StartupIowa is the eighth region in the Startup America family of regions and several volunteer coordinators (champions) work toward the advancement of entrepreneurship in our state.  Champions routinely interact with other regions to share and implement best practices, such as meaningful education and community events, resources, blueprints, and engagement opportunities.  Through the support of partners such as American Airlines, volunteer champions have traveled to and met at regional offices in TN, CO, FL and IL.  The latest meeting took us to the White House on Feb 5, 2013.

Eleven regions congregated in DC to collaborate on our plans with the President’s Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), US Patent and Trademark office, the SBA, as well as sponsoring partners, the Kauffman Foundation and the Case FoundationAndy Stoll and Amanda Styron of SeedHere Studios, John Schnipkoweit of Recbob, Levi Rosol of Goodsmiths and I, Tej Dhawan of StartupCity Des Moines, represented StartupIowa.

Though our presentations, a briefing book, summary slides and handouts talked about the regional accomplishments to date and future plans, it became quickly evident that we had an opportunity to engage at a deeper level than a “hearing”.  The inflection point was participation in Kauffman Foundation’s “State of Entrepreneurship” conference.  This was the launch of a report, enhanced significantly by commentary on the foundations needed to meaningfully advance entrepreneurship in the US.

We are an entrepreneurial nation.  Over the past several decades, however, a move toward employment has withered our entrepreneurial roots, and as several authors such as Thomas Friedman, Jim Clifton and Vivek Wadhwa have illustrated, our entrepreneurial blueprint has been successfully duplicated elsewhere in the world.  In exporting our desire for democracy worldwide, we have de-stigmatized risk taking and, in turn, encouraged entrepreneurship.  We have competition.

As Hamish McKenzie reported from the event in his “The state of Entrepreneurship…” article, “Entrepreneurship maybe going nuts all over the country, but we have too many imitative startups and, we are neglecting equally important sectors such as energy, biotech and manufacturing.”  The VCs in the room concurred that the consumer web companies have disproportionately higher investments than the other sectors; sectors that serve key supply chains for the country.

The SBA is oft considered an anathema to entrepreneurship and startups.  Comments from Karen Mills, the Administrator of the SBA, however were received well when she spoke of the supply chains, the need for investment in manufacturing and bioscience entrepreneurs and startups.  She is trying to change the agency’s interaction with the entrepreneurs by simplifying and streamlining applications, shortening decision times (15 months to 5 – still too long for startups), and publicly sharing metrics of these interactions.  She singled out the innovation and entrepreneurship demonstrated by Harris Vaccines of Ames, Iowa and reminded the audience that innovation isn’t limited to Boston, New York, and Silicon Valley.

Senator Jerry Moran, The Kauffman foundation and other presenters spoke of our need to fix the immigration policies as well.  Though Congress has been highly engaged in the issue of immigration, significant differences remain between the parties, the President’s proposal, and the needs of the community.  I am encouraged by the level of dialogue, and hopeful that meaningful, immediate term changes are forthcoming to stem the flow of STEM graduates from the US.  This remained a hot topic throughout the day, specially with the simultaneous conversations hearings underway at the Capitol and the White House.

The conference was quickly followed by a series of presentations (quick pitches, really) by the eleven regions to each other, conversations (honest Q&A and presentation) by Karen Mills, Teresa Stanek, Sean Greene, Todd Park and Dr John Holdren, under the same thread – ensuring connected ecosystems for entrepreneurial support, capital outside technology, immigration, intersections of businesses in various disciplines, and reaching beyond our own states’ borders to the national platform, influencing and affecting legislation through this grassroots endeavor.  Though not all answers to champions’ questions were to our liking, the administrators’ honesty helped with the transparency.

StartupIowa champions have celebrated the impact we’ve achieved on recognition of Iowa as an entrepreneurial state but acknowledge that much work remains to be done.  The “lighting up” of Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids may have been positive, but we have at least a dozen other regions that need attention – Spencer, Ames, Pella, Indianola, Dubuque are already coming on board and others like Sioux City, Quad Cities, and Council Bluffs offer significant potential for growth.  In absence of State government’s financial support, we will likely need to access funding from other sources and continue working the charter.

I came away with concrete items to try from the experiments done in Maryland, Virginia, and Indiana.  Let’s see which of those can work in Iowa.

–Tej