Awesome Towns for Entrepreneurs: A Spotlight on Iowa City, IA

For a city that’s only the fifth most populous in the Hawkeye State, Iowa City is making a lot of noise lately. Three different teams of Eastern Iowans recently made the Forbes annual 30 under 30 list, and the city has been repeatedly named in the top ten of small-sized places to start a business.

The main engine at work here is the University of Iowa, which has renowned medical facilities and a strong biotech talent pool. And while the major industries have traditionally been bioscience and healthcare, the city is currently undergoing a revitalization of its entrepreneurial opportunities and being included in what’s been called the Silicon Prairie. Investment from the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce and the Iowa Economic Development Authority have led to robust partnerships within the community that support and reward entrepreneurial innovation. As a result, recent startups in edtech, medtech, and agritech have won national acclaim, but still kept their roots and hearts in Iowa City.

Business isn’t the only thing Iowa City has going for it. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is world-renowned for churning out legendary writers such as Flannery O’Connor and John Irving, and in 2008, UNESCO designated Iowa City as the world’s third City of Literature—the first American city to earn such a designation.

And while it may not be the Sunshine State, there’s still plenty to do outdoors. Paved bike paths run along the Iowa River and have earned the city silver status through the League of American Bicyclists. There are a dozen different parks in Iowa City that combined with the city’s pedestrian mall, play host to a number of outdoor festivals and concerts. Each summer, public pianos are placed in public gathering areas. You just don’t get that kind of stuff elsewhere. A combination of open spaces and cultural density is a major part of what boosts Iowa City’s livability.

Entrepreneurs are always thinking two steps ahead. They don’t ask what’s the next thing, but what’s the thing after that? When it comes to places for entrepreneurs to set up their base, the answer to that question might be Iowa City.

Why Iowa City? Fast Facts

  • It’s tight-knit. Iowa City has a population of just over 75,000 (or 170,000, if you include the greater metropolitan area), meaning you can make meaningful connections with customers, peers, and mentors, and you won’t get lost in the shuffle.
  • It’s growing. Listed by Forbes as one of the best small places to start a new business, there’s plenty of room to grow still in Iowa City. As a side benefit, the streets aren’t too crowded yet: the average commute is just 21 minutes.
  • It’s cheap. The cost of living in Iowa City is 8 percent below the national average. Combined with the fact that residents of Iowa City make 10 percent more than the national average, that can make for an attractive lifestyle.
  • It’s smart. Iowa City has a highly educated populace, ranked fifth of all small cities in the U.S. And with the University of Iowa calling Iowa City home, entrepreneurs looking for talent don’t have to look very far.

 

 

Five New Businesses to Watch in Iowa City

Higher Learning Technologies

Higher Learning Technologies is an Iowa City edtech company founded by Alec Whitters, Adam Keune, and Ben O’Connor. Primarily focused on professional board exams, HLT’s mobile applications help students study for the most important exams of their lives, and do so in an effective, mobile, and reliable manner.

From its humble beginnings in 2011, HLT has grown to be the market leader in mLearning (i.e., mobile learning), with 20 of their study solutions in the App Store’s Top 100 Grossing list. HLT products have been downloaded over 10 million times, have over 50,000 active daily users, and are being used by students in 192 different countries.

Higher Learning Technologies has racked up its fair share of awards, too: winner of the Silicon Prairie News startup of the year in 2018; two-time winner of the TAI Prometheus mobile app of the year; and recognized as having one of the best company cultures by Entrepreneur in 2017.

All three of HLT’s founders got their start at the University of Iowa, located in Iowa City, earning their education in a mix of business and health sciences. Mr. Whitters’s journey in particular encapsulates the origins of HLT: starting as a dental student studying paper flashcards, he switched tracks after working on a test prep app that was native to mobile and purely focused on health sciences.

In the years since the birth of the company, all of the founders have taken on roles in the wider Iowa startup community, with positions in the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and the Iowa Startup Accelerator. All three founders were placed on Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in 2018.

OmniLife

OmniLife, formerly HealthTech Solutions, is an Iowa City-based startup founded by Dalton Shaull and Eric Pahl with the mission of saving lives through more efficient organ procurement. Their first production-ready product is an app called TXP Chat, which, through secure messaging, increases the quality and speed of communication between doctors and donors in regards to organ transplants.

The origins of the company came about when Mr. Shaull and Mr. Pahl met at an entrepreneurial event and acknowledged a mutual interest in improving the organ transplant process. Mr. Shaull had undergone an experimental nerve transplant after a paralyzing motorcycle accident, while Mr. Pahl had four relatives sitting on a waiting list for liver transplants. Both knew the process to be far more complex than it needed to be.

Over 7,000 patients die every year while waitlisted for organ transplants, and over 5,000 recovered organs are not transplanted during the same timeframe. TXP Chat allows the sharing of lab results, images, videos, and estimated timeframes, which significantly streamlines a process that typically requires over 1,000 text messages and 500 phone calls in a single, extremely time-sensitive situation.

Both founders have brought their respective specialized educations to bear in solving this problem: Mr. Shaull is a former medical student, while Mr. Pahl is a biomedical engineer and current doctoral fellow of health informatics. Both are alumni of the University of Iowa, and both were included on Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in 2018. Their clients now include Ohio State University, Spectrum Health, the Iowa Donor Network, and University of Iowa Health.

