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Heartland Innovation Road Trip talks connectivity in Iowa

With Tuesday’s release of the 2018 Best States Ranking that places Iowa as the top state in the nation based on factors like broadband access, education, opportunity and quality of life, the discussion is now on creating density and utilizing the state’s resources to support the state’s developing startup centers.

Day one of the Heartland Innovation Road Trip took the Nebraska crew to Gravitate where they met with Iowa startup ecosystem members from Des Moines, Ames and Cedar Rapids.

The founders, community organizers and economic development representatives met for a 90 minute round table discussion on Iowa’s individual communities and the state as a whole, both where they are now and where they came from.

Cataloging the ecosystems to create focus

Geoff Wood, Founder of Gravitate, has been a long-time community connector in Des Moines. He said that when he moved to the city in 2009, there were a lot of people in the city with entrepreneurial focus but that it wasn’t necessarily organized.

Wood brought Silicon Prairie News to Des Moines and said the presence of the publication helped by starting a catalog of the ecosystem. Around that time, a couple of big changes came to the city’s startup scene and created hype.

“Dwolla became the first Silicon Valley-esque startup to happen to Des Moines that raised big money and had New York Times and TechCrunch articles written about them. That helped raise visibility,” said Wood. “I think Startup City (an incubator) was the first galvanizing thing that our leadership got their arms around.”

He said that interest and groundwork helped lead to a two-industry focus in insurance with the Insurance Accelerator and agriculture with the AgTech Accelerator.

“Those seem like natural things for our community going forward, but we do have people all across the board doing all sorts of things now,” said Wood. “They just aren’t as visible as those two.”

Tackling the issue of density

David Tominsky, Managing Director of the Iowa Startup Accelerator, said that Cedar Rapids seemed to be good at one thing that other communities are still working on.

“What was hard for other communities was easy for Cedar Rapids [was] getting the government and the startup community to the same table,” said Tominsky.

However, Cedar Rapids is still lagging in the matter of density.

“In a smaller town like Cedar Rapids, how do you get enough people to really move this thing forward?” asked Tominsky. “There are people that want to [participate], but we’re talking numbers in the hundreds and we need to be in the thousands.”

Creating connectivity

Woods thinks that the issue of density could be improved upon if communities saw themselves as linked and not isolated.

“Ames is part of greater Des Moines the way Des Moines looks at it,” said Wood. “It’s probably not a part of greater Des Moines the way Ames looks at it, but our region’s research university is Iowa State [which is located there].”

If Cedar Rapids and Iowa City saw themselves as linked, and Ames and Des Moines saw themselves as linked, the communities would have larger pools of talent.

Brian Hemesath, Managing Director Global Insurance Accelerator thinks that connectivity is only one piece of the equation.

“I’d stack on top of density the word connectivity,” said Hemesath. “I know when it’s time for a connection; it’s easy to make those. We’re all working on our own projects but we know where the handoffs are. Introductions are easy to make in Des Moines.”

The matter of perspective

Andrew Kirpalani, Co-founder and CTO of Des Moines’ WorkHound, thinks that everyone is leveraging their individual skills wisely, but communities are perhaps lacking in a realistic perspective of what their ecosystems really are.

“I think the thing we’re really bad at is understanding the reality of our situation,” said Kirpalani. “I think some entrepreneurs and support networks are very much thinking ‘everything is exactly the same here’ [as it is on the coasts].”

He thinks the mentality in Des Moines is that the city has all the same opportunities and resources as the coasts, which isn’t the case, nor should anyone expect it to be.

“If you’re starting a business with zero being a mud hole in the ground and 10 being Silicon Valley, everything has to fall somewhere on that spectrum,” said Kirpalani. “If you’re an insurance company it might be an eight, and if you’re an ag company it might be a ten. If you’re a consumer gaming company, it’s probably a three or four.”

Creating networks of personal communities

Gregory Bailey, CEO and Founder of Denim has only lived in Des Moines for four years, but he’s built a personal community within the broader community. He thinks those micro-communities that people build for themselves and in turn build connectivity across the city.

“I have a list of who I want to meet with every six months, who I meet with every quarter, then my employees and my team I meet with every week, one on one,” said Bailey. “Being purposeful and intentional in creating my own community [and maintaining] this mentality of talent [connectivity is important.] I would double down on that that we need to recruit more talent to Iowa.”


Christine McGuigan, Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News with on-location reporting by Brian Lee, Managing Director of Silicon Prairie News

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