Gov. Hutchinson creates Blue Ribbon panel to study business opportunities, challenges for state’s tech sector

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 837 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson continued his administration’s efforts to boost the state’s effort in the computer sciences field with the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission to Report on the Economic Competitiveness of Computing and Data Analytics in Arkansas.

The Commission, which will be co-chaired by former Acxiom Corp. Chairman and CEO Charles Morgan and State Economic Development Chief Mike Preston, will be tasked to study opportunities to grow the sector of Arkansas’ economy associated with computer science and data analytics.

The Commission will produce a report, due in the fall of 2017, that addresses three issues: business challenges in computing and data analytics; potential application niche areas for Arkansas to build excellence and depth in computing and data analytics; and skill needs and challenges of Arkansas’ talent pipeline.

“This esteemed group of Arkansans, through their expertise and guidance, will allow the state to address the opportunities and obstacles we must address to create an environment in which our technology sector can thrive,” Hutchinson said. “This is the next step in growing the computer coding initiative as it will allow our higher education institutions and workforce development agencies to address the specific needs of Arkansas companies in the computer science and data analytics sector.”

Since becoming governor in January 2015, Hutchinson had made computer coding and so-called STEM education a major focus of his education and workforce initiatives. Nearly two years ago, Hutchinson created the Computer Science Task Force to research and recommend computer science and technology courses and standards.

That task force, led by Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key and other top education and policymakers from the public and private sectors, were asked by the governor to study the computer science and technology needs of the state, and recommend strategies to meet the anticipated computer science and technology workforce needs of the state.

Nine months ago, Hutchinson kicked off the Learning Blade initiative with a $400,000 grant from the Department of Education to the Arkansas Public School Resource Center to increase student awareness and interest in computer science and science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) careers.

In the program, students are taught computer science skills through engaging academic exercises. Lessons are self-guided, allowing students to work on STEM-based activities at their own pace in the classroom or during after-school programs at no cost to Arkansas’s middle schools.

The governor’s computer science push has continued during the 2017 session with several AEDC-supported bills that were signed into law to support startups and knowledge-based tech companies. Senate Bills 248, 249 and 250, sponsored by Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, were signed into law by Hutchinson on Feb. 16. Those three bills are aimed at boosting AEDC efforts to attract and accelerate the growth of high-paying knowledge-based, high-tech companies, startups and small businesses involved in innovative research to Arkansas.

The first two bills, now Acts 166 and 167 of 2017, will essentially overhaul the Arkansas Acceleration Fund, which was created by the legislature in 2011 to help bring high-tech jobs to the state. One bill would make changes to the advisory panel that counsels AEDC and the governor on knowledge-based jobs, while the other measure sets up a matching grant program that will bring more dollars to Arkansas for technology and innovation research.

SB250, now Act 165 of 2017, created the “Arkansas Business and Technology Accelerator Act.” Under this proposal, AEDC’s division of Science and Technology will create a state-supported startup immersion program that will help local companies and entrepreneurs quickly commercialize their business ideas and concepts.

Hutchinson had also inked a first-of-its-kind pact with Silicon Valley technology giant Microsoft Corp. in December to commit resources and invest in programs to support students, teachers and administrators, entrepreneurs, and other community members across the state. Under the partnership, Microsoft will host its DigiCamp and YouthSpark Live event for students, along with its BizSpark training session for Arkansas startups. In addition, Microsoft will work with the Arkansas Department of Education to grow its TEALS Initiative, which pairs computer science professionals with computer science teachers to teach high school computer science courses.

Members that will serve on the newly-created Blue Ribbon Commission include:

· Jerry Adams, Arkansas Research Alliance
· Dr. Donald Bobbitt, University of Arkansas System
· Dr. Charles Welch, Arkansas State University System
· Maria Markham, Arkansas Department of Higher Education
· Andrew Clyde, Murphy USA
· Ed Drilling, AT&T Arkansas
· John Haley, Circumference Group
· Walter Smiley, formerly with Systematics
· Todd Hillman, MISO
· Rich Howe, Inuvo
· Sonja Hubbard, E-Z Mart
· Gaylon Lawrence, The Lawrence Group
· John Roberts, J.B. Hunt
· Jerry Jones, Acxiom
· Monica McGurk, Tyson Foods
· Warren Stephens, Stephens Inc.
· Clay Johnson, Walmart

The Commission is scheduled to begin meeting later this month. Meeting locations and times will be announced by AEDC and posted to the public meetings section of