Five questions for the entrepreneur in residence


ISURF entrepreneur in residence Kurt Heiar. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Entrepreneur in residence Kurt Heiar ("Hire") is the first to tell you he's not a one-man band, and that a variety of programs and efforts focusing on entrepreneurialism thrive at Iowa State. The intent is that his experience as a private sector CEO and entrepreneur will assist university efforts to move technology into the marketplace and create jobs for Iowans. No two days are the same for Heiar, but his activities at the university include:

  • Assist faculty and researchers – both those who are savvy about entrepreneurialism and want to get involved and those who "fear they don't have time for what they perceive as a daunting undertaking"
  • Build databases of investor, state and corporate contacts who will assist ISU companies
  • Help young ISU-affiliated companies and fledgling entrepreneurs overcome problems to keep them moving forward
  • Present guest lectures to classes and student organizations
  • Review existing technologies at ISU and help determine which have business viability

The Basics

Name: Kurt Heiar
Position: Half-time entrepreneur in residence for the ISU Research Foundation (ISURF), and CEO of multiple early-stage companies since 1998
Months at ISU: 9
Office: 310 Lab of Mechanics, 4-4740

To successfully introduce a product or service into the marketplace, how important is timing?

It's important from the standpoint of investors. Investors like to get into the "hot" technologies or disciplines much more readily than an area where they feel the train has left the station. Some investors like to be in a deal very early, while others prefer late-stage projects when the risk is reduced a bit more. So timing relates to those options.

It [timing] also is important if there are too many established companies too far down the line in their development that catching up is going to be difficult or terribly expensive.

Is entrepreneurialism best left to people who function well on three hours of sleep?

The resources are flourishing because there's such an interest in entrepreneurialism. Disciplines that used to be very un-entrepreneurial are becoming much more that way. Conferences for engineers or veterinarians often have a division that's called innovation or entrepreneurialism -- or both.

So, the misperception that it's too much for me to tackle can be addressed very effectively. For example, there are entrepreneurial CEOs who are very good and who, for a slice of the pie, are willing to step in and lead the organization for a while. Most early-stage startups don't require a 40-hour-per-week executive. Savvy boards can be put in place to show people shortcuts to take. There's a lot of outsourcing that can be done.

"My big-picture goal is to help drive that whole research and economic development process so our inventions and innovation can address real world needs, across as many disciplines as possible. The more I can help put new ideas and potential new companies into the funnel for refinement and evaluation, the more I'm helping an important segment of the mission of this university."

— Kurt Heiar

How big is luck's role in entrepreneurial success?

Increasingly we're seeing that entrepreneurialism is a discipline like any other academic pursuit. To be successful as an entrepreneur is not unlike trying to be a veterinarian without going to vet school. It's pretty tough, to say the least. You need to know how to read financial statements, how to do market research, what are realistic milestones for getting capital and much more.

Most successful entrepreneurs become serial entrepreneurs. It's a bug and if they get it -- and especially if they're successful -- very often they're hunting around for the next opportunity.

Is it more difficult to succeed in Iowa?

A great idea with some intellectual property protection around it typically can succeed anywhere. The only area we tend to suffer – not just Iowa, but some of the Midwestern states when it comes to business in general – is access to capital. You can raise up to a certain amount of money in Iowa, and more early-stage capital sources are emerging here. As company needs grow, the circle typically expands to investors who are regional – St. Louis or Minneapolis or Chicago. Beyond that you're looking at the coasts.

More than anything, it's the numbers of investors or networks. You can go to New York or Boston and probably pitch your company to seven or eight interested investor networks in a day -- and may not get in a taxi to do it. In Iowa, you may pitch to two, and one may be in Des Moines and one may be in the Quad Cities. Although, as I mentioned, things are changing for the better in Iowa.

Does starting something new have to be exhausting?

The newer approaches [to entrepreneurialism] build in flexibility. So, you are iterating and pivoting as you go because it is so critical to talk to customers very early on and discover who that customer is and validate your assumptions. Our markets move so fast, things change so fast; you've got to stay on top of that.

Not everyone does it that way, but studies indicate you can significantly increase your chances of success because you're not stuck on a wrong path. You don't want to be 2.5 years down the road and discover you totally misguessed the product or the service the customer wants. You need to know that through the whole process.