John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers celebrate 25 years with announcement of new donation

“I dream all of the time. I want you all to know that ever since I’ve been a little boy, I dream about things that I want to do. I would dream about making money and dream about giving the money away; I dream about helping people.”

John Pappajohn recounted the familiar story of the dream he had to make Iowa the most entrepreneurial state in the nation for the attendees of the Sept. 23 event honoring the 25th anniversary of the five John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers.

Born in Greece and raised in Mason City, Pappajohn’s Depression-era upbringing required him to quickly learn independence and how to navigate adversity, instilling skills he would need for his entrepreneurial future.

After starting his own business out of college and later organizing Equity Dynamics Inc. and his venture capital firm Pappajohn Capital Resources, Pappajohn was prepared to act in 1996 when he first had the idea to start the centers.

The centers, located on campuses of five colleges and universities across the state, have since supported and fostered entrepreneurship in Iowa among students, faculty and community members with numerous programs, competitions and resources.

“Tonight one of my dreams came true,” Pappajohn said, acknowledging Iowa’s strides in entrepreneurship over the last 25 years.

A total of $25 million in funding from John and Mary Pappajohn has supported the centers throughout their lifetime, and at Thursday’s event John announced to the more than 300 attendees that another $10 million will be donated to the centers.

“This money is to perpetuate the growth of entrepreneurs in the state of Iowa, help young people learn how to make a living, help them to become smarter,” Pappajohn said. “I just expect that things will get better. We’ve come a long way, and another $10 million I think will help because we learned much by the time we got here.”

David Hensely, executive director of the University of Iowa JPEC, announced the Iowa JPEC’s Venture Mentoring Service at the anniversary event, which is launching as a pilot program at each of the five centers this fall. A portion of the $10 million donation will support the program.

Hensley said in an interview with the Business Record that the Venture Mentoring Service will connect early-stage companies with a network of Iowa’s serial entrepreneurs, business experts and investors. The goal is to unite the five centers around the collaborative program and to scale it statewide in spring 2022.

“Because we’re doing this through the five centers, let’s say there’s somebody in north-central Iowa who has a medical technology, they’ll be able to connect to the network through the University of Iowa and our medical school, our medtech entrepreneur venture programs,” Hensley said. “We’ll be able to connect entrepreneurs from anywhere across the state to the best talent that we have access to.”

Hensley said the centers will use a hybrid model, allowing them to widen their pool of mentors even if they are out of state. The JPEC mentoring program is based on the Venture Mentoring Service at MIT — Pappajohn center staff members received training this summer from MIT in preparation for the launch.

Among other highlights from the event were speeches commemorating the anniversary and honoring the Pappajohn’s legacy from IEDA Executive Director Debi Durham, former Gov. Terry Branstad and Gov. Kim Reynolds, who ended her remarks by signing a proclamation designating Sept. 23 as John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Day in Iowa.

The nine finalists of the Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition were recognized and received their awards, with [Nanovaccine Institute member] Skroot Laboratory Inc. winning the first prize of $40,000.

Nigel Reuel

Skroot is a biotechnology company whose main product is a wireless sensor that aids pharmaceutical manufacturing, particularly in the area of cell and protein therapy development. Founder and President Nigel Reuel said Skroot’s technology negates the need for manual sampling to check the progress of cell growth, as the process risks introducing bacteria and disrupting the experiment.

Reuel, who is also an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State, said after experience with the pain point as a grad student at MIT and doing related research with his students, he saw a need for Skroot’s technology that he couldn’t ignore.

Skroot entered the venture competition last year and received an honorable mention. The team has received federal funding from the National Science Foundation and others, but Reuel said the winnings from this year’s competition will help propel them forward in new ways.

“The type of funds that John Pappajohn provides are helpful in terms of doing things like customer discovery and being able to maybe expand our product line beyond what we’re currently working on,” he said. “I think also just the publicity and presence that it brings [helps] because we’ve largely run on a shoestring budget. But before Thanksgiving, we want to raise a bridge round, so we have an opportunity for others to take an equity stake in our company. For this first-time offering, this allows people to know who we are and have a stamp of validation, which is great.”

— Sarah Bogaards, 9/30/2021