The New Iowa: Where Startups Are Growing Like Weeds

As I related a few times during my University of Iowa trip, last week marked my 31st or 41st trip to Iowa and my first to the “new” Iowa, which is growing startups like the weeds that afflict the state’s more traditional crops. (My first startup was a pr/marcomm shop that did massive work for Monsanto, Purina, Ford and other ag companies, which accounted for the first 30 or 40 visits!)

Hub of all the excitement is clearly the University of Iowa, which has erected (no, not silos and barns) an impressively near-complete entrepreneurial ecosystem albeit sadly without a serious VC in sight. At the hub of this fast-growing network is the U of Iowa in Iowa City, the onetime state capitol that is overrun by the University and its huge sister hospital. One disease they surely haven’t cured: entrepreneurship, which is reaching near-epidemic proportions in Iowa.

More important than any startup in particular was the energy and enthusiasm of the 60-plus educators I met with from all levels—all eager to forget the business plan and teach Steve Blank’s “get out of the building” approach and all the key life skills it teaches along the way. Teachers using Customer Development are reporting great results, including a foursome of interlopers from Kansas City who perhaps should be teaching other educators themselves since they’re so darn good.

Entrepreneurship starts and branches out from U of I’s Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, which has attracted an impressive range of teachers, coaches, and advisors including quite a few impressive cast members with real startup chops. Many have been recruited into adjunct roles, while others balance classroom teaching with coaching, incubator, and economic development roles, all headed by Dave Hensley, an Iowa born’n’bred who has moved from farm to startup to his clear favorite role as “startup fertilizer” (the more appropriate word might be “catalyst” in this state where fertilizer has a perhaps more pungent meaning).

Despite what you may think, John Pappajohn achieved great entrepreneurial success in the insurance industry, without a single slice of pepperoni. His generosity to Iowa’s entrepreneurs has truly been catalytic and I’m sad I didn’t get to meet him.

The program’s annual report reads like that of a hot company, citing achievements, year-over-increases, “customers” and more (www.iowajpec.org). A special Jacobson Institute focuses on youth entrepreneurship achievement, and on teaching entrepreneurship when they’re young — all about mitigating the “brain drain” and giving native young Iowans more incentives to start and grow their businesses at home. (Can’t finish this post without kudos to the trainer/coach leadership team driven relenetlessly by total “type a” Jennifer Ott , Dawn Bolus and colleagues, sorry!)

Nearly 4,000 students (roughly 5 percent grad students) are involved in entrepreneurship at U of I. And that doesn’t count at least as many secondary and even elementary students who are taught entrepreneurship as “life lessons” such as STEM subjects, looking people in the eye, life skills and more. In the last year alone, more than 175 startups received over 9,000 hours of one-on-one consulting and hundreds of thousands in seed funding—not much by Silicon Valley standards perhaps, but a number that’s increasing dramatically. Hundreds of students do hands-on entrepreneurship projects with established companies in town, and the flow of ideas and students from corporations to healthcare to academia is well-lubricated by programming and advisors from each of the three areas.

A few of the more exciting stops on my Iowa tour:

FarmManualsFast: At age 16, Tyler Finchum noticed his dad’s constant search for tractor and other equipment manuals when things broke down. The result: six-figure annual revenue that’s growing steadily and currently taking “a few hours a week” to maintain while Tyler finishes school and looks to expand his operation rather dramatically on graduation if not sooner.

Iowa Medical Innovation Group: Culled from the biomechanical and engineering schools, the hospital, and med and engineering schools, this group is cranking out several bold innovations a year. Think of it as a tech transfer office bolted to a medtech accelerator, with advisors and angel funders at the ready. More than a handful startups have been born in this “hospital” already, and four more are born to every class, until next year when they hope the number actually doubles.

Higher Learning Technologies is growing at a staggering pace and about to quadruple the number of smartphone-based advanced test prep offerings it sells in the appstore for nurses and other health professionals cramming for licensing exams. They’ve appropriately raised solid seed funding without getting on a single airplane, and corralled some top mentors, including the former CEO of ACT, the SAT and college testing company, to serve as chairman and investor.

Other than this rather departure from my trips of 20 and 30 years, ago, it was delightful to see that the people of Iowa generally remain unchanged: irrepressible work ethic, plain nice unpretentious and friendly, and — of course — corn fed.

Serial entrepreneur Bob Dorf co-authored The Startup Owner’s Manual with legendary Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur Steve Blank. Bob trains startup teams all over the world and at Columbia Business School, where he teaches full-semester Customer Development courses. He’s reached easily via LinkedIn or via bobdorf@gmail.com.

Photo: Kanea/Shutterstock; imubuddy/Flickr

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