SwineTech Incorporated

SwineTech Incorporated is an agritech business founded in 2015 by Matthew Rooda and Abraham Espinoza, who are both graduates of the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. While working on a farm in 2013, Mr. Rooda learned that piglets were often crushed by the sows, and, with the help of his uncle (an acoustics engineer), they developed a sensor to prevent this. The sensor is placed in an adhesive patch and attached to a sow, and if the sensor detects a piglet’s squeal, a shock on par with that of a dog collar is released, training the sow to stand up.

Furthermore, the sensor can monitor a sow’s health, environment, and behavior, with the data having promising applications across the industry. For a small device, it’s having a big impact—increasing animal welfare, boosting the pork industry’s productivity, and reducing the pork industry’s carbon footprint.

Matthew Rooda graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in genetics and biotechnology, while his best friend and co-founder, Abraham Espinoza, has his degree in computer science and engineering.

SwineTech is based in New Sharon, a town of just 1,300 people, located equidistantly between Des Moines and Iowa City, where it can stretch its influence to regional farms. With sales over $1 million in 2018, the company’s future goals are to continue to increase the adoption of their technology while keeping the manufacturing based in Iowa. SwineTech has already racked up awards from MIT, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Both Rooda and Espinoza were both recognized on Forbes 30 Under 30 List in 2018.

Pear Duck

Pear Deck is an Iowa City-based edtech company founded in 2014 by Anthony Showalter, Dan Sweeney, Michal Eynon-Lynch, and Riley Eynon-Lynch. Their mission is to help teachers engage every student, every day, and they achieve this through providing schools a web-based software that interacts with Google’s G-Suite and can be accessed on any device.

Starting with $600,000 in seed money, Pear Deck racked up a host of recognitions in its second year: winner of the Rise of the Rest competition at South by Southwest (hosted by former AOL CEO Steve Case); winner of the Village Capital EdTech program; and selection as a top ten “S’Cool Tool” by EdSurge.

All four of Pear Deck’s co-founders have previous experience in edtech startups like ActiveGrade and Haiku Learning. That experience, combined with their educational backgrounds, provides the perfect storm of a successful edtech venture: Mr. Showalter has an MBA, Ms. Eynon-Lynch got her MA in contemplative learning, Mr. Eynon-Lynch has his BS in computer science and math, while Mr. Sweeney has his BA in graphic design. The result of their work is an aesthetically pleasing, educationally rigorous, easy-to-use program that’s now in use at over a dozen school districts across the US, from Cupertino to Cincinnati.

Wild Culture Kombucha

Wild Culture Kombucha is an Iowa City-based kombucha brewery founded by Tim Roed and Rachelle Schmidt—self-identified health junkies that put their faith in the simple things. Wild Culture Kombucha brews full-strength kombucha that is raw, live, unfiltered, and full of nutrients and probiotics.

From an inauspicious start in 2015, word has spread quickly, and Wild Culture Kombucha is now carried in dozens of stores and restaurants across Iowa. And business has boomed enough to allow the company to open up their own taproom and lounge in Iowa City, which serves not only kombucha but coffee, cider, beer, wine, and mead.

The founders are fans first. Mr. Roed’s background is in marketing and technology, but it was the study of anthropology that led him to the health benefits of a local food diet. Mrs. Schmidt worked in the service industry for 12 years and developed a similar interest. Their love of kombucha began in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2015, after years of traveling, that they’d settled in Iowa City and identified a gap in the local offerings. After getting their brewery license, they began selling their kombucha to friends, family, and farmers in the Iowa City community. They joined the Farmers Market in 2016, and continued community connections propelled them onwards from there.

As a testament to the livability and small town feel of Iowa City, both of Wild Culture’s founders credit the local community for the growth and success of their business.

Local Resources for Entrepreneurs

Iowa City is still a small enough place where you can meaningfully interact with your customers and fellow business owners, but its entrepreneurial ambition is big enough to give you the resources of a much larger city.

The John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) at the University of Iowa is the local center of gravity for entrepreneurs. Established in 1996 as part of the Tippie College of Business, its influence has grown beyond just university students, and it now offers K-12 programs, innovation workshops, and a professional speaker series. It also hosts entrepreneurial events like One Million Cups and the Iowa Startup Games.

Merge is a coworking space and innovation hub that calls itself “The Living Room of Iowa City.” With the mission of fostering an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, they house two main areas: the IC CoLab and Protostudios.

The CoLab focuses on increasing beneficial collisions between entrepreneurs and innovators, providing them with all the resources of a top-class coworking space. Protostudios is a rapid prototyping facility focused on biomedical and electronics. With CAD-equipped computers and multiple 3D printers, members can feasibly design and manufacture a fully functional prototype in less than 24 hours. Protostudios also operates as a not-for-profit, and offers its services at a rate less expensive than what is found elsewhere.

Reducing the cost of prototyping and asking for no share of IP in return, it’s keeping the University of Iowa’s emerging biotech talent close to home.

The Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce is heavily involved in supporting local businesses and helping them make money, save time, build relationships, and stay informed. Membership carries many benefits, but the most immediate one is this: 80 percent of all customers say they are more likely to purchase goods or services from a business who is a member of a chamber of commerce. Other benefits include leadership programs, business assessments, networking events, and referral exchange groups. And even if you’re not in Iowa City yet, they’re still there to help, offering housing assistance, employment opportunities, and free relocation packets to anyone who requests them.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog
Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.

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