Iowa: A Cradle For Innovation

From cloud computing to biorenewables, Iowa has reinvented itself as a cradle for innovation.

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Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA)

The word innovative is thrown around liberally these days — it’s almost a prerequisite when describing a tech wunderkind or ambitious entrepreneur of any merit. But if you ask Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA), the most inventive and problem-solving people she knows were innovating long before it was a buzzword. Those people are farmers.

Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA)
(Photo: Iowa Economic Development Authority)

“If you look at the yields these farmers are getting from their land and the added value they’re providing, this is an extremely innovative group of people,” says Durham. “Really, there isn’t a more innovative group.”

If you think that’s corn-fed hyperbole, consider this: Iowa’s rich and proven tradition of excellence in agriculture — coupled with its open-armed welcome of new businesses and new ideas — has made it a fertile hub for cutting-edge industries like biorenewables, the collective name given to enterprises that create products from natural, sustainable materials.


In 2016, then governor — now U.S. Ambassador to China — Terry Branstad signed legislation to establish a biochemical production tax credit, the first-of-its-kind in the nation. For a state whose agricultural landscape already presents an ideal environment for companies that turn biomass feedstock into products, the credit further establishes Iowa as the industry’s preeminent incubator.

The tax credit, which provides up to $10 million annually to companies that produce biochemicals in the state, is slated to run for 10 years. Late in 2016, the USDA issued a report stating “Iowa has invested more in biobased manufacturing capital assets than any other state.”


In business terms, companies come to Iowa for the natural resources and stay for the infrastructure support. Over the past five years, 78 percent of patents issued in the state directly impacted advanced manufacturing, and manufacturing exports grew nearly 80 percent from 2005 to 2015. Perhaps most impressive is the university system: Iowa’s colleges and universities turn out more than 5,300 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates annually, with over 2,000 engineering graduates.

A natural point of emphasis is biochemicals. Brent Shanks, an Iowa native, is director of the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals at Iowa State University where he heads a team of engineers that researches the processes that turn raw biomass into bio-based chemicals. Shanks and his colleagues have been able to push forward progressive, paradigm-shifting ideas in a remarkably short period of time.

“When we first started working on this area of research around 2001 and 2002, we’d go to our national chemical engineering conferences and almost no one was working in the area. We helped get some sessions going at those national meetings,” says Shanks. “When we went last year to the meeting, there were probably 40 sessions on these topics.”

As a professor at a state university, Shanks appreciates the support he receives from Iowa, which he says has been deliberate in funding research specifically focused on biorenewables. He has helped the IEDA too, contributing to a white paper recommending bio-based chemical production tax credits. Such a symbiotic relationship represents exactly the type of partnerships the state wants to develop, and what makes Iowa an exciting place to do groundbreaking work.

Shanks and his team are currently working with a series of newly discovered molecules, which might not seem like something that touches day-to-day life until you consider the opportunities. “We have one molecule that’s a really interesting mosquito repellent that no one has ever looked at before,” says Shanks. “We have another one that’s a really interesting food preservative. To me, that’s the exciting part about biomass. If you can talk about new molecules, now you’re talking new value propositions to move our society forward.”


The IEDA is particularly focused on fostering private-sector innovation. That explains why Iowa has been able to attract companies typically associated with Silicon Valley. It all starts with wind. Iowa’s farmlands are literally swept by wind, which — when properly harnessed —represents a massive supply of renewable energy.

Tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft have taken notice and established large-scale data-server operations in Iowa. (Yes, Iowa’s wind is being used to help power the cloud.) In 2014, Facebook partnered with local utility, MidAmerican Energy, to establish its first facility powered 100 percent by wind energy in the city of Altoona, bringing 75 full-time jobs and hundreds of skilled construction jobs during the continued construction.

“Stewardship that comes from the value of the land is in Iowa’s DNA,” says Durham. “Thirty-five percent of our energy portfolio is renewable, and with new installations coming, we’ll be at 40 percent. That’s a huge calling card to companies, particularly publicly traded ones. I always say that you can find sustainability within the first two sentences of their mission statements.”

The innovations coming from the Hawkeye State leave an impact on the entire country. To keep the advances coming, Durham and her colleagues at the IEDA understand they must keep their focus trained on Iowa.

“The wealth comes from the land,” says Durham. “Through the decades, we’ve always looked at how to add value to the land. Ethanol and biodiesel resulted from that conversation decades ago. Now, we’re taking it to the next level.”