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Steven Brockshus, CEO of FarmlandFinder and winner of the 2019 Ag Innovation Challenge. Image credit: FarmlandFinder

Early-stage investing, mentorships & training for rural entrepreneurs yield big results in Iowa

March 5, 2021

Partnerships, mentorships, and investments of all sizes have been the foundation of efforts to grow rural entrepreneurship and innovation in Iowa for more than three decades.

As a membership organization dating back to 1918 with representation from all 99 Iowa counties, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has always recognized the importance of strong rural communities. The organization has led the way on a number of programs to encourage and support rural innovators, which were formalized under the Renew Rural Iowa program in 2006 and feature the Rural Vitality Fund, training programs, leadership awards, and more.

Craig Hill — president of Iowa Farm Bureau and farmer from Warren County, Iowa — and Adam Koppes, senior investment manager for Iowa Farm Bureau Rural Vitality Fund, shared their perspectives on why targeted efforts to support rural entrepreneurs benefits the entire state. Partnerships, mentoring, training, and a pioneering investment fund have built one of the nation’s strongest frameworks to support entrepreneurs in every step of their journey.

Strengthening rural communities

“We have just over 940 incorporated cities and towns across Iowa, and each one is important to the fabric of our state,” Hill said. “Strong, vibrant communities provide places for farm families to do business, create jobs for residents, and support strong schools, all of which are important to the health and economy of the entire state.”

The Renew Rural Iowa program provides a number of resources for entrepreneurs and business leaders. These range from the online Pathways website, to hosting nearly 100 Journey To Your Vision seminars that are designed to help Iowa business leaders connect with other entrepreneurs and cut through the confusion that comes with developing and growing a business.

The program also seeks to recognize and share success stories. The Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa Entrepreneur Award recognizes businesses of all sizes making a difference in rural Iowa. More than 50 leader awards have been given, averaging several each year.

“There are a lot of really innovative entrepreneurs and ideas happening outside of major city centers, but their stories don’t get told as well,” Koppes said. “The leader award allows us to highlight unique stories from around the state in communities that might be overlooked.”

Evidence of Renew Rural Iowa’s success is the competitiveness of the state’s businesses in various startup competitions at state, regional, and national levels.

For example, since the launch of the American Farm Bureau Federation‘s Ag Innovation Challenge in 2015, Iowa companies have won four of the national pitch competitions, with a total of 12 companies making it into the final 10 over the years. A factor in this success is the number of resources available to support and mentor founders in their ideas, Koppes said.

“It is important to the vitality of the entire state to have a broad range of economic activity happening in every corner of Iowa,” he said. “But we are especially focused on helping entrepreneurs thrive in Iowa’s rural communities.”

Empowering entrepreneurs

The Iowa Farm Bureau Rural Vitality Fund was created in partnership with other leading organizations to provide financing to grow Iowa-based businesses. The fund has invested in more than 70 companies over 30 years, providing early stage investments as well as funding for other business and growth needs for companies across the state.

Investments have ranged from manufacturing businesses, retailers, and startup companies like Harrisvaccines (acquired by Merck & Co in 2015), SmartAg (acquired by Raven Industries in 2019), and Performance Livestock Analytics (acquired by Zoetis in 2020).

“When we can do this and do it well, there is no better form of economic development. By developing and commercializing technologies developed by Iowans in Iowa, we are building infrastructure and creating jobs,” said Koppes. “Even with businesses that have eventually been acquired, most have maintained their Iowa presence, expanded infrastructure, and added jobs.”

Koppes noted that when the Rural Vitality Fund was started in 2007, it was one of the only options for early-stage investments in Iowa-based companies – but now it is one of many. As the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem in the state has matured with the addition of accelerators, innovation programs, and a number of investment funds, it provides opportunities for everyone involved.

“It is very rare that we do a deal that doesn’t include at least two other partner funds or investors from Iowa. It shows maturity in the ecosystem and sends a positive message to the outside world,” Koppes said. “It is a testament to the culture and nature of working together to benefit businesses, communities, and the state.”

Partnering for the future

Another unique advantage for Iowa-based entrepreneurs, according to Hill and Koppes, is a unique partnership with Iowa State University (ISU) and its Ag Entrepreneurship Initiative program.

They cite several businesses started by ISU students or faculty, including ScoutPro, FarmlandFinder, and AccuGrain, who moved through the ISU Ag Entrepreneurship program, leveraged other resources available in the state, and were eventually named winners of the national Farm Bureau challenge.

Historic storm highlights resilience of Iowa ag infrastructure through difficulties of 2020 – read more here

“I don’t know of any other place in the country where the opportunities are better for someone developing an ag innovation,” said Koppes. “If you want to start your own business in the state, there are numerous resources available starting with college entrepreneurial programs, accelerators, resources from Iowa Economic Development Authority, and programs like the Ag Startup Engine, as well as investment options like the Rural Vitality Fund, that can get you to the point of sustainability.”

Hill added, “The possibilities are limitless with agriculture when you consider health, energy, digital technology, the environment –  not to mention food. The pace of entrepreneurship will only accelerate as new advancements in every area of crop and livestock production continue, and the pace at which we adopt technologies and create new concepts increases.”

“With that acceleration of new startups, new companies and new ideas, we are committed to supporting, encouraging, and mentoring founders to help them along the way,” he said.

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