With opening of MERGE, development group continues working to foster local entrepreneurs

The new MERGE space in downtown Iowa City. — image by Jason Smith

The Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) has come a long way since its inception over 30 years ago. The organization celebrated its latest expansion with the opening of a new co-working space, MERGE, on the Iowa City Ped Mall earlier this month.

The organization got its start in 1984 when a Saturn auto plant, which had considered an Iowa City location, decided against moving to the area, meaning local residents missed out on those new jobs. As a result, the Iowa City Council and chamber of commerce decided to create a new organization specifically to welcome and aid the economic development of businesses dealing with interstate commerce — businesses that could decide to move anywhere. In a mutually beneficial relationship, those companies would bring new jobs to the area.

ICAD, a nonprofit organization, is funded by investors and partners in the community, including existing businesses like Proctor and Gamble. ICAD’s new MERGE space (136 S Dubuque St) in the Ped Mall offers co-working spaces for startups and individuals at a reduced rent rate, as well as mentorship and networking opportunities to help those smaller businesses make meaningful connections and grow in the Iowa City area.

MERGE hosted an open house for its Ped Mall space June 15, which coincided with the launch of protostudios, a rapid prototyping facility, and the Translational Research Incubator, a wet lab that lets people test out their intellectual property and develop proofs of concept. All three work in collaboration to support early incubation of businesses.

Stephen Pradarelli, the strategic communications director of the University of Iowa’s Office of Research and Economic Development said someone who might say, “I’ve got an idea and I don’t know if it’ll fly,” can come to these groups to try and figure out how to accomplish their goals and see their ideas come to life.

Matthew Howard, a University of Iowa professor and Department of Neurosurgery chair, spoke at the open house after performing four surgeries that day. He had in his hand an intricate silver tube he uses for surgeries. With the help of protostudios, which uses 3D printing to help lower costs and shorten the time it takes to make adjustments, Howard was able to develop this Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) tube in only three weeks. Another company previously took three months to create an ill-adapted prototype of the tube, he said.

“It is a tremendous game changer in terms of economic impact [for the medical field],” Howard said. “I am a very happy customer.”

Fred Skiff, chair of the University of Iowa Physics and Astronomy Department, approved the collaboration between the department in Van Allen Hall and protostudios. He said it’s too early to see how the collaboration will work out, but he is excited for all the possibilities this partnership will bring, such as internship opportunities for students to work with faculty on the 3D printing and design of new technologies.

Approximately 200 people who attended the open house on June 15, including a number of businesses affiliated with ICAD. Carolyn Rosenquist, an advertising and corporate relations manager at the Iowa Alumni Association, called the grand opening an “unprecedented event” that celebrated a collaboration between the university, city and local businesses and organizations.

During the event, James Durkin and Christian Tate, co-owners of UpintheAir Iowa, a drone company for aerial surveys, had a booth displaying two drones and an aerial video they produced of the University of Iowa campus. The company began their business about three years ago in a basement in the Quad Cities before branching out to Iowa City three months ago. ICAD provides them with an occasional work space for $100 dollars a month, and helped them network to find drone pilots to expand their business’ reach.

“It is difficult to start a business in the Quad Cities,” Durkin said. “Iowa City provides more of a community and more opportunities for a drone company.”

Erin Pottebaum, ICAD’s director of communications, said a group of six dedicated ICAD employees are available to help businesses with anything from consultation, workforce development, business development and business expansion and retention. Since 2013 they have watched more than 20 startups grow into independently functioning businesses.

“It’s all their ideas, we are simply the connectors,” Pottebaum said. “We can connect them with finances, mentors or with people who have already been through the process and can explain the better way to do it.”

ICAD hosts various events such as “Networking Using Social Media” and “Creating a Social Brand” to connect people and businesses in the community and help business thrive in an increasingly technological world.

Pottebaum cited the social media management shop Sculpt, which, in 2012, was housed in one of ICAD’s shared workspaces. Since then the company has grown into its own offices in the Ped Mall.

“One of the great things about working here is to watch an idea that is simply spoken from someone’s mouth grow into a real company or a real product,” Pottebaum said.

ICAD, too, has grown over the years. At first, it was housed in the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce offices on Washington Street, then it moved to a location on College Street and just last year it acquired the corner property in the Ped Mall. The group occupies both the main floor and the basement where, as construction hammered on over the past several months, the group of six dedicated employees worked without sunlight to keep various Iowa City businesses and developments afloat.

ICAD’s Mentor Connector Andre’ Wright said he thinks the MERGE space will be a game changer for the community.

“When you think or talk about how to connect people, I believe MERGE will be in that conversation,” Wright said. “The energy and collaboration that happens in the space is organic and meaningful. As a staff we pride ourselves on helping others, so it’s about how we can all win.”

Mark Nolte, ICAD president, moved to Iowa City in 1993 and has never left. He described his hometown — Sheffield, Iowa — as “a really small town and it is on the decline.”

“I don’t want to see that happen to Iowa City,” he said. “That’s where a lot of my passion comes from. If a community gets complacent bad things happen.”

Iowa City was ranked second among the top 50 cities for entrepreneurs in 2017, according to a list created through a collaboration between Entrepreneur magazine and Livability.

“That was unbelievable,” Nolte said of the ranking. “To have that sort of recognition for the hard work all the people here do is fantastic.”

One new entrepreneur, Abram Nothnagle, just graduated from the University of Iowa with two degrees in electrical and computer engineering and applied physics. Nothnagle, an Iowa City native, co-founded a local small appliance company, Nothsor Systems, with the help of ICAD partner John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). He and business partner Doron Tsachor design products used for robotics, hobbyists or for industrial settings.

Nothnagle said ICAD and its partners have been “a good way for small businesses to get going and to help small businesses like ours to do all we want to do to accomplish our dreams.”

He envisions his company will contribute to job creation and technology development in Iowa City.

Many speeches given at the MERGE open house emphasized the importance of keeping young people, like Nothnagle, who graduate from the University of Iowa and Kirkwood College in the area by giving them a reason to stay.

With a location in the heart of Iowa City’s downtown, Pottebaum said they hope the space will be “the living room of the community.” Looking outside the windows at the Ped Mall playground, Nolte said they hoped that the kids playing there might look in and wonder what is happening inside, sparking a curiosity that could lead them to be part of this expanding entrepreneurial community.

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