Talk of innovation and entrepreneurialism is everywhere.

From the startup scene to big-time corporations and at college and university campuses, the recognition is there for the need and importance for our region’s future to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and accelerate innovation.

But challenges remain. Bottom line: In comparison with our peers, Iowa isn’t creating enough new businesses, it’s not seeing those new ventures grow as fast, and it lags behind in capital investment.

Iowa ranked 45th for entrepreneurship and 38th for venture capital in the most recent U.S. News & World Report Best States ranking. In a Kauffman Index look at 25 “small” states, Iowa ranked No. 21 in startup activity and No. 22 in entrepreneurial business growth. Iowa trailed the likes of South Dakota, Nebraska and Montana in both rankings.

Despite those challenges, much work is being done and the challenges are being tackled from multiple angles. And if you dig deeper into the rankings, there are reasons for optimism.

Our expert panel will discuss tough questions about how Des Moines and the state can position themselves to strengthen their entrepreneurial ecosystems and accelerate the rate of innovation in our community.

We’ll discuss questions such as:
Why does Iowa rank poorly for entrepreneurship?
What efforts are currently underway to accelerate innovation?
How can we increase the amount of venture capital investment?
What can existing businesses do to get involved and benefit from innovation? 
How can our colleges and universities be better leveraged?

To get the conversation started, we asked panelists to answer a question. Answers from several of the experts are included here. 

We look forward to seeing you.

Chris Conetzkey, publisher, Business Record


We asked: What is one challenge or barrier that is limiting the ability of our region to accelerate innovation in our community?

Stephanie Atkin, vice president of marketing, Dwolla
There is an enormous opportunity to be intentional about seeking out people with diverse perspectives, experiences and ideas. Those ideas will challenge our preconceived notions of what success looks like, and can help strengthen and accelerate innovation in our community. A successful innovation community requires participation from all pillars of a community: corporations, startups, universities, investors, local media and government. We need to do a better job of creating those connections between each pillar. Being in an organization where the core beliefs are diversity of thought and intentional inclusion is a major differentiator. It not only opens new windows for business opportunities, it also makes for a great place to work. Be intentional. Seek perspectives that are different from your own, and choose to be intentionally inclusive.

Craig Ibsen, managing principal, Next Level Ventures
I think Iowa is beginning to punch above its weight in innovation. We have some real core strengths in agtech and insurtech, and there are investors and entrepreneurs who are really capitalizing on those opportunities. We are seeing it in venture capital flowing into those sectors and in new company formation. Where the state could use help is in the burgeoning life sciences sector, and there are regional and local economic development organizations that are both playing to our strengths and addressing our weaknesses. We are fortunate to benefit from their efforts. Our state currently boasts an unemployment rate that is meaningfully below the national average. The rate is even lower in the jobs and skill sets required in the innovation sector. Therefore, the largest barrier I see today is a lack of skilled workers, which is hampering company formation and rapid growth. This skilled worker shortage will require long-term public and private collaboration in promoting career opportunities and providing training and education for jobs in the innovation sector. 

Megan Milligan, president & CEO, Iowa Center for Economic Success
So many of the people who walk through the doors of the Iowa Center for Economic Success have spent weeks, often even years, drumming up the courage to say their idea out loud. We work with Iowans who have concocted brilliantly innovative solutions around a booth at a corner diner or around their own kitchen table. These are the Iowans ? and there are many more of them than most of us realize ? that have no ecosystem of support, no network of experts, no father-in-law who knows “so and so.” Many of the people we serve do not have a next-door neighbor or colleague or friend from school to help plug them into the “right people.” So many ideas are lost at that kitchen table because the innovator doesn’t know what kinds of connections they need, much less how to make those connections to take their idea and make it a reality. Simply put, a lot of innovation is lost due to many members of our own community lacking the support infrastructure that well-known innovators have access to.

Jeff Russell, president & CEO, Delta Dental
One challenge that continues to limit our region from accelerating innovation is the lack of seed and series A funding for emerging companies. While we have a strong angel investing community, when startups need capital that exceeds the limits of angel investors, our region does not have structures and institutions ready to step in to help fund their growth. While we have organizations such as the Global Insurance Accelerator that can help companies grow by building an income statement with real paying customers, eventually these startups will need additional capital to scale and thrive. We need to unlock the vast amount of capital on the balance sheets of insurance companies and other financial institutions in our region to invest in earlier-stage startup companies. This will help innovation in our region, and these investments will spark innovation and new ways of thinking within these established companies.

Geoff Wood, founder, Gravitate
The first thing we can do is to remove the barriers to entry for people thinking about starting a company. Data suggests that the average age of a first-time entrepreneur is 40, a point in your life where you probably have a family depending on you, you probably are still paying for your education, you might have a bunch of financial dependencies such as a mortgage, and you have likely accumulated a few “pre-existing conditions” just by getting older. We can’t solve everything, especially on the local level, but we can work with our legislators on a state and national level to prioritize the creation of real affordable options for health insurance that are not tied to employment. That might be a public option, that might be Medicare for all, it might even be a portable benefit plan or something else that has yet to be suggested. We call this barrier “job lock,” and it stops a lot of people who are thinking about starting companies in Des Moines from leaving their current employer to take that leap (unless they happen to be married to someone who still has health coverage from their employer). By dissociating the ability to get quality health coverage from your employment situation, we can remove that barrier from stopping would-be entrepreneurs.