Arkansas’ entrepreneurial network expands to central Arkansas

by The City Wire staff ( 34 views 

The growth of entrepreneurial programs and financing support seen in recent years in Northwest Arkansas may soon be repeated in central Arkansas.

More than 300 startups launched in Northwest Arkansas in the last five years, raising more than $190 million in funding to do so. Jeff Amerine, director of technology ventures at the University of Arkansas, said the bulk of that capital was raised last year and put the region on the map as a viable place to start a business. (The City Wire announced Tuesday the five Northwest Arkansas-based startups to watch in 2014. Link here for that report.)

Gov. Mike Beebe said during a Tuesday (Feb. 25) event in Conway that he believes fostering innovation is one of the most important investments the state can make to ensure future economic growth. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission contributed $575,000 in seed money for the new regional Innovation Center in downtown North Little Rock. The AEDC grant announced this week is part of a capital campaign for the 15,000-square-foot multi-use facility that will be part business incubator, think tank and technology workshop.

"The total capital budget is $1.1 million for this phase of the project, and we will be announcing additional secured funds in the coming week," said Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, and executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub.

The Innovation Hub strives to increase entrepreneurial activity by creating a network of resources, programs and education opportunities to attract, develop and retain emerging talent while building the state’s economy.

“The nature of our economy is changing, and if our state wants to compete for the best and brightest minds, we need to change the way we think and do business,” Gov. Beebe said in a statement. “The Innovation Hub attracts those who think outside the box and who will forever change the economic climate in the area. They will be our business leaders of tomorrow.”

The entrepreneur movement began to catch fire in Northwest Arkansas as the national economy went sour in 2008, according to Amerine. He said that excitement has spread eastward in past couple of years toward central Arkansas finding continued support from the state economic leaders and local chambers of commerce from Fayetteville to Jonesboro.

Amerine said regional entrepreneurial hubs supported with angel funding networks, mentors and educational opportunities is critical to keep innovative juices flowing.

Josh Clemence, co-founder of the Northwest Arkansas Entrepreneurial Alliance and Iceberg project in Fayetteville, said the Innovation Hub has been a longtime coming for central Arkansas.

“Arlton Lowry and Dustin Williams are two unsung heroes that have been pushing for more cohesion in the entrepreneurial sector in central Arkansas. It’s good to see the wheels are turning,” Clemence said.

The connections between central and Northwest Arkansas’ entrepreneurial communities are close, despite a healthy competitiveness. In the recent ARK Challenge competition held in Fayetteville, four of the nine startups making it to the found round of competition were teams with central Arkansas connections. Overwatch, one of the three winners in the ARK Challenge, has founders in both areas — Josh Moody, a high school student at Little Rock Catholic and Joe Saumweber and Michael Paladino, who founded RevUnit, a Bentonville-based startup. This trio continues to work toward the launch of their gaming application and casing device on target for later this summer.

Clemence said it’s also a positive that the ARK Challenge will be held in central Arkansas this year, after several years of being held only in Northwest Arkansas. He said there are also efforts being made in Jonesboro to foster entrepreneurial advocacy.

“Our new Innovation Center builds on the best practices from successful national models to create a broad set of resources for people of all ages here in Central Arkansas,” Sabin said. “We will provide the opportunity for everyone to discover and develop their interests and talents and unlock their unlimited potential.”

Sabin also will oversee the Central Arkansas ARK Challenge competition slated for this fall.

The first phase, the Argenta Innovation Center, will include four components:
• The Launch Pad will provide cutting-edge tools and technology for professionals and amateur tinkerers alike. There will be 3-D printers, laser-cutting machines, and other equipment that can be used to prototype inventions and refine products. Educational opportunities will be provided for people of all ages as well as support for local manufacturers and corporations that want to solve problems or provide additional training.

• The STEAM Lab will be operated in partnership with the EAST Initiative to offer STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education across a variety of ages and disciplines. Expertise in these areas is critical for Arkansas’s workforce to be prepared for jobs in the 21st Century. This classroom and laboratory will have advanced equipment and technology along with the nationally-recognized training in computer coding, programming, and computer-aided design (CAD) that EAST has provided to Arkansas students for the last 20 years.

• The Silver Mine is a co-working space for entrepreneurs and small business owners looking for networking and enrichment activities. It will also be the home to vertical business acceleration programs that will seed and mentor promising new enterprises from Arkansas and around the world. The Silver Mine will be able to incubate and give birth to a steady stream of new businesses, where ideas can connect with capital and other resources.

• The Art Connection is an after-school and summer work program for high-school students designed to develop leadership and innovation through hands-on training in the visual arts industry. Modeled after the successful Artists for Humanity program in Boston, Massachusetts, the Art Connection works with arts organizations, local artists, business owners, city government and others in the community to provide practical skills for under-resourced youth.

The innovation center recently received a $250,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority.

“We are proud to join Governor Beebe and AEDC in support of this program and to invest in what will be a great opportunity for Arkansas’ small businesses and entrepreneurs,” Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, said in a statement. “The Innovation Hub will provide the programming and resources necessary to further our mission of creating jobs and helping to build an innovative and technologically-advanced environment for our region’s entrepreneurs.”