Submitted by Donna Harris and Katie Milligan
Three in five people have an idea – whether that be for the next technology company, consumer product or social enterprise. Why, then, do the vast majority of people never pursue their idea, and of those that do, a fraction get venture capital funding? In 2022, only 7,261 U.S. startups received first-angel or seed-stage investments.
Helping people bring their ideas to life is what the Builders + Backers Idea Accelerator powered by Heartland Forward is designed to do. The Idea Accelerator is a cohort-based program that teaches participants how to put their ideas into action and provides them with a $5,000 pebble grant to actively execute their idea through experimentation. Since launching in Iowa City with partner Iowa City Area Development Group in January 2022, we’ve had 30 entrepreneurs – or Builders, as we call them – participate.
The Idea Accelerator is designed to be additive to what is already happening in a community, and provide a mechanism for local residents to have nationally recognized resources and mentorship without moving to “hubs” like Silicon Valley. That’s why we chose Iowa City as one of the first communities to bring this program to. It already had the fundamentals to help entrepreneurship grow: home to the state’s flagship university, a strong quality of life, and a leading local partner in ICAD that was looking to dramatically build the pipeline of new entrepreneurs and ventures.
Our Iowa City Builders have inspired us and shown that challenges as daunting as the child care crisis or ocean wave energy technology can be solved in the heartland and are worth investing in.
Meet Jeanie Wade-Nagle, Nancy Gardner and Lara Marsh. The three applied to the Idea Accelerator with the goal of finding a solution to the child care crisis facing Iowa City and the country. They used their pebble funds to give the workers at Loving Arms Kids Care a $4 an hour pay increase, and found that participants were happier with their employment and less likely to leave. Their results can spark conversations with policymakers and other key stakeholders in the arena.
Another example is Mike Quinn and his Learn Spatial platform. Quinn was inspired to provide a solution to the struggles his neurodiverse daughter has with working memory and spatial skills after finding that existing training methods were difficult and cost-prohibitive for many. He applied to the Idea Accelerator to pursue his idea for an interactive and accessible online platform to teach spatial relation skills that can help children improve in math, STEM and self-confidence. He’s now working with beta testers and building out different games to help children like his daughter and their families.
There are also Builders like Narayan Iyer who have a more global lens. With Laminar Scientific, Iyer has developed a technology to harness the power of ocean waves to supply energy – right from landlocked Iowa! After our program, he has built real momentum behind his work, including receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in private investments and signing a $1 million contract with a Southeast Asian mining and energy company.
These examples are a few of many that prove why we are doing this work – because everyone with the passion to pursue an idea is worth investing in. Far too often in heartland communities like Iowa City, people see launching an idea as intimidating, confusing and costly. A 2020 study from Heartland Forward titled “Young Firms and Regional Economic Growth” found that most communities in the middle of the country are not participating fully in entrepreneurial growth – and the jobs, economic opportunity and impactful ideas that come with it. Our program allows people to test their ideas without the risk of quitting their jobs or relocating, and opens a pathway for more people to participate in growing a business and advancing economically.
Iowa City has all the factors to make it one of the most diverse and best places to start a venture. We need more policymakers and state and local leaders to recognize the importance of growing talent from the ground up and commit to making it a reality. Financial support should not be limited to venture capital, but we should place equal value in social enterprises and small and scalable businesses. Lending and grant-making organizations should do more to partner with programs like the Idea Accelerator to de-risk ideas and validate the market before entrepreneurs take out costly loans or spend money on an idea with no path to success.
With the right programmatic, strategic and financial support, anyone with a great idea has the potential to test, launch and grow it, and potentially have a positive impact on their community, state and the world. Whether you want to financially support the program, be a partner or a resource for our Builders, Heartland Forward and Builders + Backers are ready to work with you to make it happen.
Donna Harris is the founder of Builders + Backers, and Katie Milligan is the program manager for innovation and entrepreneurship at Heartland Forward.