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There was no debate Thursday morning that innovation in Iowa is happening more frequently than it was a decade ago.

The unresolved question was how entrepreneurs and companies based in Iowa can innovate faster.

The Des Moines Business Record hosted a “Power Breakfast” panel discussion around “Innovation Acceleration” Thursday morning inside the Embassy Club at the Ruan Center in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Each panelist represented a different sector within Iowa’s startup ecosystem.

The panelists were:

Stephanie Atkin – Vice President of Marketing at Dwolla
Craig Ibsen – Managing Partner at Next Level Ventures
Megan Milligan – President & CEO of the Iowa Center for Economic Success
Jeff Russell – President & CEO of Delta Dental of Iowa
Geoff Wood – Founder of Gravitate

Business Record Publisher Chris Conetzkey served as the moderator. He started the conversation by asking each panelist to describe their place within Iowa’s tech ecosystem.

“We are here to show that yes, Iowa can have a successful tech company,” Atkin said of Dwolla in her opening remarks. “We believe there is an enormous opportunity for Iowa to showcase the amazing talent and capabilities that can be built in the Midwest.”

Atkin said initiatives like the Power Breakfast are great starting points to bring together the connective tissue of the innovation community to talk about the challenges others are facing and how to best solve them, together. She mentioned Monetery, a two-day tech summit that brings outside investors and successful builders of companies to Des Moines as a way to expose local entrepreneurs to successful leaders in the industry nationwide.

“These people have actually built and scaled companies,” Atkin says. “So people in the Midwest can learn from them. We want to use this opportunity (Monetery) as a megaphone to say you can do this in Des Moines.

“And it’s not just Dwolla doing this by ourselves. We’re doing it with the help of our community.”

Advice to Aspiring Innovators

As the discussion came to a close, Conetzkey asked each panelist to give advice to someone looking to innovate within their company or who are interested in starting their own venture.

Atkin recommended to “Live your values” as a company and to “be vocal about who you are and the causes you believe in.”

“Be intentional about seeking diverse experiences, people and ideas,” Atkin says. “If you are sitting around a table making decisions about your business, and everyone looks like you, you really need to change that and invite other people to be part of those conversations. Ultimately that will strengthen your organization.”

And don’t be afraid of failure.

“Embrace failure,” Atkin says. “You can do micro-innovations. We (Dwolla) embrace trying new things. And we embrace failing. We move fast, fail, accept it, learn from it and move on. Then sharing those openly is a really good thing.”

At the Center of the Ecosystem

The panel represented an increasingly louder conversation about what the Midwest could be in terms of innovation, a conversation that Dwolla has frequently found itself involved in. This fall, the company hosted a roundtable in September and presented at the Iowa Technology Summit in October. Dwolla recently participated in a national task force for faster electronic payments and submitted its Faster Payment Proposal in January of 2017..

Each conversation, each panel, each event further brings into the open the desire for the Midwest to be a leader in technology and brings the region closer to realizing that dream.

Attendees at Thursday’s panel were encouraged to be entrepreneurial in their own way, even as part of a large corporation, to continue the shift in thinking that will make the Midwest a fertile place for startups, innovation and new ideas.

Many companies, like Dwolla, already realize the benefits of what the Midwest offers for tech companies.

“Dwolla doubled down in Des Moines,” Atkin says. “But we also doubled down on raising the visibility about what you can build in Iowa.”


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