After a virtual Prometheus awards last year, Technology Association of Iowa’s annual event is back in person tonight.
As well as recognizing individual companies, startups and people for their achievements, one community will receive the award of Tech Community of the Year for its work bringing businesses, residents and local government to the table for projects in areas like infrastructure, broadband and education.
Brian Waller, president of Technology Association of Iowa, said the work that communities do as a whole will be invaluable in the future.
“With the emergence of the “digital citizen,” Iowa communities that invest in technology infrastructure, education, innovation, entrepreneurship and privacy of citizens’ data will be the thriving communities of tomorrow,” Waller said in a statement.
Get to know the finalists before the event with highlights from their conversations with the Business Record.
The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
2020 Population: 253,169 in the Cedar Valley region, comprised of eight northeast Iowa counties
Questions answered by: Danny Laudick, pictured, founder and executive director of nonprofit Red Cedar and senior program director for economic development at Grow Cedar Falls.
These answers reflect the innovations and efforts of multiple communities in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area.
Share some of the initiatives your community has implemented.
[Lincoln Savings Bank] did an $18.3 million development for the top three floors of the TechWorks campus. It was an old manufacturing campus that was donated from Deere. It’s kind of been redeveloped as a technology center, so UNI has some of their advanced manufacturing metal casting center there, the Cedar Valley Makers have a makerspace in there and LSB bought out the top three floors of the building to redevelop as one of their new operational centers.
Another big one is Waterloo Community Schools finished the construction on their new Waterloo Career Center, which includes a lot of software, computer science related new program tracks. That was a $17.5 million build-out.
One of our local game development companies got acquired by a company called Scientific Games, and then they took the company public. They IPO’d in 2019, as a company called SciPlay for $350 million. Also on the game development side, we have Jam City, which expanded into some of their newly built offices.
[Cedar Falls Utilities] was awarded by PC Mag in 2020 the fastest ISP in the country and then they were also ranked the best gaming ISP, not just because of their speed, but also kind of their uptime and their support. CFU did launch their new 10-gigabit service in 2020, as well, so they’ve got 10-gig fiber across the entire town. But more than just Cedar Falls, they also act as the backbone for the Internet across a few different communities. They support six other communities across Iowa as the backbone for their fiber infrastructure and license some of their capacity too.
CFU invested in fiber infrastructure probably close to 20 years ago, and so since I’ve grown up here, they have some of the best broadband in the country and that is just because as a community, Cedar Falls voted to approve kind of making that investment really early on.
How have the initiatives encouraged growth among businesses and the community?
So much of everything going on isn’t because of one big company; we really have a pretty diversified base of the city’s investment, the infrastructure, a lot of private companies investing and expanding out their capacity. Especially for the fiber and broadband piece, it has created the culture that we have way more capacity than we need, at least in the Cedar Falls side.
Waterloo is right now doing an impact research report on doing a similar type of publicly owned utility to kind of match some of what Cedar Falls is doing, so it’s really helped make a culture that sees what’s possible, and kind of sets the standard for what we can have access to, which a lot of companies especially saw during COVID that that was a huge thing for them to be able to have nearly 100% uptime.
If anything goes down, [CFU is] there within half an hour to fix it. For a lot of the early tech companies, like SciPlay, they started here because they had access to a lot of infrastructure. When you look at the history of the last 10 to 20 years in the community, that’s been one of the driving factors that’s at least helped show people that having access to that type of support and infrastructure is something that we can have in Iowa.
Was there a specific plan or initiative that started your community on this path?
From about 2000 on to 2015, it was kind of just individual projects. UNI for a long time has had a really strong entrepreneurship program, and they ran the business incubator that in the early 2000s, kind of helped support and spawn a lot of the early tech companies in the dot-com boom. We’ve had a bunch of notable companies in the area, some strong individual leaders who championed a lot of the kind of cultural piece of it, the networking events, like TechBrew, Startup Drinks, a lot of those early places where tech people started to kind of convene around.
