The following article was previously published on August 8, 2018 via Inc. magazine.
By Jeff Barrett
The capitol of Iowa has capital, access and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But Des Moines will surprise you. Long known for being a hub in insurance since World War II it has now surpassed Hartford as the insurance capitol of the Unites States. Iowa was also named the #1 state in America to live.
A large downtown sculpture park, not one but two zombie themed restaurants, an Asian Garden along their river with the skyline in the background are all in the city center. T-shirt store, RAYGUN, has a larger-than-life sign on its building that reads “The Greatest Store in the Universe.”
When I was there in June, Hamilton was there. Once you spend a little time in Des Moines it’s no surprise why it was one of the first cities in the country to get Hamilton. There’s money here, big business, leaders focused on growing the city both culturally and economically.
Wells Fargo Arena has a capacity over 16,000. Mobile payments processor Dwolla is the most successful recent startup.
There’s a great Politico article from January 2016 on how America’s dullest city became cool.
Why You Can Succeed In Des Moines Right Away
As an entrepreneur, Des Moines represents a unique opportunity. The access to capital is there. Iowa State University is 30 minutes away. You have access to large businesses that can either help you succeed or become your clients. And while that may be true in a lot of communities, what Des Moines provides is all the infrastructure with a clean slate.
Enterprise software company Workiva is based in Ames partly to access all the talent from Iowa State. It is one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the country according to Deloitte, has over 1200 employees in 16 cities globally and Forbes, Fortune and Glassdoor consistently rank it as one of the top places to work in tech.
“Iowa provides companies like ours the right resources and local support systems required for fast growing, high-tech businesses,” said Marty Vanderploeg, CEO of Workiva.
And if you’re looking to create a tech company, Bill Adamowski, President of the ISU Startup Factory, is drawing from his long-tenured experience in Silicon Valley to quickly assist a successful portfolio of amazing companies.
Gross-Wen Technologies, which uses algae for water treatment, may be the best. They landed the entire city of Chicago as their client and the byproduct of their process can be used for fuel. While farming algae alone for fuel is too expensive when combined as the cost of watewater treatment it starts to become economical.
Andy Suby, Biomass Processing Facility Manager at the BioCentury Research Farm, helps lead all the cutting-edge test projects companies do near Iowa State. ISU faculty are engaged in multiple pathways to biomass based fuels, chemicals, and value added products. These include algal conversion, biopolymer production, and several thermochemical pathways. Large companies are there working on fuel and even hockey pucks made from soybeans.
A City Driven By Its Insurance Roots
Des Moines is home to the Global Insurance Accelerator–a collaboration where most of the world’s major insurance companies support the next greatest ideas in their field.
“The GIA’s investors all make an equal financial contribution. In this kind of environment, there is a clear recognition that large insurance companies can learn from smaller peers, and vice versa. There is a better benefit for investors, startups, mentors, and the industry at-large when all voices get equal influence, access to opportunity, and expectation of effort,” said Brian Hemesath, Managing Director of the Global Insurance Accelerator.
Des Moines has a long tradition in finance and insurance. State incentives continue to recruit even more of a presence, solidifying its place now above Connecticut, but the Travelers umbrella has always been an iconic part of their skyline.
The Community Doesn’t Just Talk, It Acts
Debi Durham, Director of The Iowa Economic Development Authority, is a trailblazer. She disrupted and simplified the way Iowa funds projects, running the state more like an accelerator than a slow-moving bureaucracy.
The community of business leaders, state government resources, universities and other important connections for those starting out is very accessible.
“I like to say it’s 1 degree of separation in Iowa, not 6,” said Durham. “The state invests in entrepreneurship because we know that’s where real wealth is created. If you have the patience to play the long game and provide the necessary support, the end result is newly established business contributing to Iowa’s economy.”
Des Moines is a capitol city and a capital city. If you have a good idea that fits its core competencies, you can meet with the people that matter in less than a week.
Brian Waller, President of the Technology Association of Iowa, has created a unique “alumni” program for the state of Iowa to drive talent back and/or bring talent and investment to Iowa.
The Iowan Project creates a global network of people with Iowa ties. It can both function as a way for people to stay in touch with Iowa but more importantly as a way for startups in Iowa to quickly access capital and contacts all over the world.
Geoff Wood, Founder of co-working leader Gravitate, thinks the next step is to work on expectations.
“People are pleasantly surprised at what they find and experience once they get here,” said Wood. “It happens so often that locally-themed t-shirt store RAYGUN sells a merchandise with the tagline “let us exceed your already low expectations” and while our community does need to grow and we’ll always need more new starts, more investors, deeper talent pools, etc. the correct expectation is that Iowa is a place where anyone can build a successful company.”
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