Editor’s note: Benji Hardy is the author of this story, which appears in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas.
In the past two decades, downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock have changed dramatically. Years of revitalization efforts have paid off in the form of crowds at the River Market, the Argenta Arts District, the River Trail, the Clinton Center, and elsewhere. Apartments and lofts are sprouting up, and commerce is thriving.
Now that transformation is about to accelerate into a new phase, according to community and business leaders on both sides of the river who are working to create spaces and institutions they hope will foster a new generation of high-tech, high-wage private enterprise in Central Arkansas. They’ve studied successful efforts to promote entrepreneurship in cities like Austin, Nashville, and New Orleans, and they’re ready to apply what they’ve learned to Arkansas.
The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, a nonprofit headed by state representative and former Oxford American publisher Warwick Sabin, intends to lay the foundation for a culture of creative, high-tech entrepreneurs in the region. The Innovation Hub is raising capital to build an ambitious multi-use space in downtown North Little Rock called the Argenta Innovation Center. The 15,000-square foot facility will be part business incubator, part cutting-edge workshop, and part intellectual playground for kids and adults alike.
“Our biggest problem in Arkansas is we lose all these talented people,” Sabin said. “They run off because they see other places as being places where they’re more likely to succeed.” Promoting entrepreneurship, he said, is essential for the future of the city and the state.
“Instead of going for these billion dollar car plants and all of that, this is a much more efficient and cost effective economic development strategy,” he said. “If you look at the history of the state, all of the most successful businesses and business stories in Arkansas are Arkansas-based companies founded in Arkansas by Arkansans. Period, end of story.”
Similar talk is happening in Little Rock. After a long and rocky debate over location, the Little Rock tech park board finally voted in October to invest in a corridor of buildings on Main Street. A promising tech company, nGage Labs, is bringing at least 40 high-salary jobs to the River Market. And, a new accelerator called the Arkansas Venture Center is seeking to address some of the toughest challenges faced by local start-ups by developing entrepreneurial talent in technology and other areas.
As its name implies, the Innovation Hub aims to be at the center of all this activity. Its Argenta location will be divided into three sections: the Silver Mine, a co-working environment and incubator for aspiring entrepreneurs; Art Connection, a studio space primarily targeting North Little Rock teens; and, the Launch Pad, a “maker space” that provides access to technology and support for anyone interested in tinkering with both the virtual and physical tools used to create new products.
The Launch Pad is the most open-ended piece of the puzzle.
“It’s kind of a recreation center for smart people,” said Joel Gordon, who was hired in November as the Launch Pad’s director. Gordon, who comes to the project from Little Rock’s Museum of Discovery, says the space will draw aspiring entrepreneurs and employees of established companies that recognize the value of developing new skills in burgeoning areas of tech. But he also envisions the space as opening doors for anyone with a curious streak, especially youth. In addition to the arts program for kids, the Hub is actively partnering with North Little Rock schools to engage students with technology through its own on-site EAST classroom, dubbed the STEAM Room.
The EAST initiative is a successful statewide program that gives students access to sophisticated technology to problem solve real-world service-learning projects. That fits perfectly with the Hub’s mission, says Matt Dozier, President of EAST. Although the initiative already has classrooms in many Central Arkansas schools, he explained, the STEAM Room will be more community focused.
“When you’re not focused on bells or grades, your time opens up greatly,” Dozier said. “You have an incredible opportunity to go deeper with those projects and to spend more time with that technology and become better at it. And when you combine that with the other stuff — the maker space, the Silver Mine, etc — you’re creating opportunities for mentorship, and a sort of symbiotic continuity.”
The builders of the Hub hope that continuity will work across the boundaries of all three areas of the space. A two-person startup using space in the Silver Mine might approach folks in Arts Connection about design, or enlist help with a tech-related problem in the Launch Pad, Sabin explained. Conversely, a software engineer who has designed a promising new app at the Launch Pad might seek business advice (and eventually, capital) from connections made in the Silver Mine.
The truly innovative thing about the Hub is the fact that it will execute three diverse programs simultaneously, say Sabin and Gordon. They believe this all-at-once approach is essential to cultivating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“What’s neat about having this all in one building is that we shorten the distance, we remove the mystery, we create these connections,” said Sabin. “As we describe what we’re doing to other people around the country, they’re saying, ‘Wow, I wish we had done it that way.’”
Although their vision is broad, Sabin and Gordon have also identified specific, tangible strategies for achieving it. Much of the inspiration for the Hub came from the Idea Village, an incubator in New Orleans that’s been widely praised for kindling a resurgent entrepreneurial culture in that city post-Katrina. Sabin said the Idea Village has achieved success in part through its use of “vertical accelerators,” projects that focus on building start-ups within particular sectors of the economy.
“When you look around the country, really the most successful efforts like this are where cities have identified unique areas where they have advantages or specific assets to offer,” Sabin said. “You’re not trying to be all things to all people… it’s really something specific where Central Arkansas can make a name for itself. So in this case, Big Data would be an obvious sector because of the history we have here with Acxiom, with Systematics, and biometric data at UAMS.”
The Hub is still in its infancy, but things are moving fast. Blueprints for the Argenta center are drawn up, and the facility will be housed in a building on Poplar Street, one block away from Main Street. In early December, the Hub announced a $250,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, bringing the total capital raised for purchase and renovations to about half of the estimated $2.5 million needed.
Across the river, others are also working to cultivate a new crop of entrepreneurs. The Arkansas Venture Center (AVC), a nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of Central Arkansas startups, was founded this past year by Mike Steely and Lee Watson. Currently housed in the Little Rock Chamber, AVC plans to move into a permanent facility in March 2014.
Steely is deeply involved in start-up culture. In addition to AVC, he recently co-founded the youth entrepreneurship non-profit Sparkible and consults with Austin’s SXSW festival for that group’s accelerator efforts. Steely said AVC was created to meet specific deficiencies holding back the growth of start-ups in Central Arkansas.
“There are three things we feel need to happen in Central Arkansas in order for us to rapidly advance the start-up ecosystem here,” he said.
Perhaps most important is making sure that would-be entrepreneurs have access to the technology skills – or have access to others with those skills – to start a business from scratch.
“We’re really lacking right now in what you might consider technical co-founder type of talent,” said Steely. “You can’t hire a huge staff when you’re a start-up. You need preferably one guy to help you as you initiate, and that’s a pretty robust technical person.”
AVC also hopes to provide mentorship opportunities via a program modeled on the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, a recognized leader in the field. Like Sabin at the Innovation Hub, Steely emphasized the necessity of building on Central Arkansas’ strengths.
“[In Nashville] they’re focused on mentorship in the areas where they have the capabilities to provide mentorship…[Little Rock] may have a lot of experience in health care, or data, or financial services, but we don’t have a lot of, say, front-end designers around here.”
Finally, said Steely, the third piece is the facility itself – a place where entrepreneurs can interact and seek support and resources.
“When you’re trying to learn a language, the best place to do that is to go to that country and immerse yourself in that language. It’s no different with a start-up,” he said.
With the Innovation Hub getting off the ground in North Little Rock, one question is whether AVC and the Hub are duplicating each others’ efforts. But both organizations stressed the collaborative nature of cultivating that ecosystem. In contrast to the Hub’s emphasis on developing a creative space for newly emergent ideas, said Steely, “our facility is more focused on…the incubation of your business so that it can grow and spin out.”
“I see it as very, very complimentary,” he continued. “There will probably be some overlap, but that’s OK too – it keeps everybody on their toes, but it also lets us understand over time what’s working and what’s not at a particular facility or location.”
Sabin echoed this sentiment. “This is truly a regional effort,” he said of the Innovation Hub. “We’re not looking to hog everything and keep it all to ourselves. We’re working with folks in Conway, in Saline County, in Lonoke County, and obviously making sure we’re supportive of everything that’s happening in Little Rock.”
The leaders at the Innovation Hub also stress that such interdependence goes far beyond the nuts and bolts of business creation. It extends to quality of life and arts and culture as well. To them, promoting entrepreneurship and revitalizing downtown Little Rock and Argenta are one and the same.
The goal, said Sabin, is “to build a real community, a real community on the ground – not an abstract one, but a real one.”
John Gaudin, a long-time investor in Argenta and member of the Innovation Hub’s capital campaign committee, agreed.
“Retention of talent occurs when you have a great place. There’s now great placemaking occurring in Central Arkansas – coffee shops, bars, riverfront, things to do — but you have to have opportunities. And that’s what this is all about, creating those opportunities for our local talent to stay here and to fulfill their dreams.”