When most people think of the Fayetteville square, they think of restaurants, shopping and a world-class farmers market. What they might not realize is that nestled in there with all that entertainment and retail is a fast-developing ecosystem for startups and entrepreneurs.
Indeed, two companies, namely Startup Junkie Consulting LLC and Hayseed Ventures LLC — firms that support burgeoning startups — are located at the Pryor Center and in the Old Post Office Building, respectively. Not to mention that Tennessee-based app development company, Metova Inc., has set up shop in the E.J. Ball Building, where two other tech firms, DataRank Inc. and Overdrive Brands LLC, also do business.
So when it was announced this past summer that the “Northwest Arkansas Innovation Hub” was going to be established on the Fayetteville square in the Bradbury Building at 21 W. Mountain St., it made perfect sense, location-wise.
But as the launch date for the hub draws near — the first phase of the endeavor is slated to open in August — what remains a bit fuzzy to some is exactly what an “innovation hub” is, and exactly how it’s meant to impact the area’s growing startup culture.
A Hub Takes Shape
At its heart, a so-called “innovation hub” is meant to be a space that enables innovators and entrepreneurs. While the hundreds of innovation hubs that exist across the globe today share that similar mission, just how they go about achieving it is all over the map. Equipped “maker’s labs” (think 3D printers, laser-cutting tools, even sewing machines), programing for both adults and students, and co-working spaces are common features of an innovation hub.
So how is the innovation hub that’s slated to open in downtown Fayetteville shaping up?
For one thing, the “Northwest Arkansas Innovation Hub” (its technical term) is being spearheaded by the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, and that in and of itself is innovative. To be sure, it’s rare, if not unheard of, for a chamber to launch a hub. More often than not, these hubs are backed by universities. .
“Chambers have not done this,” explains Steve Clark, president and CEO of the Fayetteville chamber. “But our thinking was if we’re going to talk the talk [about economic development in the 21st century], we should also walk the walk.”
But while at first blush, it may seem that the Fayetteville chamber is going out on a limb to launch the hub, they did have a bit of a blueprint to use for guidance thanks to the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, a 20,000-SF facility that launched about two years ago in North Little Rock. And in fact, the chamber is launching the NWA Innovation Hub in partnership with the folks in North Little Rock.
“We see the arrangement as a partnership,” says Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. “We’re advising in the sense that we’re bringing all of our experience, expertise, knowledge, relationships, existing partnerships and programs that are in place to the facility in Fayetteville.”
“And,” Sabin added, “we also offer reciprocity with our facility in North Little Rock for anybody who is using the facility in Fayetteville, plus we’ve also offered our branding in terms of the name ‘Innovation Hub.’ (Warwick and his team recently announced a similar partnership in east Arkansas with Arkansas State University.)
While the partnership with the North Little Rock Innovation Hub has helped to pave the way for the NWA hub, Sabin is the first to point out that what typically happens with a hub is that the resulting facility ends up being shaped by its surroundings.
“This is not a cookie-cutter approach,” he said. “These hubs have to adapt to the particular communities they’re in to leverage the specific assets that those communities have and to focus on the specific industries that may have a particular presence in those areas.”
In the case of NWA, its programming and overall setup will be heavily shaped by its proximity to both University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and the Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, and by the startup culture that already exists in the area, not to mention the companies who have done business in the region for decades, Clark says.
So who will pay for the NWA hub?
As far as securing funding for the hub, that’s very much in the hands of the chamber. While funding for the NWA Innovation Hub is still a work-in-progress, investors on board so far include the chamber and the Northwest Arkansas Council. The chamber has also asked the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for support, says Clark.
Going the Fab Lab Route
One major difference between the NWA Innovation Hub and its North Little Rock cohort is that Clark has decided to go the “Fab Lab” route. For its part, a Fab Lab (short for fabrication laboratory) is an outgrowth of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology movement that gained traction in the 1990s. The Fab Lab — which basically represents the “maker’s space” component of a hub — will take up 4,800 SF of space in the Bradbury building and house a slew of “maker” machinery and equipment for invention and prototyping, including a CNC Routing Table, 3D printers and laser-cutting tools.
The lab will cater to entrepreneurs with an eye toward getting startup businesses off the ground, as well as artists and designers.
One reason behind opting for a Fab Lab focus, Clark says, is that other common components of a hub, such as co-working space, are already available on the square at Hayseed Ventures.
Another reason Clark thought a Fab Lab might be a good fit for Fayetteville is that opting for Fab Lab certification — a process that involves meeting a set of standards as set forth by a Boston-headquartered organization called the Fab Foundation — will enable users to connect with other makers/mentors at other Fab Labs around the world via an open-sourcing network.
“So now you have a network of 450 locations allowing you to reach out to people you’ve never met before to help you work through issues,” Clark says. (For its part, the North Little Rock hub also has a well-stocked maker space and art and design studios, which go by different names and are not tied to the Fab Foundation.)
One Fab Lab that the NWA Fab Lab will be working closely with is the one slated to also launch this summer at NWACC.
That Fab Lab will be housed in the school’s Shewmaker Center for Workforce Technologies, according to Tim Cornelius, vice president of career and workforce development at NWACC. Incidentally, Cornelius will be hosting the 2016 United States Fab Lab Symposium on the NWACC campus in Bentonville in March.
Once the NWA Innovation Hub Fab Lab settles in, it will provide another important addition to the growing startup landscape in and around the Fayetteville square, say local business leaders.
“Having a Fab Lab right there on the square means we have a complete set of tools available to us,” says Jeff Amerine, Startup Junkie founder. “So all the pieces will fit together and one of these groups that comes through this pipeline may create a $100 million or a billion-dollar company that will employ a ton of people. So by building these sorts of pieces you’re giving them the tools so that it can happen here rather than somewhere else.”
A Robotics Center To Boot
In addition to the Fab Lab, the NWA Innovation Hub is launching a robotics center, which will be housed down the street in 5,000-SF of space at 123 W. Mountain St. Because partnership and collaboration seems to be the name of the game when it comes to running a successful innovation hub, for the robotics center the chamber will be collaborating heavily with NWACC on workforce training.
Here’s how it will go down: There will be two components to the training that will take place at the center. One will involve training employees from companies who have on-site robots. The second component will focus on training for students and others who wish to become certified robotics technicians. Indeed, in the coming months, the center will be working to gain certification from multinational robotics companies, ABB Robotics and FANUC Robotics, as a certified training center for both companies.
Of the decision to include a robotics center as an extension of the Fab Lab, Clark says, “The bottom line is, automation, a.k.a. understanding robots, is one of the ways to create a skilled workforce ready to deliver ‘just-in-time’ skills to an ever-expanding job market.”
That includes the job market in NWA, he stresses. “There are approximately 2,000 robots working in some capacity in our economy today with several hundred of those robots working in plants that bear the company name of Tyson [Foods Inc.], Pace [Industries] and Multi-Craft Contractors,” he says.