Beta in Bentonville, new lab space at The Collaborative, to help startups build product prototypes

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,687 views 

Toby Teeter, director of The Collaborative in Bentonville.

The University of Arkansas recently opened a 6,000-square-foot lab for startups that need product prototypes which are significant for consumer research. The new lab will be focused on metal fabrication.

Beta in Bentonville is a prototyping lab at The Collaborative, the UA’s education and research hub in Bentonville. The lab provides technical assistance to startups seeking computer-aided design (CAD) and prototyping of their physical products.

“Beta in Bentonville serves as a vital resource for startups seeking to bring their product ideas to fruition,” said Toby Teeter, director of The Collaborative. “Besides our metal fabrication capabilities here in Bentonville, our staff has networked with other fabrication facilities throughout the region to provide a much-needed ‘front door’ for founders and entrepreneurs to fabrication resources across Northwest Arkansas.”

He said the project that led to Beta in Bentonville started more than a year ago when a gap was identified in the prototype process for area startups. Previously, the startups would be referred to prototyping centers in Dallas, Houston or Nashville, Tenn.

“We’re trying to get startups unstuck because there’s a number of startups that get stuck in this stage,” Teeter said. “A physical product is required to get customer feedback to find funding.

“We realized the biggest gap is in metal,” he added. “Our focus here in Bentonville is on the metal side.” That includes fabrication, such as computer numerical control (CNC) and welding, and 3D printing of metals like aluminum, stainless steel and titanium.

The lab has a full-time machinist and an intern. Another intern is expected to be added soon, Teeter said. UA engineering students are also available to work in the lab. The plan is for the lab to be an educational center and provide students with product-building experience. It will be an opportunity for UA graduate and undergraduate students to complete most of the work.

“Northwest Arkansas is rich with resources that help early-stage entrepreneurs test their ideas, build companies and engage with potential customers and investors,” said Sarah Goforth, executive director of the UA Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “But until now, we have relied on a patchwork of mostly out-of-state experts and facilities, at a cost, to help them build prototypes and manufacture them in small batches for product testing. Beta in Bentonville will meet a major need for startups at their most vulnerable early stage.”

Teeter said startups can receive a free consultation with the machinist, and the machinist and interns will complete CAD and prototyping of the product, either at the lab or other area fabrication centers.

“This is a fee-for-service shop where our machinist is paid for time and materials; however, we have a steep discounting, cost-sharing program where we can essentially scholarship businesses that are pre-revenue,” Teeter said. “We can qualify businesses that are just getting going for far-below-market prototyping.”

Teeter said through the UA’s network, the machinist can help connect startups with other fabricators that work in apparel, plastics, or wood and across industries from cycling parts to medical devices.

“The opportunity here is to create a front desk and get that startup to the right fabrication partner in our ecosystem,” he said. “But the big hole that we identified was on the metal side. That’s why we are focused physically here on the metal, but we can refer out and connect startups with other resources, both on and off campus in our region, to stitch together a network effect that can better serve our startups.”

Teeter said Beta in Bentonville has about 10 prototype projects in the pipeline. Depending on the project size, they can take from hours to weeks to complete.

He noted that the lab at 1000 S.E. 5th St. is not a maker space and is open by appointment only. Interested startups can fill out an online form at this link to connect with the lab.

“This is accessible to startups in general, not just University of Arkansas-affiliated or student-ran startups,” Teeter said. “If somebody’s creating a new product or a new business, and they need help with CAD design and prototyping of their product, that is where we come in. There could be anybody from the general population, anyone from the state of Arkansas, quite frankly, not just Northwest Arkansas. We already have projects we’re working on as far as Pine Bluff and Little Rock.”