Steve Carter, left, and Warren Madden want to attract more technology-driven start-up companies to the small-business incubator at Iowa State University Research Park near U.S. Highway 30 in Ames. Photo by Todd Razor
Steve Carter, left, and Warren Madden want to attract more technology-driven start-up companies to the small-business incubator at Iowa State University Research Park near U.S. Highway 30 in Ames. Photo by Todd Razor

Founded on the heels of the farm crisis in the late 1980s, Iowa State University Research Park has housed dozens of start-up companies in the past 25 years.

Now, as the small-business incubator south of Iowa State’s campus continues to cultivate technology-driven entrepreneurs, the nonprofit organization’s promoters plan to soon break ground on a new ring of development that could accommodate more companies.

“We’ve seen a continual inflow of new start-ups and that kind of activity,” said Steve Carter, director of the 220-acre park at 2711 S. Loop Drive in Ames. “What we have also seen is some of the early companies have stabilized and grown.”

Referring to 12 shovel-ready lots situated on undeveloped land on the park’s south side, Carter said, “We think that with the prospects we are working with now, a significant amount of the 60 acres will be committed” within the next 12 months.

Spearheaded by the late Leonard Goldman, a former park president, and Wayne Moore, a former Iowa State University vice president for planning and development, the park has seen more than 60 companies graduate from the incubator. Some were acquired by larger companies. Some set up shop elsewhere in Iowa or in another part of the country.

Today, approximately 60 businesses and about 850 workers occupy 93 percent of the park’s 284,000 square feet of space in seven buildings.

“We have a mission to serve the state of Iowa,” said Warren Madden, vice president for business and finance at Iowa State and one of the park’s founders. “I suppose we are unhappy to have industries or businesses leave the state, which has happened occasionally. But when somebody comes out of the park and decides they can locate their business activity in another community in Iowa, that’s a success for this place because we are trying to serve the whole state.”

Last year, the 501(c)(3) organization completed the development of a 50,000-square-foot multi-tenant building that now houses NewLink Genetics Corp., a biopharmaceutical company that works to create and improve upon cancer treatment options for patients and physicians. The company occupies half of Building 5 and is considering the lease of additional space at 2901 S. Loop Drive.

Carter, who said construction in the park is rarely speculative, noted that new buildings are based on demand and typically are built out in two phases.

“We are one of very few research parks in the United States that own and manage the property ourselves,” he said. “While we have to maintain this development mindset, at the end of the day, our primary focus is growing these companies and helping them to achieve success. The vision that was created by Warren and others early on was to create an economic development strategy. And that we retain today.”

The only real estate on the site that’s not owned by the park houses CPMI Event Center at 2321 N. Loop Drive. The CPMI building was originally constructed to house Engineering Automation Inc. (EAI). In 2000, EAI was acquired by Unigraphic Solutions Inc., which the following year became a subsidiary of global technology services giant Electronic Data Systems Corp. Much of the former EAI is now a part of Siemens USA.

Matt Rizai, CEO of WebFilings LLC and a former CEO of EAI, recalled the first time he and his partners explored the park’s potential.

“I liked the vision, and I thought we wanted to be part of that whole movement to scale the place,” Rizai said. “We really wanted to be there. We needed an incubation type of situation. We could be nurtured a little bit.”

In 2008, Rizai again turned his attention to the park as he and other former EAI principals founded Los Altos, Calif.-based WebFilings LLC and re-established a presence in Ames.

In early 2009, the company had fewer than 10 employees in Ames and occupied only about 1,500 square feet of space at the park. In March 2010, WebFilings launched a program that automates and streamlines the production of reports that companies must file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Today, WebFilings employs about 100 full-time workers and approximately 10 interns in an approximately 19,000-square-foot space at 2625 N. Loop Drive. That includes the additional 6,000 square feet of space the company began leasing in Building 2 in early May.

But Rizai said his company will soon outgrow the building. Affirming his commitment to the park, the executive anticipates that WebFilings will relocate to a build-to-suit facility on South Loop Drive within two years.

“Over time, we have had a number of those companies achieve a level of success and now they are really focused on growth,” Carter said.

In addition to face time with professors and students on Iowa State’s campus, park tenants are afforded access to libraries, laboratories, research materials, specialized equipment, fitness centers and other park facilities, such as the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Center.

“It’s the synergy that the environment provides that is, I think, one of the unique characteristics of a university research park,” Madden said. “Looking back, the synergy that comes from some of those relationships has been good for both campus people and some of the tenants in the park.”

Located south of U.S. Highway 30, the park is bordered by University Boulevard on the west and South Riverside Drive on the east. The park has an option to purchase from the Iowa State University Foundation an additional 100 acres of land.

Since the park’s inception, nearly $25 million has been invested in grounds and facilities. The park generates approximately $3.5 million in operating income each year.

“It almost takes close to a generation to move these types of concepts along,” Rizai said. “After that, people just want to be part of the environment.”