Grace CEO Drew Allen shares plans for Quad Cities location
A passion for entrepreneurship in Iowa shared by two industrial technology leaders — Drew Allen in Eastern Iowa and Hank Norem in Central Iowa — formed a bond that kindled the idea of a new Maple Studios location.
The new branch of the startup studio, a model where early-stage and established companies share space and expertise to accelerate their growth, is preparing to open this fall on the site of Davenport-based electrical safety device manufacturer Grace Technologies. Founded in 1991 by Allen’s father, Phil Allen, Grace has grown to four product lines, including a suite of smart devices using sensors to predict maintenance needs and prevent unplanned downtime.
Drew Allen, Grace’s president and CEO, said visiting the original Maple Studios location housed on Ramco Innovations’ campus planted the seed in his mind that the model could work at Grace. But at the time, he needed to focus on a new acquisition and then on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said he was freed up to explore the idea further in the last year.
“Coming out of [the pandemic] over the last year, we had a lot of mutual interactions with ISA Ventures headquartered in Cedar Rapids, as well as Maple Studios,” Allen said. “We really brainstormed around what does it look like to do that in the Quad Cities?”
Megan Brandt had just started as Maple Studios’ director, which made Allen feel he wasn’t taking this on alone, he said.
Having a “blueprint” of what defines Maple Studios and an invested partner made the expansion possible, Norem, president of Ramco, said when he announced the new location at an open house event in August.
But with this and any further expansion, Brandt said, she plans to be intentional, ensuring that the startup studio’s growth positively affects Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“It’s our first location that’s not [in Central Iowa], so I want to learn as much as [Grace learns] about opening one and does it work to open another one?” Brandt said.
She said Grace’s reputation for being involved in regional entrepreneurship initiatives and a visit with the Grace team made it clear that the company was a culture fit.
“The culture was so similar to Ramco’s culture, and I knew that it would work there,” she said. “Everyone seemed eager; there was space for companies to work there. Even from the girls high school robotics team corner in the warehouse, I mean, they’re already helping people in this industry.”
Brandt will support both locations in her role, with each location having agency to operate as it sees fit. Allen said he expects to lean on Brandt for strategic support while his teams oversee the day-to-day interactions.
“[Grace has] all the power to price their own services, create their own services, allocate as much space as they want … but we do have it under one umbrella,” Brandt said.
Grace location plans to focus on prototyping, offer seed capital
Grace’s team will offer many of the same services as the Des Moines Maple Studios location, Allen said, including administrative support and collaborative workspace, but will emphasize its prototyping expertise and spaces, something he has noticed the eastern part of the state lacks.
He said that, for entrepreneurs building a physical product, having a space to prototype is essential to getting an idea to the product-market-fit testing stage.
Brandt said it will help for the locations to have different specialties because it will widen the knowledge and services available to companies.
“I’m really looking forward to what it could look like if somebody from our location wants to go spend time in that location or they want resources from that side or we want to host something in that location or vice versa,” she said.
Allen said he also expects “cross-pollination” between Grace and the startups it welcomes to its space through Maple Studios.
“We know what we know, but we believe in the innovation of ideas and continually moving things forward,” he said.
Before completing its expansion earlier this year, the Ramco location of Maple Studios primarily worked with companies that in some way aligned with the company’s product lines. Allen said the Grace location will also follow that practice to start, with a bent toward companies creating software or physical products for the electrical industrial space.
The new Maple Studios location also plans to offer some form of seed capital to member companies, Allen said.
Grace is in the process of setting up the workspace for member companies, but Allen said they plan to start with one or two companies, being “relatively exclusive,” to ensure Grace’s team provides the right resources for their success.
He said that, ultimately, he aims for the Quad Cities Maple Studios to be a starting point for businesses that grow to values of “hundreds of millions of dollars” and experience successful exits.
“In order to have a really healthy ecosystem, you have to have successful exits,” he said. “If you’re going through a venture funding route, you need to exit. I think that’s really, really critical: getting a flow of capital, people and experiences that are able to really turn into a giant flywheel here in the Quad Cities area. We want to be that launching pad.”