#StartupsEverywhere Profile: David Tominsky, Managing Director of the Iowa Startup Accelerator, Cedar Rapids, IA.
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
What is your role in the Cedar Rapids ecosystem?
I am the Managing Director at the Iowa Startup Accelerator, which is powered by the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo). Prior to joining the Iowa Startup Accelerator in 2014, I had a 15-year career in the technical staffing industry recruiting highly skilled technical talent for critical positions in Iowa-based companies.
Can you tell us a little bit more about NewBoCo?
NewBoCo’s mission is to accelerate world-changing ideas from Iowa. We fill in the pieces of the puzzle that were previously missing in Cedar Rapids. With our entrepreneurial programs, including the Iowa Startup Accelerator and our pre-accelerator programs, we offer investment, mentoring, and workshops that allow impactful startups to grow.
Among the initiatives we have developed to achieve this is our DeltaV Code School, which gives startups access to world-class technical talent and builds a skilled workforce for local businesses. Moreover, our Imagination Iowa programs encourage K-12 students to get excited about STEM and fosters the technical and creative talent for the next generation of startup leaders. Finally, Vault Coworking and Vault Labs help promising companies develop new products.
In short, NewBoCo works to ensure that entrepreneurs can #KeepBuilding.
Wow, that’s a lot! Can you tell us more about what the Iowa Startup Accelerator does?
The Iowa Startup Accelerator (ISA) is NewBoCo’s flagship program and Iowa’s first tech based accelerator. It’s a rigorous, 12-month program for Iowa’s entrepreneurs that comes with a financial investment. In the past three years, we’ve invested in 24 companies that have raised over $4.2 million.
It sounds like you play a big role in the Cedar Rapids startup community. What’s the most significant thing that has happened there in the past year?
We survived another flood! It may not sound like it, but this is a huge deal for our community. For some context, in 2008, the Cedar River flooded Cedar Rapids and other eastern Iowa cities, causing the sixth largest FEMA disaster declaration. Over 10,000 Cedar Rapids residents were displaced from their homes as over 10 square miles of the city, including the entire downtown area and one of the city’s two hospitals, flooded. The 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids shaped who we are as a community. Instead of being washed away, it encouraged us to thrive.
Cedar Rapids’ collaborative spirit was strengthened by this flood. So, when we heard there was another “100 year flood” coming our way last fall, our whole community showed up in force to save all the local businesses, housing, and startups that grew back. Volunteer turnout and donations exceeded everyone’s expectations. We survived the flood with comparatively minimal damage to homes and businesses.
That flood gave our community a lot to celebrate and a lot to learn from. There’s a clear need for innovation in disaster response, and there’s no better place to innovate in that industry than Cedar Rapids.
What is the biggest challenge that innovators face in Cedar Rapids?
The biggest challenge for entrepreneurs in Cedar Rapids is density, both for building a supportive community and having access to technical talent. Having a critical mass of entrepreneurs and talent makes it possible for founders to find someone to help mentor them through a struggle. It’s also important for hiring developers and inspiring new products. We’re working on addressing this challenge with our DeltaV Code School and prototyping labs. By training new talent and increasing resources for existing talent, we’re working on removing this roadblock for our ecosystem. The work we are doing is designed to create dense networks of creative people doing innovative things and making sure these networks are connected in a meaningful way.
What is a unique, positive feature of your startup community?
Collaboration is a key characteristic of Cedar Rapids’ startup community. We have a natural, friendly community filled with a strong, Midwestern work ethic. Partnering with our local government or other companies is completely normal. People are very willing to provide a helping hand to new businesses in many different ways.
NewBoCo is also a unique feature of the Iowa startup community because of the massive scope of our programming. Instead of being fragmented across many organizations, many of the key support systems for entrepreneurs are in one central location, simplifying the complicated journey of growing a new business. Most startup communities don’t have an organization with 16 employees (soon to be more!) working to support innovation from coworking to prototyping to educational programs. That being said, we partner heavily with other economic development and entrepreneurial support organizations, such as the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Centers, the Small Business Development Centers, and many more. Our startup ecosystem is very closely knit, and we all play different yet complementary roles.
Have you or NewBoCo had interactions with local or national policymakers?
Well, Iowa is a very political state—it’s pretty much impossible to avoid interactions with national policymakers. Caucus and election season brings policymakers on both sides of the aisle to our area in droves. We’ve hosted various presidential candidates in our building and would welcome more to attend!
We also are lucky to have a supportive and engaged city government. For example, our mayor, Ron Corbett, was the keynote speaker for Launch Day 2014. In addition, we have several city officials who are committed to fostering entrepreneurship that repeatedly and routinely travel to Kauffman Foundation events. Cedar Rapids is definitely open for business and our local government constantly works to expand that.
What is one thing that policymakers can do to help the startup community in Cedar Rapids?
Health insurance reform is very important to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Small business owners and self-employed individuals have historically been nearly three times as likely to purchase Obamacare plans than other Americans. Continued access to this affordable coverage is critical. In order for our startup ecosystem and local economy to keep growing, policy leaders can’t strangle entrepreneurs’ ability to seek medical care. If our leaders repeal the current health care law, we hope that they replace it with something meaningful for entrepreneurs.
If I could have a second wishlist item, it would be for it to be easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to start their businesses in Iowa. I think the country would benefit from removing barriers to entry for promising entrepreneurs from around the world to come here and start their businesses. There are many ways that Iowa could lead the nation in this area and I’d love NewBoCo and the Iowa Startup Accelerator to lead an initiative like this.
What are some other startups to watch coming out of Cedar Rapids?
I hate to brag, but some of the best are in our portfolio. I’m keeping my eye on:
SwineTech, an ag-tech startup working to reduce piglet mortalities on farrowing facilities all over the world.
AssetRover, which simplifies real estate investing through education and powerful investor-grade tools.
Lendedu, a marketplace for student loans and student loan refinance.
Girls With Ideas, which offers interactive leadership curriculum, programs, & products for girls ages 9-13 to help them become confident, creative leaders.