North Iowa entrepreneurs take home wins from pitch competition

Two of North Iowa’s entrepreneurs took home wins from the 2021 University of Iowa’s statewide Venture School pitch competition which was held Thursday, June 10. The competition was held during EntreFest, a two-day entrepreneurial conference held in Cedar Rapids, IA. Zack Smith of Stock Cropper Inc. won the first-place prize of $10,000. Nate Julseth of Nate’s Powder Coating took home the runner up prize of $3,000. Both are graduates of the Venture School program held by the NIACC John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. The NIACC Pappajohn Center Venture School class is led by Candi Karsjens, Director of Innovation and Acceleration at the Pappajohn Center and certified NSF iCorps instructor.

Zack Smith, the co-founder of Stock Cropper Inc., participated in the Fall 2020 seven-week NIACC Venture School and took what he learned to the statewide pitch competition to win the first-place prize of $10,000.

“It feels great; there was a lot of other really good businesses and people that put a lot of work and effort into it,” Smith said of winning the competition. “I understand the significance of the competition I was up against and respect that. It feels great.”

Smith described the premier product of Stock Cropper Inc., the Cluster Cluck 5000, that he pitched during the competition. “Our central product we are trying to sell and market is a mobile autonomous grazing barn that walks across the ground on its own and moves multiple species of animals,” Smith said. “So sheep, goats, pigs chickens and we’ll have one with cattle this year.”

Smith plans on using the $10,000 to pay for the construction cost on the new series of barns that he is building on his farm in Buffalo Center.

While the $10,000 is a great reward, Smith said that it's “just a small step” in the ongoing growth of his business and that he hopes this recent success will only bring in more interest from investors in Stock Cropper Inc.

While Smith went on to win, he described the process it took to do so as difficult.

“There was about eight or nine things that you had to hit and cover really efficiently in five minutes,” Smith said. “That’s not an easy thing to pitch in that short a time. Just took a lot of practice.”

One of the runner-ups was also a participant of the NIACC Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s seven-week-long Venture School program. Nate Julseth, the owner of Nate’s Powder Coating and a resident of Northwood, took home runner-up and $3,000 for his pitch on Thursday night. Nate also participated in Venture School with the Spring 2021 cohort, taking home first place in the regional pitch competition before moving on to the state-wide event. Nate’s Powder Coating offers powder coating, mobile sand and media blasting, and on-site painting.

It was a proud evening for Tim Putnam, the director of the NIACC Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

“This really shows the progression our center is making with startups,” Putnam said. “This is the second year in a row that we’ve won the statewide venture pitch competition.”

Jayson Ryner, the founder of ReEnvision Ag and the director of choral activities at NIACC, was the previous winner of the University of Iowa’s statewide Venture School pitch competition in 2020. Ryner also completed NIACC’s Venture School program in 2019.

The Venture School program offers National Science Foundation I-Corps programming; NSF I-Corps programming is a valuable resource for businesses seeking federal grants for technology-based business innovations.

The NIACC John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center is the expert in rural business innovation and success. In partnership with North Iowa’s Small Business Development Center, together we provide tools, support, and resources to Iowa’s entrepreneurs. We counsel both new and existing local businesses, from Main Street to industry leaders. We’re growing Iowa’s entrepreneurial culture through grade school initiatives, college and community programs, and business training and development. Contact the NIACC Pappajohn Center at 641-422-4111 or

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