Innovative Foundation in Iowa

May 20, 2019 |

By Debi Durham, Director, Iowa Economic Development Authority

Special to The Digest

In Iowa, we work tirelessly to maintain our reputation as a bioscience epicenter with a continuous focus on innovation and collaboration. By capitalizing on our agricultural roots and research capabilities in plant, animal and human biosciences, the bioscience industry is thriving in our Midwest state. From startup companies to globally respected industry leaders in research and development, Iowa’s bioscience enterprises are discovering leading-edge solutions that will spur future economic growth for the state and the entire nation.

Many of the industry’s greatest contributions in biosciences have originated in Iowa. In the last decade, Iowa has made significant progress in building the industry, with employment growing 8 percent between 2008 and 2014. A critical mass of bioscience companies and research institutions in Iowa are pushing for progress; today, more than 1,200 entities are working to commercialize Iowa’s bioscience innovations in the fields of agriculture, medical devices, precision and digital ag, vaccines, immunotherapy and renewable chemical subsectors. Innovation can often be a buzzword, but the strides our companies and institutions are making in the industry – growing bigger, smarter, more efficient and more diversified – serve as proof points that the future of industrial biotechnology has a firm foundation in Iowa.

Businesses Making Breakthroughs

Coupled with business-minded incentives and a skilled workforce, many companies have found success because Iowa gives them the freedom to explore. To provide room for exploration, our legislation created America’s first Renewable Chemicals Production Tax Credit in 2016, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls the “strongest existing incentive package for the global bio based chemical industry.” Other tax incentives have alleviated risk for Iowa companies, improving their potential for profitability.

Among the many entities at work in Iowa, two examples of companies that attribute their competitive advantage to their Iowa locations are Renewable Energy Group (REG) and POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels.


Based in Ames, REG has been advancing the biodiesel industry for more than 20 years since its operations began under the umbrella of West Central Cooperative in Ralston, Iowa. REG leaders advocated for the biodiesel industry in its earliest stages to transform the niche market into the driving force of sustainable fuel that it is today. Now, REG is the largest biodiesel producer by volume in the United States, and along with supplying many other products, the company continues to contribute resources and industry leadership worldwide.

Iowa cultivates the pioneering and transformative spirit of REG. Iowa’s business-friendly environment has allowed REG to take calculated risks that have paid off for their company and the industry.


POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels is a cooperative effort between two innovative companies with one shared vision – to make cellulosic bioethanol competitive with grain ethanol, the most competitive renewable liquid transportation fuel on the market today. To do this, the joint venture relies on POET’s ongoing bioethanol effort, Project LIBERTY, taking place in Emmetsburg, Iowa. With this project, the company has solved a critical challenge in pretreatment, overcoming what has been a major hurdle to commercialization for producers around the world. Establishing Project LIBERTY in a location with such strong agricultural roots and access to necessary resources, the company has been able to make proven advancements in biofuels and has shared this positive impact with the entire industry.

Lofty company visions take a lofty amount of support, especially as the ag industry evolves. Companies benefit from those aforementioned tax credits and pro-business legislation. Additionally, our research institutions are continuously transferring breakthroughs to the private market and educating our concentration of engineers, scientists and American farmers.

Research Institutions Are Reaching New Heights

Iowa is home to three public universities – the University of Iowa, Iowa State University (ISU) and the University of Northern Iowa – that are world-renowned for dynamic research capabilities in plant, animal and human biosciences. This network leverages more than $1 billion in external funding, including research grants, on an annual basis.

ISU – Efforts That Go Above and Beyond

At first glance, ISU’s leadership in animal health science is apparent. The university is a cornerstone of the world’s largest concentrations of animal health professionals including the USDA’s National Animal Disease Center, the National Veterinary Services Laboratories and the Center for Veterinary Biologics in Ames. However, the university’s efforts extend beyond animal health and dive deeper into the biosciences arena in other ways as well.

Bioeconomy Institute

The Bioeconomy Institute (BEI) at Iowa State seeks to advance the use of biorenewable resources to produce fuels, energy, chemicals and materials. The Institute builds on a five-year initiative that has brought the university national recognition in the fields of biofuels and bioenergy. The campus-wide effort to create the Institute spurred from the curiosity behind how renewable resources such as sustainable feedstocks could be used more in different ways. Curiosity continues today and has helped to provide the necessary cohesion among the diverse efforts in this arena on campus, throughout the state and amongst the whole region.

NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals

Another effort by ISU’s College of Engineering can be seen in the work that is conducted by the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC). Founded in 2008 with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the subsequent Engineering Research Center focuses on advanced manufacturing for sustainable bio-based chemicals. Multidisciplinary research efforts have revealed new ways to capitalize on enzyme engineering and microbial production. Seeing as how advanced manufacturing is the No. 1 business sector in the state, research and innovative solutions by institutions like CBiRC provide the support these industries need to achieve productivity and improve processes throughout the state and beyond.

Taking Reins in the Revolution

These efforts made by ISU and other research institutions, along with the leadership from Iowa companies both large and small, have assured the state’s prominence in the revolution that is changing the way we develop consumer products. Even as the industry landscape changes and intertwines between different business sectors, Iowa remains committed at all levels to driving the industry forward and maintaining an environment suitable for innovative expansion in the bioeconomy.

 The companies that work here and the research that is developed here speaks volumes, and we’re excited for what we’ll uncover next. We look forward to bringing new, innovation-minded partners into our mix as we advance, and are excited to share our expertise. A perfect opportunity to further connect with us in this space is to attend the 2019 BIO World Congress, coming this July to our capital city. For the first time being held in the Midwest, Des Moines will host hundreds of innovative thinkers, gathering together to share ideas, technologies and research. We think attendees will be pleasantly surprised to learn of our bioscience foundations and how we are enhancing contributions to this industry.




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