Pappajohn Center celebrates 25 years of helping students develop entrepreneurial mindset

Isaac Bradford pitching his business at CYstarters

Isaac Bradford pitches his startup during the 2021 CYstarters Demo Day. Photo provided by the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship.

AMES, Iowa – Isaac Bradford arrived at Iowa State University with a plan to study hard, develop life skills and earn a degree in agricultural engineering. Dreams of starting his own business – a dream he’s had since he was a kid – would wait until he finished college.

But Bradford’s plans were disrupted after attending a Freshmen Leaders in Engineering meeting in 2020 where the founder of an Iowa-based startup encouraged the group to get started on starting a business. Days after the meeting, Bradford – now a sophomore – received an email from ISU’s Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship about a business pitch competition. It seemed the universe was trying to tell him something.

“And I just thought, ‘I have to start my business now,’” Bradford said.

The business pitch competition opened doors and other opportunities for Bradford. This past summer, he was selected for the 2021 CYstarters – an 11-week intensive accelerator program offered through the Pappajohn Center. Bradford says the experience taught him a great deal about launching a startup and gave him a new appreciation for networking.

“CYstarters just accelerated everything,” Bradford said. “It’s the collaboration and talking with people who can assist you and give you good advice about things that would take you years to learn, but they already know it and help you learn from their mistakes.”

Different entry points

Pappajohn Center Director Judi Eyles says students like Bradford come to the center through different entry points. It may be a pitch competition, internship or program that piques their interest and once they’re in, they explore other areas. The foundation of ISU’s Pappajohn Center was built on a vision of providing students of all majors a variety of entrepreneurial opportunities, a vision that Eyles says has been key to its success for the past 25 years. 

“We want to help students develop skillsets and an entrepreneurial mindset,” Eyles said. “We’re teaching students to be problem-solvers and opportunity-seekers by helping them identify where they can use their passions and interests to fix a problem or change something for the better.”

Iowa State’s Pappajohn Center offers programs and services for students, faculty, community entrepreneurs, business professionals and alumni with the objective of creating a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation to build and improve Iowa’s businesses. CYstarters, CyBIZ Lab and ISU Startup Factory are just a few examples of the programs offered.

Since 2006, the Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition has invested $1 million in Iowa startup companies ($800,000 from John Pappajohn and $200,000 from the Iowa Economic Development Authority). The investment has paid off. Eyles says of the 48 winners, who placed first through third, 37 startups are still in operation, five were acquired and six went out of business (see sidebar for more detail). 

Not all start a business

Bradford is grateful for the support he’s received through ISU’s Pappajohn Center to develop his business, Filtraponics. This semester, he plans to start selling his garden beds, pumps and timers in the Innovate 1858 shop at the Student Innovation Center. While it was his goal to start a business, he says the Pappajohn Center is really a place for students who want to make a difference.

“Even if you don’t want to start your own business, there’s a lot of opportunities like the Innovation Prize where you get to work on ideas, whether it’s your own or other people’s ideas,” Bradford said. “Having those opportunities to problem solve and create is really beneficial.”