More than 100 years ago, Arkansas State University opened its doors for the first time. Its first classroom space was in downtown Jonesboro. A century later, ASU has a presence there once more.
The “Garage,” a creative tinker space meant to provide physical tools to help inventors and entrepreneurs develop prototypes opened Monday morning (July 17). Gov. Asa Hutchinson told the crowd of around 50 in attendance the state has record-low unemployment rates and part of that economic boon is centered in Northeast Arkansas. The Garage is part of the Arkansas State Innovation System and it will be a key tool in the future development of the state and region, Hutchinson said.
“We want to build things in Arkansas and the United States … We have to look toward the future, and it’s technology and innovation,” the governor said.
The Delta Center, in affiliation with ASU, received a $500,000, I-6 Challenge grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to seed A-State Innovate. The organization was able to leverage the grant with other partners, such as Nucor Corporation, to acquire another $928,000 in monetary, equipment, and in-kind labor commitments. It’s the only innovation hub project sponsored by a university in the state, A-State Innovate Director Ty Keller told Talk Business & Politics.
The goal is simple. If someone has an idea for a product, they can bring it to A-State Innovate and the organization will use its resources to develop the product into a viable business.
A-State Innovate has three facilities – the Garage, the Lab, and the Shop – to aid entrepreneurs, Keller said. The Garage has 3-D printers, maker spaces, screen printers, wood working tools, and other technology implements.
Memberships will run $50 per month. Groups, students, and military veterans will get a discount, he said. The goal is to attract 300 members the first year of operation, he said. Hours of operation have not been decided, but it will likely be open from 10-7 Monday-Friday, and 10-5 on Saturday. Equipment is available on a first come, first serve basis. There are five office spaces for lease and a conference room that can be scheduled for use. There are about 15 people who’ve expressed interest in becoming members at this point, he said. ASU will have interns working on the innovation hubs and when the program becomes more financially solvent, project managers will be hired, Keller said.
The Lab is located in the biological sciences building on the ASU campus. It’s basically a science lab, offering entrepreneurs a broad range of tools to work with. For example, if a person wanted to make broccoli that tastes like it already has cheese on it, the lab would be the place to experiment on that. It has wet labs, incubation spaces, and other implements.
The Shop is located in the Jonesboro Industrial Park. Large equipment used in industry will be placed in the shop. All types of tools used in manufacturing including welders will be located in the Shop, Keller said. It’s expected to be fully operational this fall.
Now that most of the work on the hub is completed, the next phase will involve intensive marketing efforts, Keller said. One of the primary challenges is to let people in the region know the hubs exist and the tools and expertise that is available. Not only can they create prototypes, other tools such as help capitalizing an idea or formulating a business plan will be part of the program.
Secondary partners, including the Small Business Administration, the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, and others will help an entrepreneur develop business plans, do market research, aid in acquiring loans, and help in other aspects of the business building process. Keeping and attracting small business owners with marketable ideas will spur the local and regional economy in the coming years, leaders hope.
The university will receive benefits from the program as well. Engineering students and others could serve as interns in the hubs and get valuable real world experience. Members will get the benefit of their education and expertise when developing a new product.
ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse lauded the opening and the Garage’s location. He said it will be a key tool in intertwining the region’s signature university with residents who may not be students. During his career, Damphousse has seen many similar programs and they have been highly successful, he said.
“It’s really important for us to come back downtown and for us to have a presence,” he said. “The idea of the Garage is really exciting to me.”