Innovation Profile: Kaylee Williams, InnoVenture Iowa Fund
Supporting early-stage startups with new co-investment fund
A role as investment director for the InnoVenture Iowa Fund is the perfect fit for Iowa native Kaylee Williams, providing an opportunity to put her firsthand experience with growing early-stage companies to work to help other founders and entrepreneurs succeed.
Announced in October 2022, the InnoVenture Iowa Fund is a $30 million co-investment fund designed to support early-stage startup companies in bioscience, advanced manufacturing, and information technology. It is the state’s first publicly-funded venture capital fund, created as part of the $96 million for small businesses and entrepreneurs that the U.S. Treasury Department awarded to the state through its State Small Business Credit Initiative. The fund is off to a strong start, drawing statewide interest with the InnoVenture Challenge pitch competition and making investments in three portfolio companies.
Williams is responsible for vetting startups and bringing the best candidates for investment to the fund’s investment committee for final decisions.
“It is the chance of a lifetime to build a fund that belongs to all Iowans, to help Iowa companies grow,” she said. “And we’re not just writing checks. Our team is uniquely positioned to leverage the resources that are already in the state to help our portfolio companies succeed.”
Startups applying for investment funding must be based in Iowa, either with headquarters or significant operations in the state, be raising a funding round between $250,000 and $2 million, have at least one lead investor and a signed term sheet, and be focused in bioscience, advanced manufacturing or information technology.
As a co-investment fund, the InnoVenture Iowa Fund will not be the lead investor in a company or funding round. Instead, it is designed to help complete a funding round, reduce risk for other investors and draw new investors into Iowa-based companies.
“Iowa has a natural competitive advantage in the areas of bioscience, agriculture and advanced manufacturing,” said Williams. “Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa are world-class research institutions that work directly with large corporations like Corteva Agriscience, John Deere, Kemin Industries, Kent Corporation, Bayer, Kinze and more to fund and foster groundbreaking innovations in biobased products, ag tech and precision farming.”
In addition, founders and early-stage entrepreneurs can find a plethora of industry-based accelerators and incubators such as the ISU Startup Factory, Ag Startup Engine and BioConnect Iowa’s G2M Accelerator, she said. Funding sources for startups in agriculture and bioscience include Iowa Farm Bureau’s Rural Vitality Fund, the Ag Ventures Alliance (AVA) and now InnoVenture Iowa.
The inaugural InnoVenture Challenge drew nearly 100 applications from Iowa startups, with 10 vetting partners narrowing the field down to three finalists who pitched at a live event in December 2022. The winner, Hawkeye Surgical Lighting, received a $100,000 non-dilutive prize, and the other two finalists – The Hummingbirds and Clayton Farms – received venture funding from InnoVenture Iowa shortly after the competition.
“We are already planning to host the InnoVenture Challenge again in 2023 as an opportunity for Iowa-based startups to access meaningful capital and pave the way for their continued growth,” said Williams.
Williams brings her own experience in the startup world to the InnoVenture Iowa Fund. After earning a degree in English with a minor in Economics from the University of Iowa, she joined Des Moines-based VolunteerLocal as an intern.
“VolunteerLocal is a software company designed to help events and nonprofits recruit and manage their volunteer force online,” she said. “I cut my teeth on SaaS, growing from intern to President at VolunteerLocal while establishing an international book of business and managing an outstanding team over the course of nine years.”
In 2021, she was recruited to join Roboflow, a venture-backed startup in Des Moines, where she played an integral role in establishing the company’s revenue operations and first-year book of business. The company went on to raise a $20 million Series A round of financing.
Williams was awarded the 2022 Young Alumni Entrepreneurial Leadership Award from the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center in September.
She credits her own journey as an entrepreneur to the people and programs dedicated to supporting startups in the state, and has become an active contributor in the community. She was one of the first organizers of 1 Million Cups (1MC) in Des Moines, a rotating columnist for the Des Moines Register’s “Technology & Innovation” section and participant and speaker at conferences like Accelerate DSM and EntreFest. Williams serves as a mentor for TechStars Des Moines and coaches early-stage companies coming out of Venture School and Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers.
“Our startup community has matured to include numerous programs, co-working spaces, funding opportunities and support providers that did not exist ten years ago,” said Williams. “If you ask me, there’s never been a better time to build or grow a startup company in Iowa.”
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