The University of Iowa will honor 11 recipients of its second annual Iowa Innovation and Entrepreneurship Honors. The awards are presented by the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). Established in 1996, Iowa JPEC is the University of Iowa’s hub for entrepreneurship education and outreach.
A recognition event will be held Oct. 8.
This year's honorees are:
- Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year: David Rodnitzky, 3Q Digital
- Alumni Entrepreneurial Leadership Award: Patricia Miller, M4
- Young Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year: Adam Keune, Alec Whitters, and Ben O'Connor, Higher Learning Technologies
- Young Alumni Entrepreneurial Leadership Award: Jessica Cole, Becker's Healthcare
- Iowa Innovator of the Year: Michael Schultz, Frances Johnson, Heyward Coleman, Viewpoint Molecular Targeting
- Venture School Business of the Year: Jim Lewis, Benjamin
- Student Startup of the Year: Anthony Piscopo, David Christianson, Hawkeye Surgical Lighting
- Student Startup of the Year: Alyssa Clayden, ABC’d Therapy & Consulting, LLC
- Enterprise Leadership Student of the Year: Margorie Gutierrez
- Jacobson Institute K-12 Innovator Award: Diane Fickel
- International Entrepreneurship Impact Award: Atem Ernest Lefu, Agro-Hub
More about the honorees:
David Rodnitzky founded an online advertising agency, 3Q Digital, out of a coffee shop in Pacifica, California. He now focuses on company strategy, client satisfaction, and company culture.
“I was throwing things against a wall to see what would stick,” Rodnitzky said about finding a job after relocating from Iowa to Silicon Valley.
For eight years after graduating from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1999, Rodnitzky managed online marketing campaigns at several internet startups.
In 2004, Rodnitzky started an online blog that became one of the most prominent publications about Google advertising. Four years later he founded PPC Associates which was renamed 3Q Digital.
What began as a one-person consultancy in 2008 has grown into a company with a staff of 380, offices in eight locations on three continents and company revenue of $61 million. The company has developed several processes that have been adopted as industry standards in online advertising, including the Alpha Beta Account Structure and the Lin-Rodnitzky Ratio.
“Doing business the right way, treating people with respect, and having people recommend you to others because they like you and think you are a genuinely decent person has been helpful,” he said. “All that is part of being an Iowan was a huge help in my career.”
Driven by a goal-oriented timeline and a business-is-business approach, Patricia Miller set aside an emotional attachment when she purchased her grandfather’s declining plastics factory in economically depressed Woodstock, Illinois.
Miller left a successful career in the biotech space to return to her manufacturing roots. She ran the company M4 like a startup, using everything she learned from her Fortune 500 career in marketing, her passion for entrepreneurship, and her creative eye for design to turn it into a new kind of factory. The culture standard at M4 is “make meaningfully,” a phrase she trademarked.
“I didn’t want to come here to make things, I wanted to make things meaningfully and I wanted a culture and team that felt the same way,” Miller said. “There was this perception that manufacturing is a dark, dirty industry that just pumps out widgets. We are creating a culture that what is being made on that machine matters in the world and here’s why.”
Sustainability and social purpose are priorities for M4, an independently female-owned and led organization. M4 has introduced more bio alternative materials and created Object Object, a platform that creates dialogue of plastic and alternatives to plastic.
“This continuum of the journey is what I’m most proud of,” Miller said. “What excites me is being a catalyst for change in a good direction. Driving a business ethically, responsibly, and sustainably is important to me.”
Adam Keune (10CER), Alec Whitters, Ben O’Connor (09BSN)
Higher Learning Technologies (HLT)
Young Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Award
Disappointed he couldn’t find an effective mobile learning solution when studying for dental boards, Alec Whitters created his own. The result, thanks to a collaboration between Whitters and fellow co-founders and high school buddies Adam Keune and Ben O’Connor, was Higher Learning Technologies that allows users to study anytime, anywhere on their smartphones.
Before the creation of HLT, flash cards lugged around in a large box was the study vehicle of choice. There have been more than 25 million downloads of HLT’s application, and 2 billion practice questions answered. Ninety-nine percent of HLT’s app users pass their exam. HLT offers triple-your-money-back if you use the product and fail the test.
“I think you could go as far as saying HLT was born out of Iowa JPEC and certainly wouldn’t be here without it,” Whitters said. “We believe we are just getting started.”
