhang, director of the new WiCI Center in a news release.

Zhang is also the director of an ISU project called “ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities.” The project received a $16 million NSF grant last year to create a city-scale testbed aimed at studying how to bring down the cost of delivering broadband to rural communities.

“Broadband supports critical community services like education and telehealth that enhance the livability of rural locations. It also stokes economic growth by supporting workforce development, advanced manufacturing and a precision-driven agriculture that is becoming more data-intensive with each passing year,” Zhang said. “Wireless technology is a key driver for rural broadband, but it is critical that rural communities play a key role in wireless and broadband innovation. Without that leadership, rural regions will always lag behind if they only try to apply urban-focused technologies to rural settings and applications.”

The WiCI Center will attempt to help make Iowa a leader in wireless and broadband technology innovation and associated economic and community development by pursuing four areas:

  • Research in advanced wireless and its applications in precision agriculture, rural education, advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, automated transportation, telehealth, community services and more.
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship to translate research into real-world impact and to foster university-industry collaboration in research and innovation.
  • Education and workforce development to create pipelines of students, researchers and innovators in advanced wireless and applications in STEM in general.
  • Community-building and empowerment to create ecosystem partnerships and to lead integrative research, education, innovation and economic and community development activities.

The WiCI Center will partner with many already-existing Iowa State centers and institutes, including ARA, the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC), the Institute for Transportation (InTrans), the Electric Power Research Center (EPRC), the Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology (CSSM) and the Institute for Design Research and Outreach (IDRO).

Funding for the Center is in place for the first five years from the following sources:

  • $350K: seed investment from the ISU Office of the Vice President for Research
  • $450K: support from the ISU College of Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Human Sciences
  • $200K: support from other sources who are participants in the ARA and related projects

“We are delighted the Board of Regents embraced the vision for the WiCI Center and approved its establishment at Iowa State,” said W. Samuel Easterling, dean of the college of engineering. “With the WiCI Center and ARA, working in tandem with the many centers and institutes that address a broad scope of issues critical to rural America, Iowa State University and the state of Iowa are uniquely positioned to lead the broadband and wireless technology revolution that will revitalize and enhance our rural communities.”

Previous coverage

Iowa State receives $16 million grant to study rural broadband connectivity

$210 million in grants awarded to improve broadband access in Iowa

Expanding Broadband Access Across Iowa

Board of Regents approves new rural broadband research center at Iowa State University | 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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