Developing Iowa’s innovation economy

By Eric Engelmann / Guest Column

In a recent WalletHub study on the most innovative states, Iowa ranked 44th. The ranking was based on R&D spending, patents, entrepreneurial activity, venture capital activity and other factors. While we could quibble about the ranking itself, there’s no doubt there’s a significant opportunity for improvement in our region’s innovation economy.

That ranking reflects how just about every aspect of creating new, innovative products is changing. And many Iowa companies aren’t ready.

It’s true in software: New practices allow companies to deliver higher-quality products, rapidly, with fewer errors. Geonetric, in Cedar Rapids, uses techniques to dramatically reduce defects by automatically testing its software. The company has the ability to release new versions to customers in minutes, instead of weeks or months. Though many larger organizations still haven’t adopted these software techniques in Iowa, they’re commonplace in Silicon Valley and elsewhere; virtually every startup uses them.

It’s true in manufacturing: Boeing is 3-D printing parts for the 787 Dreamliner in titanium, saving millions per plane. Saab’s Gripen fighter aircraft is being developed for a fraction of the cost of the F-35 – without the multi-billion dollar cost overruns – and is designed to be upgraded quickly and reliably. Startups are threatening older manufacturers by taking advantage of the plummeting cost of developing new, customized products. They’re designing their companies to require less manufacturing overhead, shorter supply chains and to be more flexible than established manufacturers.

It’s true in professional and service businesses: New business models are aiming to disrupt even the most stable companies in travel, finance, e-commerce and just about every professional industry. Startups around the world are taking aim at established companies. Consider Warby Parker, which sells prescription eyeglasses online and allows you to try them on at home and ship back the styles you don’t want, at a fraction of the price of traditional retailers. It’s a $1.2 billion company, and it’s just seven years old.

It’s true in how organizations are designed: We’re seeing flatter hierarchies, more engaged workforces and organizations that are designed to thrive in rapidly changing market conditions rather than merely tolerating them. Company cultures can be built explicitly for the purpose of continuous innovation over time. Both older and new companies are doing this, ranging from WD40 to Zappos to New Belgium Brewing Company. But few in Eastern Iowa are.

At NewBoCo, our team of 18 is focused on exactly these kinds of problems, and on bringing new ways of thinking to our region. We’re teaching advanced software techniques in our DeltaV Code School and consulting with local companies to implement them. Our prototyping labs and our team work with manufacturers to reduce cycle time and improve quality. Our startup accelerator works with dozens of early-stage companies to identify new trends and business models, and helps them grow here. And we are pioneering new ways to design organizations for the 21st century and we’re showing others how to do it.

But we’re certainly not doing this alone. We’re working with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance to produce EntreFEST in Iowa City in May, and one of the founders of Warby Parker is our keynote speaker. We’re working with the University of Iowa to speed commercialization of new ideas generated by researchers and stu dents like SwineTech. And we’re plugged into a worldwide network of innovators and thinkers at the bleeding edge of this movement so we can bring those ideas to life here in Eastern Iowa.

And we’re growing, too: We’ve hired Mandy Webber as our director of innovation to lead these initiatives. She’s heading up our new Corporate Innovation program to give local companies in Eastern Iowa a means to harness the entrepreneurial mindset and tap into these kinds of ideas.

While we might rank 44th right now, we see a bright future for regional innovation in Eastern Iowa.

Eric Engelmann is the former CEO of Geonetric, in Cedar Rapids, and now leads the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo), a nonprofit that operates the Iowa Startup Accelerator, DeltaV Code School and Corridor Angel Investors, among other programs.