116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s entrepreneurs have always had plenty of ideas. They’re just short on capital.
That thinking was what drove the Iowa Startup Accelerator to create ISA Ventures back in 2019.
Its goal? To raise more than $20 million for the ISA Ventures Fund, with the goal of investing in not only Iowa start-ups, but in companies that are ready to go on to the next stage.
Three years later, that dream is very much proceeding the way founders had hoped.
“We're about on pace for where we thought we would be,” said Eric Engelmann, general partner of ISA Ventures. “We’ve invested in 35 companies so far, and we’re continuing to mentor those founders and help them grow.
“There is $100,000 of investment potential from joining the Accelerator, and we’re working hard to get more companies to that level.”
Growing by stages
Based in Cedar Rapids, the Iowa Startup Accelerator is a six-month accelerator with access to four distinct stages of investment for Iowa-based start-up businesses.
The accelerator program provides investment capital and a stage-specific bundle of resources appropriate for scaling a start-up.
Companies begin the Accelerator at the Foundation stage with a capital investment of $25,000, with potential for an additional $75,000 investment as benchmarks are achieved.
Further investment is possible, too, up to $1 million, as companies continue to grow.
“ISA Ventures is an active venture firm that participates in the development and growth of their investments, more so than many other venture firms and accelerators,” said Alex Taylor, Iowa Startup Accelerator managing director.
“We have analysts who provide financial guidance and development. We provide industry and content-specific programming and mentors. The accelerator helps founders with their pitches for venture capital and sales. and we give start-ups resources that many other firms have to find on their own.”
Part of those resources include Taylor, who gives founders access to the large network he’s built over the years.
Taylor, who joined the Accelerator in 2020, has had a long career in Eastern Iowa, including stints with McLeodUSA, Parsons Technology, LIVEware5, Dell Computer Corporation, Efunds and Digital Diagnostics in Coralville.
He also helped to re-establish the Tippie Executive MBA program in Des Moines for the University of Iowa.
In addition, Taylor and his wife, Laura, co-own Woofables Gourmet Dog Biscuit Bakery in Coralville.
Engelmann notes that Taylor’s extensive network of contacts made him ideal to head up the Accelerator team.
“One of the things Alex does really well is his ability to connect people, and to get them in front of people who they need to be talking to,” Engelmann said.
Mikayla Sullivan, co-founder of Ames-based start-up Kinosol and mentor at Techstars Iowa, now uses her experience to help other Iowa businesses in the Iowa Startup Accelerator and ISA Ventures.
“This felt like a great opportunity to take everything I have learned over the past six years and use it to help others,” Sullivan said.
“I get to spend my days with founders, whether it's evaluating them for investment or helping them grow their business.”
Continuing to grow
A major goal for the Accelerator is to see more companies reach late-stage growth, with investments of $100,000 Sullivan said.
“The question we’re asking is, ‘How do we have more high growth companies, and how do we support them along the way?’” she noted.
The key to succeeding in the Accelerator is a founder's willingness to learn from mistakes — as well as successes — and be flexible to change and adapt as the start-up grows, Taylor said.
“It’s better to have a marginal idea with great founders, than it is to have a great business idea with marginal founders.” he said. “Because once you start implementing a business plan, that idea is going to change.
“And you need founders who are smart enough and flexible enough to pivot with those changes.”
Taylor pointed to Steel Therapeutics, one of the more recent participants in the Accelerator, as a big success story for ISA Ventures.
A biotech company, focused on pharmaceuticals. Steel’s initial product is a delivery solution for a pharmaceutical compound to treat a common medical condition, improve compliance and increase efficacy.
Among the expanding late-stage companies with ISA Ventures are:
- Gross-Wen Technologies in Slater, with patented wastewater treatment technology that recovers nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater
- Higher Learning Technologies in Coralville, featuring mobile applications to help students study for tests and certifications
- SmartScripts in Washington, a personalized pharmacy that delivers convenient, multi-dose prescription strips to customers’ homes.
To qualify for the Accelerator, a company must meet the following criteria:
- Established start-up — pre- or early revenue
- Scalable on a national level
- Be a team of experienced co-founders (preferred rather than required)
- Demonstrated customer knowledge and product and/or service knowledge
- Able to demonstrate a competitive advantage and value proposition.
For companies that meet those requirements, the Iowa Startup Accelerator currentlyis recruiting participants for its next cohort. Applications are available online at newbo.co.
“The purpose of the Iowa Startup Accelerator is something like adding an accelerant to a flame that's already burning,” Engelmann said.
“Founders can't possibly know everything they need to know. The Accelerator helps the process of building a business go faster by either coaching the founder or providing them with resources and connections to help them make better decisions more quickly.”