Rick Sanders has served as President and Director of the Iowa State University Research Park since May 2019. The ISU Research Park was founded in 1987 and has grown from one building and 20 acres in 1990 to 16 buildings on 400 acres today. The Research Park started as an economic development initiative to commercialize science and technology from Iowa State and deliver it to the private sector via startups. This remains part of the research park’s lifeblood, but it has expanded and evolved since then, with more than 2,500 people employed by the almost 100 tenant companies and organizations located there, with projections to nearly double in coming years. About 300 interns are employed at any given time.
Sanders’ path to Iowa was a circuitous one, from Alabama to Montana to Maine to Iowa. Rick and his wife, Calli, came to Ames in 2003 when Calli had the opportunity to serve as the Senior Associate Athletics Director at ISU. They found it the perfect place to raise their family and got involved in the community at every level.
Their three adult children were born in Alabama, but finished primary school educations in Ames and two of the three graduated from Iowa State. The third is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, where she, during her senior year, was selected as the Executive Officer of all Midshipmen. While their children live all over the world, Iowa is and will always will be their HOME, according to Sanders.
1. What opportunities are there for both companies and Iowa State students at the ISU Research Park?
The ISU Research Park sits in a unique position with our relation to both Iowa State University and related industry. Our value proposition to companies is the access to talent we can provide, numerous research opportunities in the ag tech space, and specialized equipment and/or services to conduct cutting edge innovation. No matter if you are a startup or industry leader, accessibility and connectivity are our highest priorities.
Most every company at ISU Research Park is hiring interns at any given time. They recognize the pipeline of talent available through our students, and especially Iowa State’s reputation for putting our students back to work in Iowa.
Additionally, we host monthly events for employees and interns to network. We are finishing up our summer Food Truck Friday events, and in the winter we host Pop-Up Pastries throughout the Park. We also host The Park After Hours event at local restaurants in the Ames community for tenant employees and interns. We host political candidates, roundtables and ribbon cuttings and celebrations.
There are many functions that occur at the Research Park that our team collaborates on with companies and startups. We are fortunate to have created a culture in the Research Park that is inclusive and provides connectivity for folks who want to advance their given field.
2. You’ve been very active in the Ames community and served on the Board of Supervisors for Story County. How is collaboration between government, university and private companies important to growth and innovation in Iowa?
Collaboration and problem solving allows, and even encourages, innovation. We work in an environment where all three entities (government, education, and private industry) work together daily. Many of our tenant companies provide recommendations and information to members of Iowa’s legislature. Iowa State University plays an integral role in the operation and success of ISU Research Park, and the research park supports Iowa State’s land grant mission to positively impact the state and world. Private industry creates opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation. We feel extremely blessed to be sitting in an area where the soil is fertile, the ideas are plentiful, and the people are genuine.
I truly believe that the state of Iowa, with Iowa State University (and the Research Park) leading the way, can build on much of the great work already occurring in this space, and also continue to add capacity to become a globally leading hub in advancing agricultural technology and bio renewables. Our team plans to continue to support innovators and entrepreneurs and to help reduce common barriers for startups and innovation.
3. What benefits/opportunities does Iowa provide to entrepreneurs and startups?
Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen has made innovation and entrepreneurship a priority on campus our campus and this has only helped amplify our ecosystem. On our economic development team, we have a brain trust of people who have been helping entrepreneurs and startups collectively for hundreds of years. Judi Eyles is Director of the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, which is celebrating 25 years of serving Iowa this year. The Center for Industrial Research and Service under Ron Cox’s leadership, and our Small Business Advisory Centers led by Lisa Shimkat, all impact entrepreneurs and innovators in every Iowa county.
In the agriculture space specifically, Iowa is home to some of the highest-quality soil in the world and we connect with farmers, producers and innovators in that space in many ways. That, coupled with our robust manufacturing sector, creates a synergy for ag innovation that is unmatched anywhere.
4. What recommendations do you have for people considering a move to Iowa?
Do it and then get involved. You can be a big fish in a small pond here in so many impactful ways.
5. Please give us 3 recommendations of places to go or things to do in Iowa.
Attend a football game at both Jack Trice Stadium at Iowa State and Kinnick Stadium at the University of Iowa. Both are awesome facilities, but completely different experiences.
Get out! Explore the northeast corner of the state…you won’t believe that you are in Iowa. Visit every Iowa State Park and county park or local park you can. Attend the Iowa State Fair!
Did you know there are nearly 400 golf courses in Iowa? Iowa is among the top ten states with the most golf courses per capita! Golf in as many communities as you can, and meet as many people as you can.
Published September 2021.