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Super-accelerator ‘node’ program develops rural tech entrepreneurs

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: October 3rd, 2018

Most rural areas of the United States haven’t seen the same opportunities for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship that are available in more urban technology corridors or university towns. However, a pilot program in rural Iowa aims to change that, says Lisa Shimkat, state director of America’s SBDC Iowa, a network of 15 regional Small Business Development Centers based in Ames.

Partially funded via a $200,000 grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Iowa State University (ISU) Startup Factory at the ISU Research Park in Ames has partnered with SBDC to pilot a free regional “node” program, initially targeting northwest Iowa, that combines virtual programming with one-on-one assistance to directly funnel technology commercialization and entrepreneurship resources to often-overlooked rural entrepreneurs.

“There was a fear that we didn’t have enough entrepreneurial activity in our rural areas for this program to succeed,” acknowledges Shimkat. “However, once we started raising awareness, we had more applications for the first cohort than we initially could handle. Being able to deliver service at their location or at least in their region allows for a higher level of trust and acceptance from these entrepreneurs.”

The node program essentially is a low-residency version of the ISU Startup Factory’s super-accelerator program. This 52-week entrepreneurship immersion program for technology start-ups runs in two 26-week blocks. The first block has a formal weekly curriculum focused on business validation (e.g., customer discovery) and best practices in business development. The second block is customized for each participant, using a network of business mentors, advisors, counselors, and investors to help them move their business forward. A new cohort launches after the preceding cohort completes the initial 26-week curriculum block.

While the node program is in the pilot stage, the Startup Factory has a strong initial track record: In just two years, its companies have raised roughly $14 million in financing, including nine SBIR Phase I and three SBIR Phase II awards, nine angel rounds, and three institutional financing rounds.

“Our node program flips the super-accelerator program, taking it from the campus setting out into the field thanks to the virtual format,” says Shimkat. “This allows us to bring in a different type of entrepreneur. Most of our students work fulltime jobs in these rural areas and can’t be in Ames on a consistent basis. For example, we have farmers looking at whether solutions they’ve developed to address problems on their farms are commercializable technologies. We also have existing companies looking to determine the market feasibility of new products they’ve designed.”

“Succeeding in rural areas requires a regional, silo-free model,” says Shimkat. “You can’t compete with other organizations. You have to work together to raise the bar if you are going to foster technology commercialization and entrepreneurship in rural areas. So we work with the economic developers, the community colleges, and the other regional universities to promote the program and to ensure we get the right resources to the right entrepreneur.”

A detailed article on the rural ‘node’ program appears in the September issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and get the full article, along with hundreds of other case studies and success strategies in the publication’s online archive, CLICK HERE.

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