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Land grant legacy drives innovation and entrepreneurship at Iowa State University

May 26, 2020

The land grant ideals that have guided research, teaching, and extension at Iowa State University for more than 150 years have put the university at the forefront of agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the state and across the globe. With an enrollment of more than 33,000 students, Iowa State has built a strong base of programs. This includes ranking in the top 6% of agriculture and forestry programs worldwide by QS World University Rankings and the nation’s top-ranked agricultural and biosystems engineering program for graduate students, according to US News & World Report.

“We are proud to be at the forefront of agricultural research, science-based innovation, and education. However, world-class research and providing top-notch educational experiences for students is just the start,” said Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, President, Iowa State University. “Our land grant legacy is to ensure that those advancements and innovations are shared across Iowa, and increasingly, around the world.”

New facilities, entrepreneurship programs, collaboration with leading global agricultural companies, and startup entrepreneurs are making the Ames-based university the place to be for companies to develop the next generation of ag and bioscience innovations.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) is the cornerstone of ag education at Iowa State with an enrollment of 4,821 undergraduates and graduate students across dozens of programs. Classroom and lab instruction is just a piece of the educational program, with a strong emphasis on internships, cooperative learning, leadership, and global cultural competency throughout the College.

“As one of the world’s leading agricultural colleges, our hallmark is mentoring students to make a difference as leaders who address our greatest challenges in food, the environment, and plant-animal-human systems,” said Daniel J. Robison, holder of the Endowed Dean’s Chair, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Partnerships of all kinds enrich our students’ experience and prepare them to drive science-based innovation in food, agriculture, natural resources, and related areas.”

New facilities like the Robert T. Hamilton Poultry Teaching and Research Farm that opened in March 2020, biosciences facilities like the Advanced Teaching and Research Building, and the forthcoming Kent Corporation Feed Mill and Grain Science Complex planned south of campus allow students to learn and get hands-on experiences in modern facilities that will prepare them for careers in business and industry, communities, research, and throughout society.

One example of a successful partnership is the capstone course in the top-ranked agricultural and biosystems engineering program where student teams work directly with corporations, small-town businesses, or startup companies to analyze a problem in their business, identify a solution, and manage the entire process.

Employers across the industry have taken notice of candidates for job and internship openings from Iowa State. With more than 260 employers and recruiters represented, the CALS Career Day is the largest event of its kind in the country, providing students with unmatched connections with companies and organizations of all sizes.

ISU Extension and Outreach plays an essential role in delivering the information and advancements from the university to every corner of Iowa and beyond. In 2019, ISU Extension made more than 600,000 direct contacts with Iowans through educational programs and more than 10 million online contacts through websites and social media. Programs such as those to implement clean water quality and nutrient management best practices as well as food safety best practices engage Iowans in solving today’s problems. Economic development and rural leadership programs support communities and the next generation of leaders.

ISU Research Park

Some of the most well-known names in agriculture along with innovative newcomers and startup entrepreneurs have found a home among more than 100 companies located at the 400-acre ISU Research Park just south of the university’s main campus.

“Being in close proximity to not only the leading researchers and top students, but also leading companies in ag space is a tremendous advantage,” said Rick Sanders, President of ISU Research Park. “The ISU Research Park is at the intersection that connects research and innovations coming from Iowa State faculty and students with the companies and resources that can take those technologies and ideas to the marketplace.”

John Deere opened its 33,000 square foot Technology Innovation Center in 2019 to serve as a design and test lab for ag spraying and applications technology. Deere also opened a strategic technology innovation center at the Research Park in 2017. Other leading companies with facilities include Kent Feeds, Sukup Manufacturing, Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck, Vermeer Corporation, and Zoetis, which recently acquired Iowa startup Performance Livestock Analytics.

Startups and young companies are finding a good fit in the Research Park as well, with access to university resources, industry leaders, and entrepreneurship resources including America’s Small Business Development Center Iowa (SBDC) and Ag Startup Engine.

“In just the past six months, two startups that started at the ISU Research Park have been acquired by industry leaders: Smart Ag was acquired by Raven Industries, and Performance Livestock Analytics was acquired by Zoetis,” said Sanders. “The opportunities to connect, network, and learn from the brightest minds in agriculture are second to none.”

