Entrepreneurship in Iowa takes many forms, from small town coffee shops to ag technology startups, and global companies to new revenue streams on family farms. While each business is unique, the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative (AgEI) is working to provide Iowa State students and alumni with the tools, resources and networking opportunities to achieve their entrepreneurial goals.
The Initiative was established from the vision of Roger and Connie Underwood with an inaugural gift in 2005, and has grown to be one of the foremost programs for developing agricultural entrepreneurs in the world. The focus areas of the program include developing agricultural entrepreneurs and changemakers, supporting agricultural businesses and farm startups, and helping build a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem at the college and across the state.
The program touches more than 1,200 undergraduate students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences each year, including classes, internship and out-of-classroom activities.
Kevin Kimle has served as the Director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative since 2009 and is also the Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University and Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Economics. Kimle took a less conventional route to university faculty, working at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, then starting two agricultural technology startups. He had been involved with the initiative programs and after selling his second business was excited about the opportunity to work with faculty and students and help build an ecosystem for entrepreneurs.
“We are engaging people who are creating tomorrow’s agriculture, and Iowa State University supplies us every year with a new crop of young people who want to do that,” said Kimle. “Our efforts align with the classic land grant mission of educating the sons and daughters of Iowa and beyond, providing thought leadership and programs that will transform communities and our state.”
The AgEI program touches 1,200 undergraduate students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences each year, including classes, internships and out-of-classroom activities. An internship program places 20 to 40 interns annually with entrepreneurial agricultural businesses working on various business development and innovation projects, both in U.S. and international locations.
Mentorship and interaction with ag professionals is key, said Kimle. The program brings to campus more than 150 entrepreneurs, investors and agribusiness professionals as classroom speakers, student presentation panelists and mentors to share their stories and give advice and insight to students.
“The people you meet change your life,” he said. “When I started my first company in 1996, we received a lot of support, but there is no comparison to the access to mentors and other entrepreneurs that is available today. It is fantastic.”
The Student Incubator Program provides an opportunity for a cohort of students to work through the process and resources for starting and building a business. Weekly meetings and introductions to business methodologies allow students to test business assumptions before spending time or money on their product or service. Examples of ventures that have launched from the program include FarmlandFinder, Continuum Ag, LLC, and KinoSol.
Students are able to tailor their experience in the programs to meet their own goals, tapping into activities and events like the Entrepreneur Roundtable, Farmer Entrepreneur Roundtable, pitch competitions, conferences, workshops and Agricultural Entrepreneurship Week.
“We’re seeing more and more people that want to start something new in their farm or rural community,” said Kimle. “Oftentimes there is not an obvious way to join a family farm business, so developing a new idea or revenue stream is key.”
The development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Iowa’s agricultural community is also exciting, said Kimle. He pointed to the success of the Ag Startup Engine is one example of the power of bringing good people together to make ideas happen. (Click here to read a profile of the Ag Startup Engine).
Iowa offers a number of unique advantages to new, growing and established businesses.
“Iowa is where agriculture happens. There is such tremendous expertise everywhere,” said Kimle. “We may not have the population density in Iowa as in the Bay Area, but when it comes to density of people who know a lot about agriculture, we have that.”
And what the future hold for the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative? “More,” said Kimle. “More students engaged. More incubation activity. More innovation projects. More support for change-makers, inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs.”