Startups igniting entrepreneurial spirit in Iowa City, statewide


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San Francisco, Boston, New York City, and Austin, Texas all have them: creative havens for the ├╝ber creative young professionals who defy the standard 9-5 workdays.

With no valley in close proximity, young innovators across the state are turning young companies  into hotbeds of business activity.

Thursday evening’s Creative Corridor’s “Dream Big Grow Here” grant contest for new and prospective businesses in the area took place at the Dublin City Pub in Cedar Rapids and featured five start-ups from Iowa City, Mount Vernon, and Cedar Rapids that have capitalized on the entrepreneurial efforts in the region.

“What we want to do is strengthen community here,” said event coordinator Amanda Styron of Seed Here Studio. “That involves connections to each other and a supportive culture. In terms of how it relates to Silicon Valley and other areas, we want to be connected with them. We need to be connected with the rest of the world.”

Styron said the event is the precursor to the state competition to be held in March and the support of start-ups translates into economic growth at local, regional, and state levels. The state winner will take home $10,000 to use for funding an individual start-up.

With an already burgeoning start-up scene in Iowa’s capital, the trend is gathering attention in eastern Iowa and local students and residents are taking note.

University of Iowa senior Jeff Owen’s startup, Ready to Go in America, is an international-student transition company. They took home the $5,000 seed funding, competing alongside ClusterFlunk, Portrait Community, Iron Leaf Press, and Foliage Skateboards.

ClusterFlunk cofounder and UI junior Joe Dallago believes Iowa City’s young and creative environment could one day transition itself into a recognizable entrepreneurial city.

“Iowa City has a very Bay Area feel,” he said. “It’s youthful and has a very fun atmosphere. I can definitely see it turning into the Silicon Valley of Iowa; there are a lot of innovators here.”

His student-to-student study medium hopes to change the ways of learning by incorporating the “follow” and “upvote” capabilities popular in Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, while bringing a user-friendly experience to stressed-out college kids. An anticipated mid-January 2013 launch is planned in downtown Iowa City with the service going live for the upcoming spring semester.

Although start-ups are typically associated with college students and young professionals, one example is the brainchild of City High junior Eli Shepherd.

The initial idea for Foliage Skateboards, an Iowa City-based environmentally conscious, locally sourced skateboard and apparel company, came about from a love of skateboarding and photography before Shepherd had even entered junior high school.

With the guidance of UI senior Zach Gruenhagen, who persuaded Shepherd to get involved in pitch competitions, the search for start-up funding began in summer of 2012. Shepherd has drawn immense inspiration from local stores including the White Rabbit and New Pioneer Co-op.

“Foliage will be set up as a cooperative business model, meaning customers can pay a one-time fee and get benefits and discounts throughout the year,” he said.

Christian Renaud, a StartupCity Des Moines mentor, said entrepreneurs no longer need to be in Silicon Valley to pursue their ideas and companies.

He noted that in addition to the dozens of established companies in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City, robust start-up incubators are being developed in Spencer, Dubuque, Sioux City, and Fairfield as well.

“I think that we’re off to a good start. In the last four and five years, we’ve had the first [start-up] architects that hopefully will result in a cycle of growth,” he said. “This is really like a 20-year game.”

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