From Lab to Reality

The BioCentury Research Farm is a unique facility that was created in 2009 to support the growing bioeconomy in Iowa and make sure the university was focusing resources, building expertise, and engaging with scientists and companies in the emerging sector.

“From the outset, naming the facility a research farm focused on the production system approach and set it apart from other efforts,” said Matt Darr, Administrative Leader, BioCentury Research Farm, and Professor, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering. “The concept was to provide a space for interdisciplinary research including agronomists, engineers, and others working together to solve complex problems across the biobased supply chain.”

Located just west of Ames, onsite resources at the BioCentury Research Farm include an algal production facility, biopolymer processing facility, more than 1,000 acres for feedstock production, and facilities for thermochemical and biochemical processing. In addition, biomass harvesting, storage, and preparation trials can be conducted.

“We are able to provide an integrated pilot-scale production view for technologies from feedstock production, harvest, and storage all the way through to bioproduct development, including biofuels, biopolymers, and bioplastics,” said Darr. Such integrated programs allow a real-world perspective on variables that can have a significant impact on technology’s commercial applications.

The BioCentury Research Farm offers a variety of ways industry and trade can collaborate with Iowa State University on biofuels and biobased products depending on their research needs, from collaborative projects with faculty experts to leasing space and equipment to conducting proprietary research. The farm currently hosts both startups and leading brands in the industry from production ag to biochemicals and more.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship Resources

A focus on entrepreneurship that starts with classroom experiences provides resources and mentorships to Iowa State students and alumni for nearly all aspects of developing, starting, growing, and supporting businesses.

The Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative (AgEI) touches 1,200 undergraduate students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences each year, including classes, internships, and out-of-classroom activities. Students are able to tailor their experience in the programs to meet their own goals, tapping into activities and events like internships, Entrepreneur Roundtable, Farmer Entrepreneur Roundtable, pitch competitions, conferences, workshops, and Agricultural Entrepreneurship Week.

“We are engaging people who are creating tomorrow’s agriculture, and Iowa State University supplies us every year with a new crop of young people who want to do that,” said Kevin Kimle, Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University and Director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative. “Our efforts align with the classic land grant mission of educating the sons and daughters of Iowa and beyond, providing thought leadership and programs that will transform communities and our state.”

Mentorship and interaction with ag professionals are key, said Kimle. The AgEI program brings to campus more than 150 entrepreneurs, investors, and agribusiness professionals as classroom speakers, student presentation panelists, and mentors to share their stories and give advice to students.

A Student Incubator Program provides an opportunity for a cohort of students to work through the process and resources for starting and building a business. Weekly meetings and introductions to business methodologies allow students to test business assumptions before spending time and money on their product or service. Examples of ventures that have launched from the program include Farmland Finder, Continuum Ag LLC, and KinoSol.

The Iowa State University Startup Factory is currently hosting the eighth cohort of entrepreneurs in its 52-week program featuring formal training, resources, and access to a network of business mentors, advisors, counselors, and investors.

A new 140,000 square foot Student Innovation Center will open this fall as a hands-on hub for Iowa State students of all programs and majors. The center will provide a unique, state-of-the-art space for students to design, fabricate, test, and demonstrate ideas — everything from culinary to lunar, and digital gaming to vehicles. The facility also will include exhibit space, print and supplies shops, a student-run cafe, office space for student organizations, and a plethora of wireless access points.

“The facility will be unlike any other around the country – bringing students together from all majors and disciplines to build prototypes, test theories, and launch business concepts,” said President Wintersteen. “It will be the central hub for innovation and entrepreneurship on our campus as we continue to infuse this way of thinking in all of our academic programs.”

A 2019 economic and investment analysis reported that Iowa State University has an annual $3.4 billion impact on the state of Iowa, supporting more than 42,000 jobs and adding $422 million to Iowa’s economy from startup and spin-off companies.

America’s Cultivation Corridor is fortunate to have Iowa State University driving advancements in ag productivity and sustainability,” said Billi Hunt, America’s Cultivation Corridor executive director. “In addition to advancing innovation in its classrooms, labs, and the Student Innovation Center, it is a world-class institution connecting daily with farmers, entrepreneurs, and organizations to support their efforts to bring new ideas and technologies to the marketplace.”

*This article was sponsored by America’s Cultivation Corridor, an AgFunder Network Partner. Find out more here.*

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