Education

UI set to raze aged tech innovation center

Closure comes as business incubator space swells

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CORALVILLE — As the University of Iowa sharpens its focus on start-ups — unveiling in August plans to resurrect the flood-ravaged art building as an innovation center by 2021 — it recently closed and plans to raze the aged building housing a Technology Innovation Center and its remaining tenants.

The UI Research Park’s former center no longer served as a conducive incubator for start-ups as originally envisioned, said UI Strategic Communications Director Stephen Pradarelli.

“In the end, out of the handful of the folks working in that space before it closed, none were with start-ups,” he said in an email.

The building at 2261 Crosspark Road — which in a past life housed nurses working with tuberculosis patients — dates to 1927, well before it opened as the Technology Innovation Center in 1984. It was costing the university about $250,000 a year to operate but generating about $70,000 annually in rent — leaving a gap of about $180,000 to be paid for by a state special appropriation.

Its nearly-century old accommodations — which most recently supported 10 tenants — would have been “difficult or impossible — and very expensive — to update,” Pradarelli said.

“Among other things, it lacked central heat and air conditioning, and the thick brick walls made setting up reliable Wi-Fi connections very difficult,” he said.

The UI notified tenants months before the Sept. 30 closure they would need to relocate.

The news didn’t surprise former tenant Steven Mitchell, founder and owner of the Componica software engineering firm.

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“They have been saying for years they would demolish the building,” he said. “It was one of those things where they would say, ‘We’re going to shut down the building’ and then months later say, ‘We don’t have the budget for demolition.’”

The university in September received Board of Regents permission to raze the “obsolete” building with “significant deferred maintenance issues.” Costs still are being calculated, but officials expect they’ll reach at least $25,000.

The call to raze the building comes as the university grapples with weakening state support, prompting it to increase tuition, close several UI centers and think expansively about new revenue sources.

Mitchell said although he understands the UI’s decision to shutter the center, he sees it as a lost opportunity.

“To me, it’s like the university had a potential thing and they didn’t know to manage it,” he said.

Because Mitchell has been busy negotiating contracts for his consulting firm, he didn’t have time to find another home base before the September deadline.

“We moved all our equipment into my basement,” he said. “The people who worked with me are working from home.”

Co-working and incubator space has become increasingly common across Eastern Iowa — including on the UI campus and at a ProtoStudios-Merge collaboration space in downtown Iowa City. The UI also recently announced plans to renovate its art building into an innovation center, although programming for it has not been finalized.

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“So while the spaces and resources have shifted away from (the Technology Innovation Center), our commitment to helping entrepreneurial faculty translate their research into viable businesses and commercial products and services continues unabated,” Pradarelli said.

The Iowa City Area Development Group — behind the Merge collaboration — is opening a new business incubator and co-working facility next month in Coralville.

ICAD President Mark Nolte cited the recent closure of the UI’s Technology Innovation Center and the hole it created in justifying development of a new incubator space.

“There were some companies that just were displaced,” he said.

Jonathan DeShaw — lead engineer for ActiBioMotion, which offers engineering services and products to the military and industry, said he, too, was not surprised by the closure. His company landed the last two spots at the nearby UI BioVentures Center — also in the UI Research Park — making the move only a minor inconvenience.

“It would have been neat to redo” the center given its history, he said. “But I can’t even imagine the cost to redo something like that.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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