HLT is the leading platform for mobile applications. In almost eight years, HLT has raised more than $20 million in investment and grown to 50 employees. It has the No. 1 grossing educational and medical app in the Apple App and Google Play stores. By focusing on a mobile platform, HLT assures a user no longer needs a computer, books, and several notecards to prepare for exams.
“For three guys who were tooling around in a dumpy old apartment to be where we are today is exciting,” said Keune, who is on the Iowa JPEC Advisory Council.
Jessica Cole (08BBA)
President and CEO, Becker’s Healthcare
Young Alumni Entrepreneurial Leadership Award
Jessica Cole’s motto of “good is never good enough” is a growth mindset that has produced big things at Becker’s Healthcare in Chicago.
A health care media company, Becker’s Healthcare specializes in multimedia, live events, and virtual events. The president and CEO is Cole, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 2008 with a degree in marketing and management.
The company works with nearly 800 health care clients who invest their marketing, public relations, thought leadership or sales enablement dollars with Becker’s Healthcare. The clients can purchase webinars, banner advertising, custom content, or sponsor tables at live events.
Cole joined Becker’s Healthcare in 2007 as one of three fulltime employees. In 2009 it implemented a digital-first strategy and 14 years later, the company has a staff of 74, with 60 working in the Chicagoland area.
Cole credits her days as an undergrad at Iowa for helping her provide guidance to employees and craft strategy for her company.
“When I think back to Iowa, the ability to do hands-on projects, case studies and working with various people in classes sticks out,” she said. “You leave with a degree and with a ton of personal growth that carries into your professional life.”
Michael Schultz, PhD, Frances Johnson, MD, Heyward Coleman
Viewpoint Molecular Targeting, Inc.
Iowa Innovator of the Year Award
In 2003, Michael Schultz got a phone call from a physician scientist who wanted to use alpha particle radionuclide therapy to treat cancer. Schultz had experience with the rare isotope, and that conversation eventually led to the creation of Viewpoint Molecular Targeting, Inc., five years later, while Schultz was a faculty member in the UI Department of Radiology.
In 2015, Schultz said the company had the “legs we needed” after participating in Iowa JPEC’s UI Innovators Workshop. He partnered with his wife, Frances Johnson, then a cardiologist at UI Hospitals and Clinics, and Heyward Coleman, to make an IV-injected pharmaceutical drug that promotes cancer detection and treatment. Viewpoint Molecular Targeting makes molecules that bind to proteins on the surface of cancer cells and then rapidly excretes the residual.
“To make it into the clinic and enroll patients means that you have stepped through a series of important milestones,” Schultz said. “That is the point where the Food and Drug Administration says, yes, this looks like it is safe to go ahead and that is after developing a body of literature and data around what you are proposing to do.”
The drugs have been tested on humans at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, with promising results.
“When you work for a long time to get something done, you are often recognized more afar than at home where they have seen you slogging toward the goal,” Johnson said. “We have gotten a lot of support along the way from Iowa City and the University of Iowa community.”
Jim Lewis had a revelation in 2012 after years of promoting pharmaceutical brands to doctors. He could have enjoyed a comfortable living the rest of his life, but he thought he had a larger purpose.
“I woke up one day and realized I was on the wrong team,” Lewis said.
He wanted to put power in the hands of the people by creating a convenient, more meaningful relationship with customers, using data to drive that convenience.
Using a business philosophy of win, win, win, Lewis created Predictive Health Partners that was rebranded and renamed to his product, Benjamin. Through an artificial intelligence engine, Benjamin shops for prescription savings, considering the individual’s insurance coverage, deductibles copays, where they live and where they prefer to shop. Benjamin sends alerts with up to 80% savings on out-of-pocket costs.
“Win is when you are helping the member save money,” Lewis said. “The second win is when at the same time you are helping the payer save money. The third win is when we get paid because they are both winning. That’s the kind of business model I’m very interested in.”
His brother encouraged Lewis to sign up for Iowa JPEC’s Venture School in Des Moines.
“A key lesson I learned was the importance of contacts,” Lewis said. “Hawkeyes stick together and will help each other and it’s pretty remarkable how that came true for me.”
Anthony Piscopo (19BS), David Christianson
Hawkeye Surgical Lighting
Student Startup of the Year Award
Medical student Anthony Piscopo and neurosurgery resident David Christianson identified and addressed a need of surgeons for a light, bright and comfortable pair of surgical eyeglasses.
The two built Hawkeye Surgical Lighting with Christianson taking the technical and Piscopo the entrepreneurial lead. When a surgeon shines a light toward a patient’s brain or spine, the tumor lights up in a bright red color. This allows the surgeon to carefully remove the entire tumor.
