The “Tech takeaway” is a new feature in the innovationIOWA newsletter that will summarize the topic of the main story and offer insight into the Business Record’s reporting. Feedback and story ideas can be sent to Sarah Bogaards at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tech takeaway: Cedar Rapids nonprofit NewBoCo is launching a Community Partners Pilot Program to work with communities that want to bring existing NewBoCo programs to their community to help strengthen their innovation ecosystem and close gaps in resources for entrepreneurship, tech education and innovation.
Cedar Rapids will no longer be the only home for NewBoCo programs in Iowa as the nonprofit is preparing to launch its Community Partner Pilot program in Mount Pleasant and Mason City. The third confirmed partner region is the Quad Cities.
The recent $100,000 grant from Iowa Economic Development Authority that NewBoCo received will jump-start the pilot program, which will support communities in strengthening their innovation ecosystem without having to start new programs from scratch.
NewBoCo’s slate of programs covers entrepreneurship, tech education and innovation and provide resources for communities to actively engage in each area.
In the planning stages of the pilot program, about 20 economic developers from different regions indicated in a survey that communities across the state needed more support in the three areas NewBoCo focuses on, but they were ranked differently by each region in terms of priority.
NewBoCo Executive Director Aaron Horn said tailoring to the needs of different regions is what makes the pilot more than expanding its programs.
“It’s not like we’re just coming in and just getting a program and forcing it into a region saying, ‘Here it is, this is how it works,’” Horn said. “It’s really a partnership with a local economic developer saying what are the unique needs in your region? How does this need to be changed? How does this need to be customized?”
NewBoCo will hire a new staff member to manage the community partnerships as well as local teaching assistants to facilitate DeltaV Code School classes in the partner regions.
Students going beyond DeltaV’s one-day introductory class will be able to tune in for remote instruction from Cedar Rapids in the mornings, then work with other students taking the course in their community and the local TA will be available for help.
The IEDA grant will provide financing for the pilot program’s first year in Mason City and Mount Pleasant, which will cover hiring, diversity tuition awards and travel costs. Then NewBoCo and the partner regions are committing to sustaining the program for the following years with other grants and funding avenues. Horn said NewBoCo and the Quad Cities region are currently working on finding funding opportunities for that region.
Throughout the first one to two years the focus will be on gathering and implementing feedback. Horn said the next step right now is testing the DeltaV 101 course in the three confirmed partner regions and getting a feel for their need and ability to run the full program.
NewBoCo’s presence and connection with more communities will allow its team to get deeper into the specific needs of region’s innovation ecosystems and potentially discover gaps they haven’t seen yet, Horn said.
“We’re definitely going into it eyes wide open for any opportunities or gaps in the ecosystem that would truly be in our wheelhouse to help address,” he said. “If we start seeing some common themes among these other communities we’ve never seen in Cedar Rapids or we’ve never considered it might be an opportunity for new programs that could help address those.”
NewBoCo will base programming for Mason City out of North Iowa Area Community College, and in Mount Pleasant it will be located at a coworking space operated by local entrepreneurship organization Traction Steam. Some DeltaV courses will also be offered at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility.
Candi Karsjens, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at NIACC, and Ray Vens, director at Traction Steam in Mount Pleasant, answer questions below about their communities’ partnerships with NewBoCo.
This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity
Describe some of the top needs for the innovation ecosystem in your area.
Vens: Infrastructure and connectivity is a top need for our community. The pandemic-related lockdowns should serve as reinforcement that internet connectivity is a modern utility. In rural areas like ours, we don’t have access to affordable high-speed internet, so when offices and schools were closed for health concerns it was very challenging to those of us that lived outside city limits, and even in certain areas inside the city limits. Improving this will help us market our area to attract entrepreneurs and small businesses as a viable option to take root.
Tech education and community resources go hand in hand. Many adults have found themselves seeking new career paths, but going back to school to sharpen and modernize their skill set is very intimidating. A dedicated resource center in rural communities can alleviate some of the burden that comes with comparing available options for education. NewBoCo offers DeltaV programming and our partnership with NewBoCo allows us to offer a place to host that locally.
Karsjens: NIACC JPEC has recently supported numerous successful tech-based clients who have accelerated their growth, received significant venture capital, or exited, highlighting the considerable tech potential in the region. These successful tech entrepreneurs have proven that digital startups can thrive in North Iowa. Still, feedback from entrepreneurs has highlighted areas where the programming can be improved. One obstacle to growth is a lack of local tech talent to support our new entrepreneurs and existing technology-based businesses in our area. Another obstacle to growth is the lack of angel or venture capital investors.
What are the top barriers to developing a strong ecosystem in your area, and how do they affect the community?
Vens: Mindset. We have to shift our thinking, and do it by example. The thought of starting a small business is often quickly overshadowed by the fear of failure, or the stigma associated with failure. When did we become so obtuse to taking a risk? When we share our dreams of opening a small business, or our creative ideas, why are we met with so much criticism, and why do we give so much weight to the objections of those who never dared to take the risk? If we shift our mindset as a community, as friends, as family members from “Are you sure you can make that work?” to “How can I help you make that work?” the fabric of our community becomes tighter as we help our neighbor. It’s a concept and way of life that has been in rural communities for decades, we just need to apply it to today’s challenges.
Karsjens: Capital for early-stage startups is always challenging, and our partnership increases access to capital and accelerator programming with follow-on investment.
What programs or services from NewBoCo will your community be introducing?
Vens: We have immediate plans to implement the DeltaV career education programming, and collaborate with NewBoCo to provide our community with access to their Intrapreneur Academy, Iowa Startup Accelerator, and KIVA.
Karsjens: Delta V Coding School, Iowa Startup Accelerator, and the KIVA lending program.
What is the role of education and small business in your community’s overall business ecosystem?
Vens: Education is more important now than ever. If we teach the value of entrepreneurship at a young age and continue through primary school, we’ll give kids an even better platform from which to launch. Unfortunately for some, the pursuit of active learning ends after they enter the workforce and start a family. Larger businesses have an opportunity to invest in their workforce to create opportunity for advancement, and locally we have seen that culture grow with the Henry County Leadership program that was started by the Mount Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce. NewBoCo offers so many educational opportunities for those who graduate from our existing Leadership program to expand and build on what they have learned. Hopefully it inspires some of our larger businesses to take a more direct role in the ecosystem, and invest in local startups as well.
Karsjens: A rising tide lifts all boats. All residents and businesses in the region benefit from increasing the number of growth-based successful business ventures. We work collaboratively with many stakeholders, including NIACC Continuing Education Department, Workforce Development, NIACOG, NI Corridor Economic Development, and local chambers and economic development groups. With NewBoCo on board as an additional strategic partner and stakeholder, we have the ability to develop an end-to-end programming framework for scalable entrepreneurship and innovation that is both accessible and inclusive and improves the lives of all residents of our region.