Jon Darsee shown in downtown Iowa City during a recent interview. The former Hawkeye is returning to Iowa to lead the university’s innovation efforts. PHOTO KATHARINE CARLON
By Katharine Carlon
Jon Darsee learned a little something about teamwork after starting the 1979-80 Iowa Hawkeye basketball season as a walk-on and ending it at the Final Four.
The University of Iowa’s first-ever chief innovation officer parlayed the lessons learned on that powerhouse team – namely bringing “the right resources together to form great chemistry” – into off-the-court success, helping to launch six startups. The most notable, medical device firm iRhythm Technologies, grew from a bootstrapped startup in 2007 to a nearly 700-employee company that went public for an industry record-setting $107 million in 2016.
Now, hoping to use those lessons to give campus-generated ideas and innovations real world impact, the 1982 alum has returned home to Iowa to help connect people, resources and new sources of capital and build teams that can execute.
“We’re basically a startup,” said Mr. Darsee of his office, which counts UI Ventures, Protostudios, the UI Research Park, the Office of Corporate Engagement and MADE, a new manufacturing and e-commerce initiative by the UI, within its purview. “We’ve got to be scrappy and nimble in trying to find money and resources to help this initiative.”
Mr. Darsee, who took up his position in October, said his role was to “support innovation in any form and from any level of the organization,” whether it’s by scientists or artists, or students, staff or faculty. He has also been charged with creating “synergies” across the campus, within the community and among the state’s other regent universities.
“I think it’s pivotal to our success that we are able to work together and collaborate,” he said. “We’ve had people within different colleges doing it – some of them brilliantly. Now we have an entity on campus not tied to any one of those colleges, but who is thinking everyday about how to move ideas to actual impact.”
Mr. Darsee said his office’s to-do list includes several major initiatives: the transformation of the former Art Building along the Iowa River into a new $20-25 million innovation center; bringing in talent and money to help foster and fuel ideas to marketable fruition; and connectivity – “creating an ecosystem that is connected to the right tools and talent necessary for anybody who’s trying to innovate on campus.”
Asked about the fundamental challenges facing the school’s innovators, Mr. Darsee said talent was number one. He cited the medical arena – the UI’s largest output area – as having the biggest current support deficit.
“We have a wonderful medical school with a lot of brilliant researchers, but what we don’t have is much medical industry in the state of Iowa. Thus we lack local business talent to help steward you through a process – to understand, to vet your idea, to understand how strong or how weak it is, do you need to pivot?”
To overcome the talent challenge, he said, the UI will need to import it by fanning out across the country and finding people, “ideally those who have a real passion for Iowa” to serve as mentors and guides. Mr. Darsee said the lack of industry and supporting infrastructure in the state compared to some other Big Ten states grounds him and his expectations.
“But the extent that we can import that talent [from hubs like San Francisco and Boston] is easier than it’s ever been,” he said. “The ability of video communication and the ability for people to work remotely is such a norm today that it makes our challenges less daunting.”
Funding – building connections to venture capital, angel investors and seed capital money – is another critical focus area, particularly for innovators in the early make-or-break period when good ideas can easily wither on the vine.
“We often have startups that get to a critical mass, win government support and find grants – and then they kind of fall of a cliff,” Mr. Darsee said. “The Iowa Economic Development Authority is a big help, but we still have that ‘gap’ before they’re a revenue-producing company – particularly in health care, where the regulator environment plus scientific studies can mean many years between idea and patient impact.”
Since taking on his new role, Mr. Darsee has started “network building,” bringing in venture capitalists and entrepreneurs from the coasts, many of whom are surprised by the size of the university, the available infrastructure and the friendliness of Iowans.
“Once you get them here, they always leave saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’”
He added that his office has also begun exploring ways of raising seed capital money, including a model based on the Ames Seed Capital Fund, which helps fund startups out of Iowa State University and Story County.
Building a local ecosystem to further support innovation is an important pillar in the strategy, and one that could include encouraging talented Iowans who have moved away to return to their home state, much as Mr. Darsee did himself. That would help build bridges to the greater innovation community, and help toot the university’s horn about its many successes – something, he notes, Iowans sometimes have difficulty doing.
“Celebrating our successes, like [health-tech spinout] IDx recently, for example, puts us at a different sort of level of credibility in the nation and in the world,” he said, relating “the phenomenal reputation and sort of aura” around the company at the recent JP Morgan Healthcare Conference of health care venture capitalists in San Francisco.
“Look at IDT or CIVCO – both started by University of Iowa staff and today are major employers in the area. Look at the success of ed-tech in our area, starting with ACT and most recently with HLT – started by students. Can we leverage our deep bench in this area to become the national hub for innovative educational ideas? That’s an exciting prospect considering our local talent and expertise. Trying to find where the low hanging fruit is for us and maximizing that is really important.”