Photo by Duane Tinkey
Photo by Duane Tinkey

Christian Renaud may sound overly modest when he describes himself as a “tool in the toolbox.”

Renaud, who launched the technology-based incubator StartupCity Des Moines with business partner Tej Dhawan, seems to have a hand in almost everything going on in the area’s entrepreneur community.

“I think the real impact he’s had in Iowa is by being a lightning rod and a centering point, and I mean that in a good way, for others togather around,” said Mike Colwell, executive director of the Business Innovation Zone.

Renaud helped spearhead efforts to launch StartupIowa as a resource for entrepreneurs around the state. He sits on the board of the Technology Association of Iowa. He’s a member of Gov. Terry Branstad’s STEM Advisory Council. Most recently, he helped pull together an angel investing group called Plains Angels.

And the incubator he helped start has made a splash: since opening its doors in October, StartupCity has garnered nearly 300 press mentions.

No doubt, Renaud is an active part of what he calls the “ecosystem” of area start-ups.

“And he has become the defacto leader of that ecosystem,” Colwell said.

But Renaud cautions that it’s important that neither he nor anyone else is looked at as being too important to the ecosystem. Activity, he said, shouldn’t be confused with celebrity. There are a lot of people doing important things; no one tool is more important than the others, and shouldn’t be viewed as such.

“If something should happen, God forbid, or say if I had to move somewhere, that should not nuke everything that’s been created,” Renaud said. “It’s incumbent upon all of us (in the start-up community), for our own long-term viability, to not take that mantle. If you do, you are putting yourself into a position to potentially undo everything you are spending your every waking hour doing.”

In some ways, Renaud’s role in creating a start-up incubator in Iowa is against the odds. He grew up in Iowa, but moved away and spent the early part of his adult life in California. There just wasn’t enough energy and opportunity in Des Moines, he said, and he never had plans to come back.

Renaud held a number of information technology jobs before working his way up through Cisco Systems Inc. When he and his wife, Janene, had their first child, they decided to look for a larger house. Because Renaud was managing a global team, he could work from anywhere. Iowa wasn’t on the shortlist until they visited for his sister’s wedding. The state made enough of an impression on Janene to warrant the move in the early 2000s.

Renaud worked remotely for Cisco until 2008, when he left to start his first company, Technology Intelligence Group. He took over as CEO for Palisade Systems Inc. in 2009 and resigned in 2010 due to differences of opinion with the board of directors.

During his time at Palisade, he moved the company from Ames to Des Moines and found himself interacting with entrepreneurs with whom he could share his experiences. It got to the point where Renaud was mentoring 20 to 30 start-ups.

“People were just starving for any sort of structure and community of learning and sense of affinity,” Renaud said. He decided he wanted to fill those needs. “I’ve got this genetic disorder that I see a need and I just go do it,” he said. That, and “I do small-picture stuff very poorly.”

Renaud met Dhawan shortly after, via an introduction from Colwell. The two hit it off and began talking about what StartupCity could be. They pitched their vision and got monetary support from the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the city of Des Moines, the state of Iowa and others, in order to open the doors of the incubator.

The idea driving StartupCity is to get scalable tech start-ups under one roof to collaborate, receive advice from mentors and have a community to belong to. It was popular enough that about 64 businesses initially expressed interest in having a space in StartupCity’s office in the Bank of America Building.

Through StartupCity, Renaud launched his most recent company, Presnt.io, which is working on a product to automatically record and archive meetings.

Renaud sees his future role, in addition to helping scale StartupCity, as somehow tying in biotechnology and advanced manufacturing – what he calls Iowa’s “home field advantage” – with what tech-related companies are doing.

StartupCity has had early success, reaching its year one metrics in eight months, Renaud said. Some people outside the technology and start-up sectors have taken notice. Others, he said, are still skeptical, as they should be.

“Some people say, ‘Who cares? They haven’t done anything yet,’” Renaud said. “And you know what? Those people are absolutely right. We haven’t done anything yet. We’ve gotten to the starting line. But we’ve got to start.”


Q&A

What is your guiding principle?

Learn something new every day. That sounds like a cliché, but if I’m not, I get really cranky. If I drive the same way to work every day, I get really twitchy. I have to take a different route. I need to eat whatever I’ve never eaten on the menu before. Just every day you’ve got to be pushing the envelope, because that’s how you learn.


What is one piece of advice you’d have for other entrepreneurs?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. You can’t win if you don’t play.


What has been your biggest challenge?

Balancing work and life. The entrepreneur mindset never switches off. So it’s being able to unplug and enjoy life and enjoy your children and your spouse and your family, because you can’t take them for granted. Having said that, the entrepreneurial life is a 24/7 thing, and there are people who have too much work-life balance who aren’t built for that entrepreneurial life existence.

My Aha moment: