TOPEKA, Kansas, June 15, 2022 — For years, the Midwest has been seen as a flyover area instead of a region where groundbreaking ideas, unprecedented research, and cutting-edge entrepreneurship take root. However, a group of innovative female leaders is working to foster a new perception of the Greater Topeka region and northeast Kansas through their technological prowess.
In 2020, Plug and Play Tech Center opened its Topeka, Kansas office, situated aptly within the Animal Health Corridor of the U.S. As a hotbed of animal health and agriculture technology research, it has successfully fostered partnerships between local corporations such as Cargill and Hill’s Pet Nutrition. The two companies announced their partnership at the end of last year and expect it to accelerate research and development in the region.
Lindsay Lebahn, Program Manager at Plug and Play Topeka, described Topeka as the “biggest small town [she’s] ever been in” and a place where everyone can make an impact.
“Topeka is making room and giving a voice to some of these younger minds, and more innovation-driven companies at the table and, in turn, taking Topeka to the next level. I don't think you see many cities that are that open-minded and willing to do that,” said Lebahn.
One of the key contributors to how Topeka has quickly risen in recognition as an innovation hub is the efforts of Michelle De La Isla. As the former City of Topeka Mayor and current Managing Director of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, De La Isla emphasized that “as a community, [Topeka] is one of a few if not the only one that has an economic development strategy that includes holistic community development.”
De La Isla touched on how she was previously homeless at 17 and would never have fathomed becoming the capital city's mayor. Her advice for other aspiring female leaders was to “keep breaking those ceilings.” She said that it’s exciting to be a woman in innovation but even more so as “an afro-Latina in the VC/Venture Philanthropy sector.”
“There’s not many of us, and I want to ensure that other women and girls who look like me see that there is a space for us in this industry,” said De La Isla.
Ever since the launch of the Plug and Play Topeka office, Lebahn and her team have worked with corporate partners to foster innovative solutions within the animal health, food, energy, and agriculture industries, and have seen a lot of success in the partnerships.
“When you're an innovative company, it changes every aspect of your company. It changes internal processes. It changes workflows. It changes time commitments,” said Lebahn. “That can be difficult, but our partners did it so gracefully and have already seen success.”
Donna Niles, Business Development Advisor at Cargill, serves as the company’s representative during Cargill’s partnership with Plug and Play Topeka. She hopes that the partnership has delivered inspiration to local innovators and thought leaders. As a female leader creating innovative work, Niles said that her work gave her opportunities to “think forward and challenge the status quo.”
“In the protein business, there’s an unofficial motto drawn from James Kerr’s Legacy, ‘plant trees you’ll never see,’” said Niles. “I can’t describe how exciting and fulfilling it is to be part of a team that looks for new technologies and early-stage partners on behalf of the organization.”
Jennifer Radosevich, Worldwide Director of Research for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, said that Plug and Play Topeka has allowed the company to accelerate innovation in the microbiome science space by “identifying key collaborators that have synergistic capabilities and expertise.”
As the maker of Prescription, Science Diet, Healthy Advantage, and Bioactive dog and cat food, Hill’s Pet Nutrition opened the first-of-its-kind Small Paws Innovation Center last year in Topeka to better understand and develop nutrition for the unique needs of small breed dogs.
“The foresight to establish the center to address the needs of this growing pet segment was amazing,” said Radosevich.
Radosevich noted that Hill’s “world-class research program” was what brought her to the company. As a female leader creating innovative work, Radosevich expressed that “the most important role [she] can take in that effort is to mentor and learn from other female leaders to continue to bring a diversity of thought to the innovation table.”
Jennifer Mitchell, Global Marketing and Innovation Manager for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, works alongside Radosevich for the partnership with Plug and Play Topeka. She credits her grandmother for instilling a creative spirit within her.
“From the books she had me read to the museums we would walk through, she taught me to look fearlessly at problems and to always pursue a career based on my merit, not my gender,” said Mitchell.
To Mitchell, innovation is fueled by empathy. “As women in innovation, we need to embrace our penchant for empathy,” said Mitchell. “Insights from empathy help uncover areas of opportunity and make the solutions you provide more likely to succeed.”
Lebahn said that Plug and Play has the special ability to connect to startups and corporate partners, which has helped Topeka build its own innovative ecosystem. In the future, she hopes to go one step further.
“How can we take what we're doing and make it better by having some kind of impact, either on the community that's helped us build this, the startups, or the institutions that have led them to where they're at now? How can we really make a lasting impact on the future? How can we make an impact, even if it's just for one person? I think the connection is great. But my goal is to further and deepen that and have it go from connection to impact,” said Lebahn.
About Plug and Play
Plug and Play is the world’s largest innovation platform, connecting startups, corporations, venture capital firms, universities, and government agencies. Headquartered in Silicon Valley, we're present in 40+ locations across five continents. We offer corporate innovation programs and help our corporate partners in every stage of their innovation journey, from education to execution. We also organize startup acceleration programs and have built an in-house VC to drive innovation across multiple industries where we've invested in hundreds of successful companies, including Dropbox, Guardant Health, Honey, Lending Club, N26, PayPal, and Rappi. For more information, visit https://www.plugandplaytechcenter.com/.