Explores way to harness town-gown energy

 

From black-and-gold-clad University of Iowa students swarming Kinnick Stadium to Frisbee games on the Pentacrest and a vibrant downtown scene, Iowa City is a college town brimming with energy. That kind of town-gown energy is being parlayed by a growing number of communities into innovative partnerships and will be the subject of the Midwest Creative College Town Conference in Iowa City Sept. 20

 
For more information about the conference, visit http://urban.uiowa.edu/midwest-creative-college-town-conference#.
 
The conference will feature business and cultural startup leaders from Iowa City and two other Midwest college towns: East Lansing, Mich., and Lincoln, Neb. The UI School of Urban & Regional Planning is hosting the conference to commemorate its 50th anniversary. 
 
In a series of panel discussions featuring community, business, and university leaders, the conference will explore how college towns are becoming centers for coworking space where entrepreneurs can network and develop ideas and small businesses, making downtowns center of economic innovation.
 
College towns are also becoming places for cultural entrepreneurship, as Iowa City has seen with startups like Film Scene and the Mission Creek Festival
 
“There’s lots of new energy all the time,” says Lynn Allendorf, director of the UI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). “New ideas, new opportunities. Every year we have a whole new crop of business ideas we’ve never heard of the year before.”
 
To encourage and support these ideas, JPEC operates the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL), a business incubator that provides space, equipment and resources to allow students to start their own companies while still in college. 
 
When the BELL started more than 10 years ago, it was one of the first of its kind in the country. A few schools had similar programs at the MBA level, but the BELL was cutting edge in its acceptance of undergraduate students.
 
In addition to the BELL, students also utilize The Innovation and Collaboration Lab (THINC). THINC has whiteboards on its walls, comfortable furniture, and even a game room. It was designed to resemble the offices of Google or 1871, following a trend in workspaces that encourages employees to feel comfortable and to interact freely with each other. THINC is an ideal space for collaboration, providing an environment for students in the early stages of business planning to come up with new ideas to help their business grow.
 
THINC is used by students in business consulting classes as a professional space to meet with clients, as well as to host overflow from the BELL. The Jacobson Institute, a program dedicated to fostering an entrepreneurial mindset in K-12 students, is also housed in THINC. 
 
“Part of why we do a youth program is to expose students as young as possible that entrepreneurship is a viable thing to do with your career,” Allendorf says. “Growing up in the Midwest, we’re not the most entrepreneurial culture here. A lot of young people maybe didn’t ever even meet someone who was an entrepreneur. It just exposes people to the possibility.”
 
A number of success stories have already come out of the BELL and THINC. Clusterflunk, a student company that functions as an online social network for students to form study groups, recently received investment from a Chicago-based company called Groupon. Other successful companies include Corvida Medical, a company that creates a sealed supply for liquid drugs to ensure they do not leak out of their containers, and Sculpt, a company that manages social media for local businesses.
 
Starting a business here can encourage students to stay in the area, which is something that has been a challenge for Iowa City in the past.
 
“People come for their education and feel they have to matriculate somewhere else,” says Mark Nolte, president of the Iowa City Area Development Group. “We’re a great place to learn and we’re a great retirement community. What we need to do is fill in that story that it’s also a great place to raise a family, grow a company, have a career.”
 
One way the Iowa City Area Development Group is working toward this goal is with the Iowa City CoLab, a coworking space that opened in December 2012. The CoLab provides a collaborative workspace with conference rooms, wifi, printing, photocopying, and unlimited coffee—all the necessities of a regular workspace. The only difference is that companies and individuals work side by side with each other.
 
“Research has shown that working in isolation is an inhuman activity,” Nolte says. “What we’re trying to do is create a space where people can work independently but not alone.”
 
Eric Hanson, communication director for the Iowa City Area Development Group, described the benefits of coworking as “accelerated serendipity.” 
 
“Eventually ideas will come together,” Hanson says. “We’re putting computer programmers for this company next to a social media company next to a company that’s working on a powdered beverage for high intensity, high endurance athletes. On face value, they’re all doing three separate things, but they might have ideas that could be shared.”
 
The CoLab is an ideal place for students who have graduated to take their businesses, as well as a place that attracts millennials who want a different style of workplace. The hope is that the CoLab will contribute to keeping students in the area.
 
“People feel they have to move to a bigger place,” Nolte says. “What we need to do is change that perception. All you’re gaining by moving to a place like that is a higher cost of living, longer commutes, less connectivity. This community is as globally connected and globally relevant as any other city.”
 
This is becoming even more true with the Iowa Startup Accelerator in Cedar Rapids, which began Aug. 4. The accelerator is a 90-day boot camp for early stage tech startups, designed so the teams are constantly under pressure to determine whether their business idea is a good one or not.
 
“Eastern Iowa has seen tremendous growth in its entrepreneurial ecosystem in the past three years, and this seemed like the next logical step, the next piece we needed to amplify it even further and ensure Iowa’s startup scene is competitive on an international scale,” says Eric Engelmann, managing director.
 
The Iowa Startup Accelerator will attract startups from around the world to come to Iowa, and even if they don’t stay after the 90 days, Engelmann says they will go home and describe their success story as having begun in Iowa. Additionally, the learning that happens from building and observing these startups will stay here and can be used to help build other startups.
 
“We’ll be putting Iowa in a position to compete nationally or internationally for technical, creative and entrepreneurial talent,” Engelmann says. “With a thriving, recognized startup ecosystem, both startups and large employers will be able to attract and retain the best talent, anywhere, to Iowa.”
 
Another resource to attract and keep people in the area is the UI Research Park, home to the Technology Innovation Center and the BioVentures Center. The Research Park operates as a business incubation center that provides companies with low rent office space and wet labs for life science companies, as well as resources like general administrative support, access to research in the library databases, and students and graduates who may be seeking employment.
 
“Our job is to make sure they have everything they need to grow and thrive,” says Stephanie Dengler, director of operations.
 
The park is currently home to 24 incubator companies and ten larger, more established companies who also want access to University resources, such as student interns.
 
Both the Research Park and the CoLab do various programs in collaboration with the university in an effort to create a rich ecosystem of ideas and innovation that is a place for both students and community members to come and stay. Hanson compared the community to one big coworking space with the University, the private sector and the public sector all at the table working together.
 
“What we’re trying to do ultimately is blur that line where the university stops and where the community starts,” Nolte says.
By: Anne Easker