Rural Opportunity Initiative held in Des Moines
By KRISS NELSON
DES MOINES – A new program has been formed to help match banks and other venture capital firms with rural companies that are looking to raise capital.
Global Social Enterprise Initiative’s Rural Opportunity Initiative held a conference earlier this month in Des Moines. According to the initiative’s founder, Matt McKenna, the session went well, with plans being put into place for another one.
GSEI is a part of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. McKenna said the Rural Opportunity Initiative partners with Iowa State University, Mississippi State University and Purdue University, as well as the USDA.
He spent four years at the USDA under Secretary Tom Vilsack and the initiative is a continuation of those efforts that were started during that time.
“The goal of the initiative is to find new ways of focusing private investment in rural America to generate more prosperity, both on the farm and around the farm as well,” McKenna said.
The first step in this exercise is to conduct conferences in Iowa, Mississippi and Indiana around venture capital opportunities.
“Small- to medium-sized companies are looking for capital to expand,” he said. “We thought these conferences are a good way of introducing not only just the topic of how to raise capital, but more importantly, to bring capital providers to the table with some companies that need capital and try to match investments to investors.
“That is the purpose of the conference,” McKenna added.
At the recent session, McKenna said they had three groups of stakeholders, great representation from ISU, the government and public sector of Iowa and almost 25 small companies that are looking for capital, as well as close to 15 bankers looking to invest money.
Businesses were limited to those close to the ag sector.
“We didn’t venture too far beyond the ag sector,” he said. “But these days it’s a hard line to draw between a lot of small businesses and the relationships with agriculture, particularly in Iowa where agriculture has such a dominate economic impact.”
One of the companies that attended the Rural Opportunity Initiative was Performance Livestock Analytics, Inc., of Ames.
Dustin Balsley, co-founder of the company, said he didn’t set out to attend the event with the hopes of finding investors, but more for networking and learning opportunities.
“It was a good opportunity for myself and the company to connect with other entrepreneurs and investment companies,” he said. “It is always good to meet new people and open up new doors.”
Balsley said the event also provided him the opportunity to meet some of those people behind the success stories.
“You get to have those conversations with people you wouldn’t normally have the chance to,” he said.
Balsley said Performance Livestock Analytics, Inc., which started in 2015, creates software for the beef industry.
Its newest product, “Performance Beef,” was released in January 2017 and is designed for feedlot producers.
“It helps them to track each dollar spent and provides them with a real time look at how their operation is going,” he said. “It allows them to make decisions for their operation based on data.”
McKenna said, short term, the day is built around trying to find specific investments for specific investors. But there’s more.
“The bigger picture and the larger goal that these conferences allow us to achieve are to draw awareness to the lack of capital in rural America and why investors should focus in this geography,” he said. “There’s no lack in America today of investable dollars; the economy is doing great, returns are very low and a lot of investments, which is evidence there is too much money chasing too few opportunities.”
McKenna said it is believed, as far as the rural side of the equation goes, part of the reason for the imbalance is because there is not an awareness of those investment opportunities.
“Sometimes they are too small to attract the big investment firms and our effort is trying to attack that problem,” he said. “In other words, how to make the big players on the East Coast and West Coast – how do we get them to look at the middle of the country for investment opportunities?”
Wells Fargo, McKenna said, was a large part of the conference and, due to their large presence in Iowa, he felt they were a great fit.
“We wanted to tell them there are a lot of business opportunities in Iowa,” he said. “It’s not just farmland; it’s also active businesses that are good credits that are looking to expand and should be a source of support for their lending operations.”
McKenna said conference features a “Shark Tank” type of approach for businesses to present themselves to potential investors, but stressed this isn’t a competition.
“It’s kind of like speed dating, so to speak,” he said.
The conference begins in the morning, he said, with a general overview of capital raising and the importance of capital, with speakers sharing their own experiences on growing their businesses.
Lunch included a visit by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and more presentations.
The afternoon gave owners of businesses three to four minutes to present themselves in front of a panel of three bankers, who also questioned them and asked them ideas about their businesses.
The day concluded with an open house-style gathering where the bankers and potential investors had an opportunity to meet with the companies.
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