Introducing the Central IA Entrepreneurship Coalition

For the last two years, a group of 12 stakeholders from Des Moines and Ames participated in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, also known as MIT REAP. 

MIT REAP is a global initiative that uses frameworks designed by the university to help regions assess the strengths and weaknesses of their entrepreneurial ecosystems and define goals and action steps for the future. A foundational framework used in the program is the innovation ecosystem stakeholder model, which identifies five stakeholder groups, noting that no single group or individual owns entrepreneurship. The five core stakeholder groups are: risk capital, corporate, government, university and entrepreneurs.

The Central Iowa cohort traveled to Boston and Perth, Australia, over the two years to participate in workshops in addition to the work they put in from home. The program concluded in December 2023, but they all agreed that didn’t mean the work was done.

Enter the Central IA Entrepreneurship Coalition, a “small group of doers” volunteering their time to accelerate the evolution of entrepreneurship in Central Iowa.

The coalition, known as Eship Co. for short, functions as an advisory council under the umbrella of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said Diana Wright, the group’s liaison to the Partnership. There are three subcommittees with different focus areas. The subcommittees are:

Broadening risk capital.

Changing the cultural perception of entrepreneurship.

Increasing corporate engagement with the entrepreneurial community.

The Business Record recorded a conversation with members of Eship Co. to learn more about the group and dive deeper into the three focus areas. Below are takeaways from the corporate engagement portion of the conversation. The full recording of the conversation is online at

Why Eship Co. selected corporate engagement as a ‘must-win’ battle

Nadilia Gomez, co-chair of the corporate engagement subcommittee, said through MIT REAP, she and the other participants learned about the different reasons both corporate and startup companies want to know about the latest trends in their industries and how they will affect their businesses. “They’re all trying to find those trends and exchange ideas on best practices, and it just seemed like if there was a demand for this and we had a community that was willing to exchange these ideas, that we would be meeting a need that our ecosystem needed at that time,” Gomez said.

Co-chair Alison Doyle said there is some activity between corporate and startup companies from which to build. From her perspective at the ISU Research Park, corporate companies’ presence has led to acquisitions of Iowa State-based startups. And for Iowa-based companies with headquarters in rural areas of the state, the Research Park offers avenues to explore new innovation opportunities and access to potential talent. She’s also heard of several companies in Des Moines working on internal innovation initiatives, she said. 

“It seems like these [engagements] are popping up organically in all of these places, but yet there’s still a bit of a disconnect in … how [corporations] are getting in front of startups, learning how to be the first customer, or even be advisers as they look at their go-to-market strategy. I feel like the group of people that we had [in MIT REAP] were really uniquely positioned to bring more of that serendipity together,” Doyle said. 

Corporates learning from corporates

Tej Dhawan, who was involved in launching the Global Insurance Accelerator, shared that there were initial doubts about the accelerator’s success because seven area insurance companies, some of whom were competitors, were at the helm. But Dhawan said that ended up being a strength. “I think one of the core reasons for GIA’s success is precisely that, that several industry partners came together and said how do we set our differences aside but elevate the industry as a whole?” Dhawan said. He said the GIA has brought attention to the strengths of Des Moines’ corporate companies to others outside the region.  

Part of the answer to addressing corporate engagement in the entrepreneurial community is connecting organizations that are thinking about innovation and entrepreneurial thinking in their companies, Dhawan said. “What we are finding is that many of these entities with intrapreneurial goals within our corporate environment are actually willing to talk to each other and learn from each other,” he said. 

An informal group has formed that represents six different industries where corporate leaders and employees are exchanging ideas and experiences, which has potential for a multiplying effect, Dhawan said. Eship Co. is focused on how to capitalize on what is already happening to grow its impact.

“We’re actively trying to foster [corporate engagement]. We’re not trying to lead it but foster [it],” he said.

The role of cultural perception

Corporate engagement with entrepreneurs ties in with another focus of Eship Co. — cultural perception of entrepreneurship — because how corporate companies and entrepreneurs view each other influences the possible relationships and partnerships. Gomez said at the MIT REAP workshops, everyone would occasionally break into their innovation ecosystem stakeholder groups, and it led to some important lessons about perception, she said.

“I would be with university folks from the other countries and Tej would be with risk capital people from other countries,” Gomez said. “What we started to realize is sometimes we enter into certain norms or expectations about what that stakeholder group believes in, and we see the world only through our eyes. I have had the opportunity to be in the middle of the corporate and startup world in the agricultural technology space and what is interesting to me is that so much more is gained from stepping outside of that box of where you are at, as a stakeholder and trying to see how can the parts be greater than the sum of their parts.”

In all engagements, including between corporate and startup companies, partners need to understand the expectations and viewpoints of their counterparts and consider the role of all five stakeholder groups, Gomez said. 

“Nobody owns this, nobody is single-handedly going to make it happen. No region can succeed with only two out of the five of these stakeholders,” she said. “It’s about really understanding what role you can play. These stakeholder groups are ultimately made up of people, and just like Diana lived in Ames and then in Des Moines, and just like some of us started in academia and then went to corporate and then dabbled in startups, the fact that we have some of that exchange happening and experiences where you get to wear the hat of a different stakeholder, that’s what ultimately builds our ability to strengthen those bridges.”

Who is involved in Eship Co.? 

As of May, there were 16 people volunteering across the group’s three subcommittees. Diana Wright, startup community builder at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said Eship Co. is open to new members based on their interest in the three committee focus areas. 

Here are the chairs of the coalition and subcommittees. An asterisk means the person participated in the MIT REAP cohort.


Megan Brandt, director, Maple Studios.

Tej Dhawan, managing director and co-founder, Plains Angels.* 

Anne McMahon, SBIR/STTR program coordinator, BioConnect Iowa.* 

Subcommittee chairs

Broadening Risk Capital: Tej Dhawan 

Changing the Cultural Perception of Entrepreneurship: Megan Brandt

Increasing Corporate Engagement with the Entrepreneurial Community: 

Alison Doyle, associate director, Iowa State University Research Park.* 

Nadilia Gomez, chief technology officer of digital and precision agriculture platform at Iowa State.*

Liaison to Greater Des Moines Partnership: Diana Wright, startup community builder.*