In 2015, a group of five of us started work on and eventually founded a new nonprofit called Red Cedar. We realized there’s a lot of not just tech but startup stuff happening, but there wasn’t really, for a startup working out of their house or doing it as a side thing, there wasn’t really an easy connection point into the community.
Trace Steffen has a company called HowFactory; he went through the Iowa Startup Accelerator down in Cedar Rapids. I was working in economic development at the time, on the workforce side, and I went down there, saw him come up onstage and pitch, and we started talking about how he felt like he kept going to other communities to kind of plug into these networks to help him build his business, learn from people. So we got to talk about, well, why don’t we have that here?
We [didn’t] have a physical place for anyone to get together like a coworking space, so we just made a quick LLC and we started a coworking space. We started having a lot of people showing up, startups not just from the metro, but also from some of the smaller rural communities around. It grew into conversations about realizing there’s a lot more happening than we really are tapped into, so how do we take this from just being a side thing to actually making it a real focus of how do we help support startups and new businesses in our area?
We started the nonprofit, and we launched a new seed fund for the region. It’s a group of local investors. We’ve made six or seven investments over the last couple of years, in either local tech companies here, or alumni that are nearby.
What are key issues or needs in your community that technology initiatives have been able to address?
One of them was really the connectivity piece. Founders and new business startups learn best from other people that have done it. Institutions and programs can only teach so much. A lot of it comes down to building a network. Early stage companies need access to capital, it’s a big piece of it, but more important than the money is really they need access to other people’s expertise and networks. So for us, it wasn’t really these startups need more money, it was we needed to do a better job of connecting new upcoming startups with really successful, experienced, well-networked people that can invest in them, but also help them build their company and advise them.
The fund was set up almost more to build that connection and help us because some founders we’ve talked to just happen to get money from a friend of an uncle who knows someone, and a lot of times you get money from people that don’t know your business. They’re not experienced investors, so maybe the investment isn’t structured right. We really wanted to make sure we tapped into the existing knowledge and the successful founders in our region already to help connect them with the new upcoming founders.
What do you feel makes your community unique in terms of ways it can innovate to improve life and business in the area?
That is hard to answer. But it’s an important answer because we’re not a research university, so we don’t really have a specific vertical like ag tech or pharmaceuticals, so a lot of the startup community that we have and the companies that have been built have been across the board in different categories. We’ve got a decent amount of fintech, from Banno, from Lincoln Savings Bank and their LSB X program. We’ve got the game development side of it again, because Phantom EFX just happened to be founded here, and then they’ve grown the company and now a few other game development companies have spawned off of them.
I think part of the uniqueness is that we have a really diversified startup industry base that have all kind of spawned out of a few successful companies and people have built really good connections out of those companies, and you really do see it as kind of a serial entrepreneur standpoint of someone goes and does something successfully [and] they build a lot of inroads into that industry and those networks.
For us, I think especially being a midsize metro where we’re big enough to have resources — we do have a university, we do have some established businesses, but we’re not really a scalable metro like Des Moines [or] St. Louis — there is a much more personal level of connection between all the startups and kind of the community around it. I’d say it’s almost that we don’t have like one glaring, specific thing that makes us stand out, but everyone has always had to be closely connected and work together.
What partnerships or efforts have made your community successful in its endeavors so far, and what will help you continue that success into the future?
One of the biggest things I would say is that it really hasn’t been one single anchor, person or institution that has made any of it work. UNI has played a big role with their business incubator and the student incubator, a lot of the entrepreneur programs they’ve done, CFU has played a big role with the infrastructure, then a few really key technology business leaders that have championed and invested in the community as they’ve been building what they’re doing.
One thing you realized during COVID was everyone had to put out their own fires. So I think the thing that is going to carry us forward is the willingness of the people that have been in this community, done things successfully, reinvesting back into the next generation of founders, and into the next generation of talent that will work at those companies. And we have to always do a good job of reaching out beyond just this community. The strength of a network isn’t just based on the people that physically are near that network — the most valuable people to the network are people that have connections across the globe.