A day nearly two years in the making arrived Monday (July 15) in Northwest Arkansas.
Several hundred people gathered inside the Great Hall at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville to celebrate the launch of Plug and Play Tech Center’s supply chain and logistics accelerator program. Plug and Play is a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based venture capital firm and business accelerator, with a global network of corporate partnerships in various industry verticals.
The program was announced two months ago in partnership with the region’s “Big Three” companies — J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Tyson Foods and Walmart — and a signing ceremony for the partnership was held May 17 in California.
Monday’s event helped introduce Plug and Play to the region. The afternoon event included several startup pitches by companies that are existing partners with Plug and Play, keynote remarks, panel discussions and high-level networking among Fortune 500 executives, startup founders, supply chain experts, investors and state business leaders.
Chris Sultemeier, former president and CEO of Walmart Transportation and retired executive vice president of logistics for Walmart, was one of several stakeholders from Northwest Arkansas who attended the signing ceremony in California. At Monday’s launch event in Bentonville, he said Plug and Play’s presence will undoubtedly add immediate value to the region’s innovation network.
“We’ve worked on this for almost two years now,” said Sultemeier, who retired from Walmart in April 2017. He now spends part of retirement as an operating partner of NewRoad Capital Partners in Rogers, the largest venture capital firm in Arkansas. He’s also an instructor in the MIT Masters in Transportation and Supply Chain program. “I was challenged for years at Walmart to do more around innovation. That was a challenge [president and CEO] Doug McMillon gave me every year. The whole company was given that challenge. I thought I was doing innovation. But it literally took me going out to Sunnyvale and walking into a Plug & Play operation and seeing a demo day to realize I didn’t know what innovation really was.”
Organizers are touting the new program as a combination of Silicon Valley’s “established startup ecosystem” with Northwest Arkansas’ “world-leading corporations” to create the ultimate supply chain and logistics innovation ecosystem.
The effort is also supported by the Walton Family Foundation and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The program will be coordinated locally by the Northwest Arkansas Council.
“As long as we have the commitment from Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods to collaborate with these startups, I am confident we are going to bring the best startups here,” Plug and Play Founder and CEO Saeed Amidi said Monday. “With their support and their customers’ and suppliers’ support, we are going to light up innovation in Northwest Arkansas.”
The program will include two cohorts of 10 companies twice a year — three months on and three months off — for three years. The first cohort will be selected at the end of September. They will have access to a network of industry leaders, including Fortune 500 companies, leading supply chain and logistics faculty from the University of Arkansas and business development opportunities.
As part of the accelerator program, participating startups will be matched with mentors to refine their business models. Participants will also be able to work closely with the founding partner companies to identify potential collaboration opportunities.
“I think the definition of [the program’s] success is, No. 1, startup companies relocating to Northwest Arkansas, and then accelerating in this ecosystem,” Sultemeier said. “No. 2, large companies in Northwest Arkansas taking their technology and imbedding it into their practice.
“If we can get multiple startup companies whose proof of concept ideas become part of the big companies, and startup companies relocating to Northwest Arkansas, we’ll have hit a home run.”
Amidi said a goal for the program is to bring 50 startups each year to Northwest Arkansas.
“Success for me would be a successful pilot, resulting in a licensing agreement and co-investment for 50 startups a year,” he said.
At the conclusion of each three-month program, startups will be able to showcase ideas to prospective customers and investors, including strategic partners from Plug and Play’s global network.
Plug and Play’s Northwest Arkansas office for its supply chain and logistics vertical joins existing locations in Silicon Valley, Germany, Singapore and Shanghai.