Native of India Leads High Tech Push

Aug 29, 2014

Tej Dhawan, co-founder of StartupCity Des Moines
Credit Rob Dillard

A few dozen of Central Iowa’s high-tech brain trust are pouring beers and munching tacos on the fifth floor of a downtown Des Moines office building.

They’ve come together a few days before the lights go out on a business incubator that became the centerpiece for an area known as Silicon Sixth.

They exchange pleasantries with the two men at the heart of Startup City Des Moines – Christian Renaud and Tej Dhawan.

Before the party began, Dhawan sat in a remote conference room and reflected on what he was looking to accomplish for high-tech firms in Central Iowa.

“If I could help them hire, if I could help them with contracts, if I could help them just as a mentor and adviser, volunteer for free, I would do that," he said.

Dhawan was exiting his own start-up company in 2010 when he met Renaud. They shared a dream of boosting the local high tech community. Dhawan identified with the risk-takers behind such entrepreneurial efforts.

“I knew from early days I would not be an employee," he said. "And if I was an employee, it wouldn’t be for long, right from probably middle school days.”

Those schoolboy days were lived in New Delhi, India, one of the most congested cities in the world. For college, Dhawan landed on the pastoral campus of Central College in Pella, in a state about which he knew little.

“Only through geography classes," he said. "Our teacher in geography made sure we knew everything about every region and she had drilled into us how Iowa had one of the richest soils in the world.”

A failed, unhappy attempt at grad school in Kansas City followed Central, then a stint with Principal Financial Group, some freelance IT work, the buildup of the company Advanced Technologies Group, and finally the creation of Startup City.

“We have been able to connect with a whole lot of companies," he said. " Some were resident here, some came and went, some just met for one meeting, two meetings and became self-reliant.”

They heard from some 70 startup companies seeking advice, they found 20 of them showed promise; they invited a dozen into Startup City. But now, Dhawan wonders if there remains a need for a business incubator such as the one he helped develop.

“Many of these companies are being run by individuals from home, from small offices remotely," he said. "Those companies and individuals running them aren’t suited to come to the middle of downtown to run them while holding a job elsewhere.”

Dhawan is not leaving the world of economic enterprise; he’s just closing the doors on the place in which he’s devoted so much time and energy over the past few years. He’s hoping to develop a business accelerator aimed entirely at the insurance industry. He’s also planning to scout for investor angels willing to provide seed capital for young companies.

“These individuals are not all driving the fancy cars and living in million dollar homes," he said.  "Many of them are farmers in rural communities and they have been investing for a long time outside the state of Iowa.”

Dhawan remains convinced the state’s future lies with the mavericks and free-thinkers he has met and counseled at Startup City.

“It’s the entrepreneurs and innovators who are building our economy," he said. " And those are the guys and gals we need to support.”

Tej Dhawan is being recognized for his economic contributions to his adopted state. He will receive the Iowa International Center’s Passport to Prosperity honor in late September.