Part 1 in a series: A huge leap forward for entrepreneurship in Eastern Iowa
Several years ago, we decided it was time to help build Eastern Iowa’s startup community. When we looked at our region’s resilience after the 2008 flood and our density of successful tech companies, we knew it was possible to build a vibrant startup ecosystem here. We began by traveling around the country to see what made other successful startup communities work. We visited Silicon Valley, Denver, Boulder, Kansas City, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Nashville, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. We looked at accelerators, incubators, coworking spaces, consultants, economic development agencies, and more to understand how they all fit into the mix. We joined a network of accelerator programs from around the world, to learn from the best in the industry. From these travels, we discovered that, while we had some important resources and strengths, Eastern Iowa was far behind other communities in developing aggressive entrepreneurial programming and support structures. We simply weren’t changing and adapting quickly enough. We weren’t taking risks. We weren’t being bold.
So, in the Fall of 2014, we started the Iowa Startup Accelerator (ISA) to give funding and mentorship to new startups to turn them into high growth companies in Eastern Iowa. ISA was the first accelerator program in the state, and we hoped that it would be a catalyst to energize our startup community. We brought together investors, mentors, and seed capital to support the new companies we accepted into the program. Since then, 32 startups have entered the Iowa Startup Accelerator program, 19 of them are still alive, and 10 of those companies are growing rapidly. Collectively, these startups have raised more than $9 million in capital.
As these companies finished our program, however, it became blatantly apparent that they needed far more than an accelerator program alone could offer.
Building a high growth company takes time and a lot of support, and an accelerator couldn’t provide enough to keep these startups growing in Eastern Iowa. After finishing the program, our startups needed investment, technical talent to help build their products, and corporate partners to sell to. They struggled to find what they needed here, and that meant many either left town or died entirely.
This is why the Iowa Startup Accelerator grew into NewBoCo. Over the past three years we’ve expanded from a staff of two working with startups to an 18-person nonprofit whose programming covers everything from adult technical education to an angel investor network. And we’re continuing to grow. We’ve learned that only supporting one factor of a successful startup community, i.e. an accelerator, was never going to make enough of a dent to matter in our community. We need to solve more problems, strengthen this region’s ecosystem weaknesses, and eliminate the constraints entrepreneurs face, systematically and repeatedly over time.
To augment Iowa Startup Accelerator:
We built the region’s first formal angel network
One of the largest issues startups face in the Midwest is access to capital. At the same time, angel investors in the Midwest lack access to strong opportunities for investment. So, in 2017, we created the Corridor Angel Investor network. In the past year alone, we’ve signed up 40 angel investors, raised $1.3 million, had 38 startup applicants, and currently have four deals in due diligence for investment.
We expanded Cedar Rapids’ largest coworking space
We dramatically expanded Vault Coworking & Collaboration space — an office space specifically for entrepreneurs and creatives in the Corridor — adding a recording studio, offices, open work space and conference rooms. We also hired a team to run the space and its educational programs for the entrepreneurial community.
We opened the region’s first public prototyping and virtual reality labs
When the Science Center closed, our community lost a valuable resource — they had a wonderful maker space available there. Through grants from the Hall-Perrine Foundation, Rockwell Collins, and Linn County, we opened up a rapid prototyping lab, a code school classroom, and a virtual reality lab. Startups need to prototype new products and have access to emerging technologies like VR. These labs give them the resources they need to turn their ideas into reality.
We launched Iowa’s first adult code school
We created 15 tech, code, leadership, and entrepreneurship programs for kids
Building an innovative community starts long before a person is ready to start a company. In order for Iowa to lead the way in tech — or at least not fall behind — we need to have world-class education, starting as young as possible. Through Imagination Iowa, our K-12 education program, we’ve introduced more than 1,500 kids to code, technology, and entrepreneurship. And through our partnership with Code.org for professional development for teachers, we’ve trained 32 teachers on how to teach computer science just in the past few months.
We launched innovation training programs
A startup ecosystem relies on the community it lives in. In 2017, we launched a series of innovation programs to help established companies to explore new technologies and become more resilient. By fostering strong organizational cultures and leadership, an agile mindset, and the right strategies, we hope to help more of our local companies to become places that attract talent nationwide. 48 companies have participated in our innovation and agile training programs so far. Two of those are Cedar Rapids-based 2017 Inc. 5000 fastest growing companies.
We’ve made amazing progress…
In three years, this community has made tremendous progress in developing a vibrant, world-class startup community. And we’re really proud of the bold work we’ve done to help make that possible. In some cases, our programs have already begun to bear fruit that makes a meaningful and measurable difference. Others will take another year or two to really show results.
… but it’s not enough.
Not nearly enough.
Looking back now, even with all of the growth we’ve experienced so far in just three years, we know that it won’t be enough to strengthen this region against what’s coming.
We need to think bigger and bolder.
Much bigger. Much bolder.
This is the first part in a series on NewBoCo’s plans for 2022.
Also published on Medium.