UI conference hails start-ups


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Universities and communities throughout the Midwest are working toward harnessing the energy and creativity in university towns, and a conference hosted by the University of Iowa discussed methods to do so.

The UI invited community and business leaders from Iowa City as well as East Lansing, Michigan, and Lincoln, Nebraska — two other Midwest college towns — to attend the Midwest Creative College Town Conference on Sept. 20.

The conference was hosted by the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

“We wanted to do something to celebrate our anniversary that just wasn’t about bringing alumni back and talking about the good old days,” said Charles Connerly, the director of the school and organizer of the event. “We wanted to do something that told the public the importance of planning, the importance of place making.”

Connerly said with university and community support, the initial steps of planning the conference were easy, but the biggest hurdle was cold-calling people from all over the Midwest and persuading them to take time out of their 40-hour-plus workweek to attend.

The conference was held as a series of panel discussions with leaders and entrepreneurs from the three Midwest college towns discussing how organizations in their communities were helping to harness the spirit and energy of their communities, foster entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as boost economic growth.

“A lot of job and business growth comes from the entrepreneurial community, and it’s really important to be able to support that for wealth [and] job creation,” said Christina Bartels, director of innovation and entrepreneurship for the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development in Nebraska.

Bartels said she works to connect start-ups and existing businesses in the form of meet-ups, conferences, business accelerators or co-working spaces so they can create new products and partnerships.

However, she said, she sees her role as more of a supporter and not a leader.

“It’s difficult for the government, the city, or the chamber to lead these efforts, because the entrepreneurs themselves are the ones that need to be on the forefront to make it happen for reasons of trust, or because they’re the ones out there building and doing,” she said.

Eric Hanson, communications director of the Iowa City Area Development Group, said he believes one of the issues halting entrepreneurial development in communities is the unknown element that comes along with something new.

“I think one of the roadblocks is that there’s not a model for it,” he said. “So companies or organizations like a state and community could just be afraid of the ‘Well, if we do this untested, we don’t know the risk and reward’ versus ‘We’ve done this pattern many times, and we at least know it works.’ ”

Andy Stoll, co-founder of Seed Here Studio, an Iowa City company dedicated to cultivating a community in which start-ups can thrive, said cities and governments are not the only ones to have difficulty with entrepreneurship.

“The best help for an entrepreneur is another entrepreneur,” he said. “They often think they have to go into their basement and plug away, when what they actually need to do is connect with other entrepreneurs and the other resources in their community.”

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