“You want to get a clean margin because if you don’t, it is going to grow back,” said Piscopo. “If you are too aggressive and take too much out, you can damage the brain or spine. This technology to fluoresently visualize tumors is currently only available in big surgical microscopes. It has never been incorporated in a headlight before.”
Not only is the light brighter, lighter, and more comfortable than anything else available, but it can also be controlled in unique hands-free way.
“The thing that is novel is the way you are able to control it with your voice and body position,” Christianson said.
In 2019, Alyssa Clayden created ABC’d Therapy & Consulting because of a gap in mental health services for refugees and immigrants in Iowa. The company provides health care services and consults with businesses, educational institutions, and government agencies to increase the visibility of refugee and immigrant mental health needs.
“The most incredible component for me has been the willingness and trust the immigrant/refugee communities have put into me,” Clayden said.
Clayden is a native of Murray, Iowa. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in social work with a concentration in public health from the University of Iowa with an expected graduation date of May 2022.
The motivation for ABC’d was to serve more people in need, bridging gaps in insurance and at-home services, and to identify more people who needed support. The business acknowledges the difficulties refugees and immigrants face in the United States and works with the client, their family, and community to make mental health and health services easy to understand and access.
When the COVID-19 pandemic put numerous college students out of work —and low on food — Margorie Gutierrez donned her enterprise leadership hat and started a student food pantry for Kirkwood Community College’s Iowa City campus.
Gutierrez, an immigrant from Peru and a first-generation college student, graduated from the University of Iowa in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in enterprise leadership. During her time on campus she received Iowa JPEC’s John and Mary Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Scholarship, made the dean’s list every semester, and participated in the IdeaStorm pitch competition.
“It has been an amazing journey and I’m so grateful,” Gutierrez said. “I have been taught all the tools I need to succeed. I just need to have faith in myself and the work I am going to do.”
Gutierrez worked in student services while earning an associate degree at Kirkwood. She also worked with food distribution at the University of Iowa’s food pantry and as its resource and advocacy coordinator.
Her vision is to morph the food pantry into a one-stop shop to supply whatever resources students need to complete their education.
Diane Fickel of West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, is the inaugural recipient of the Jacobson Institute K-12 Innovator Award. This award is given to an educator who is actively teaching in a K-12 education system and has dedicated significant time and talent to build the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit in youth.
Fickel has been an integral part of our youth entrepreneurship education initiatives. With 43 years teaching experience, Fickel participated in the first-ever Iowa JPEC entrepreneurship training program for high school educators in summer 2000. Fickel quickly became a “go-to” leader in how to create an engaging and hands-on entrepreneurship program. Over the years, she has been the lead instructor for our local entrepreneurship camps, participated in grant programs geared to expand STEM innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, and most recently is a key contributor to our BizInnovator Startup Curriculum Design Team. Since its launch in August 2020, BizInnovator Startup has been adopted by entrepreneurship educators in 41 states and is garnering rave reviews as engaging, hands on, and student centric.
Excellent teachers are at the heart of every good educational initiative. We are proud to honor one of Iowa’s entrepreneurship education champions.
The Institute for International Business (IIB) awards the International Entrepreneurship Impact Award to an alumnus who has participated in an IIB entrepreneurship program and made outstanding accomplishments in their community. This year we honor Atem Ernest Lefu (Mandela Washington Fellowship 2019 Iowa Cohort), serial agri-tech entrepreneur and Agro-Hub founder from Cameroon.
Agro-Hub is one of the fastest growing agri-tech startups in West and Central Africa. The company creates markets for smallholder farmers through innovative technologies across food value chains. They work with more than 61,000 farmers across 300 communities, focusing on the cassava value chain, helping cassava farmers increase production and productivity while creating processing factories that buy cassava directly from farmers. Cassava flour is an alternative to wheat flour in the market. It is gluten-free and is a perfect product for consumers of bread with health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol since it is low in sodium, sugar, fat, and free from refined carbohydrates and synthetic ingredients.
The company has built five small semi-automated processing factories for 15 communities and two small mobile processing factories for 50 communities. It is establishing the largest processing unit in Cameroon that will serve more than 5,000 farmers. Apart from production and processing, the company has generated another branch called Njangi Finance that provides financing directly to farmers by pre-investing in their farms and giving them farm insurance. This was created because of the financing need for farmers to boost production and productivity and provide a constant supply of cassava roots to the factory.