In mid-October at the National Association of Seed and Venture Funds (NASVF) Fall Conference, we received a surprise award from the NASVF: the Best Technology-Based Economic Development approach in the nation. Why? We are innovative.
For such a simple word, it implies so many things. If something is new and hip and different, it’s innovative. If it is a change, it’s innovative. If we want someone to believe that our product is better than anything else in the marketplace, it’s innovative. The late Steve Jobs stated “that innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
When we talk about innovation at the Iowa Innovation Corporation, we’re talking about solutions that help Iowa’s companies move forward and compete in their marketplace. It may not always have broad public market appeal, but it is something that is new, different and fulfills a need.
Every day at the Iowa Innovation Corporation we are exposed to just that type of innovation. From the researchers at the state’s universities to entrepreneurs who are nurturing their good ideas in their home office to the labs or offices of existing businesses, Iowans are working to secure our competitiveness in the global economy.
This is critical to Iowa’s future success. Our innovation-based economy needs continual change to grow and prosper, and that comes in economic development strategies that not only encourage growth but also create jobs and develop a skilled talent pool. Look across the country, or globally; everyone is looking for ways to demonstrate that they have the ecosystem to support innovation.
It has been clear for some time that economic growth must occur from within. The traditional economic model—attracting and retaining businesses with large incentive packages—still plays a role, but there are drawbacks. Encouraging growth from within by supporting and providing the connections that entrepreneurs, start-ups or emerging businesses with high growth potential need, we can create both jobs as well as the talent pool necessary to support the industries already established within the state.
And that is where our story begins.
More than a decade ago, business leaders from all corners of the state, with a mandate from the governor, began systematically working on a model that would create an effective, efficient method of supporting innovation. They created committees, commissioned studies and collaborated to design an innovation ecosystem that would support the development of technologies to support the state’s targeted industries—advanced manufacturing, biosciences and IT.
No other state in the nation has devoted as much time and executive leadership as we have, and the results have been positive.
In early October, the Iowa Innovation Corporation was invited to a White House briefing about innovation.
This wasn’t a random ask. It was a briefing that included all the Economic Development Administration’s i6 Proof of Concept Center Challenge grant winners since 2010, which in itself is an exclusive club. In two years, there have been only 12 grants presented to organizations that accelerate technology commercialization, new venture formation, job creation, and economic growth across the United States. Our efforts, in partnership with the technologies coming from Iowa State University, have created a model that can be replicated nationally, the primary reason we were awarded the grant.
Ultimately, the i6 challenge grant allowed the state to address one of the greatest challenges in economic development—technology transfer. There are many great ideas being developed at the state’s universities, but they generally have lacked a process to determine proof of commercial relevance. Because of this, it has made it more difficult than necessary to pair these developing technologies with interested companies.
So how do we move the good ideas into bankable ventures?
We put in place the model that Iowa’s top industry leaders spent 10 years developing and fine-tuning. The Iowa Integrated Innovation and Commercialization Network (IIICN) assists in both proof of concept and proof of commercial relevance. It also serves as a review panel to score, rank and provide written feedback to the applicants and to the funding entity. The process and resulting database is designed to ensure continued consideration for future funding of viable projects that meet milestones and seek to advance both the concept and the resulting companies. Vetted projects are able to fast-track their assistance with business processes, product development, investment opportunities, technology transfer opportunities along with services and data that support the innovation economy, all through the IIICN.
We are making it possible to actively engage in effective, efficient and successful tech transfer. This is demonstrated by our ongoing work to match our universities’ technologies with Iowa businesses that may be potential customers. We do this through a number of “pitch and grow” opportunities called Partnering for Growth that include periodic webinars and networking events. The process is efficient. The technologies are presented quickly and in layperson’s terms. Then, if a company is interested in learning more, we make the introductions.
The i6 challenge grant is just one of our responsibilities as the state’s innovation intermediary. We are currently partnering with other organizations to distribute similar information, as well as manage the programming that will only enhance the infrastructure and talent needed to support the continued growth of our state’s economy.
Now is an exciting time in Iowa. There are companies in communities large and small that are engaged in developing new, exciting, and yes, innovative technologies and solutions. You’ve seen some of them on the business page of the local newspaper, and there are so many more that are operating under the radar.
So what are the next steps? With more good ideas that have moved past proof of concept and proof of commercial relevance, establishing a fund to provide the critical next stage funding is key to growing and keeping expanding these companies in Iowa. It is expected that we will launch the Iowa Innovation Fund in 2013. The goal is raising a $100 million fund to be professionally managed and working closely with other funds throughout the state.
In the end, we’re all part of Iowa’s innovation ecosystem. Some of us are problem owners, and others provide the solutions to solve those problems. And yet others are facilitators. The bottom line is simple: We have the processes and commitment to make Iowa a global leader. With continued collaboration in Iowa, we will all make it possible.
For more information about the Iowa Innovation Corporation, contact us at 515.421.4039 or Karen.Merrick@IowaInnovationCorporation.com.