A conversation with David Conrad, UI's economic development director

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He's lived in North Carolina, California and all around the Midwest, but Iowa feels like home.

“I think of Iowa City as just this oasis,” said David Conrad, who became the University of Iowa's economic development director in December 2013. He completes the UI's economic development leadership team, along with Dan Reed, the UI’s vice president for research and economic development, and David Hensley, associate vice president for economic development.

Previously, Conrad was the associate vice chancellor for technology development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he worked to create partnerships between university and industry. He has also worked at the Iowa State University Research Foundation and founded a software startup in Ames.

In his new role, Conrad will focus on engagement, including partnerships with businesses statewide and workforce development initiatives.

“What’s really changed, not just here, but across the country, is that universities have become more engaged in economic development,” he said. “They thought they could do it alone. What’s happened in the last few years is they’ve come to realize that they are one piece in the ecosystem you need to do a startup or get technology out to the market.”

While at UNL, he helped form a long-term partnership between Conagra Foods and the university's food science department. Scientists from academia and industry worked side-by-side, student interns became employees, equiptment and intellectual property was shared mutually and Con Agra scientists became adjunct faculty.

He saw similar things at Iowa State, where scientists had to work with agricultural giants to do research on their proprietary formulas.

He noted that the UI's role in statewide outreach is in flux, compared to Iowa State (and other land-grant universities nationwide) which has a presence in every county thanks to its extension mission.

“I sit on the interface of the private sector and the University – and that’s where I like to be,” he said. “Those two groups need each other desperately."

Although Conrad is new in his position, we were able to have a wide-ranging talk. Here are a few more of his insights:


On "brain drain"

Conrad noted that in places like California or North Carolina's research triangle, it's not that young talent never leaves - but that new talent is simultaneously attracted in a "brain gain."

“Having lived in southern California – people want to leave there too. They wanted to go to schools on the East Coast," he said. “The difference is, there’s brain gain too.”

On starting up in Iowa

While the challenges of creating a startup in the Silicon Prairie are often highlighted, Conrad pointed out a few benefits to starting here.

First, in smaller communities, startups have easier access to people for mentors or board members. On the coasts, he noted, only the most elite companies get this attention.

While finding funding can be an issue, Conrad said in his experience, investors will follow the entrepreneurs.

Finally, he noted the welcoming nature of the state.

“Here, it’s a very supportive community, and everyone wants to help you succeed,” he said. “If you’re in the startup community here, your opportunity for advancement is limitless."

On finding talent

A shortage of software developers in Iowa is a recognized pain point, that many in the UI acknowledged. Conrad noted that the universities and community colleges in the state play a role in helping to address workforce shortages.

To that end, the UI recently launched its Dev/Iowa boot camp, an intensive course in development that is open to anyone in the community.

“Some of these issues get talked about year after year," Conrad said. "I’m not ready to throw up my hands yet and say it’s not possible."

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