Deb Williams leads annual startup competition Heartland Challenge, which begins Thursday

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 411 views 

Deb Williams has led the Heartland Challenge since its inception in 2020. The startups that have competed in the annual event have won almost $500,000 in prize money.

Deb Williams has spent most of her career in higher education, beginning in the late ‘90s when she was a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. She started in athletics and transitioned to the Sam M. Walton College of Business before joining the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OEI) in fall 2016.

Williams is the senior director of student programs and operations at OEI. Since 2020, she’s led the Heartland Challenge, a worldwide startup competition for college students. So far, 60 startups have participated, representing 16 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, Singapore and Thailand. Collectively, they have won nearly $500,000 in prize money.

The fifth annual Heartland Challenge runs from Thursday to Saturday (April 11-13). The Walton College will host the competition for the second consecutive year at Ledger in Bentonville. It’s the third year it’s taken place in person after being hosted virtually in 2020 and 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Overseen by OEI, the Heartland Challenge is supported by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

The number of Heartland Challenge applicants increased by 38% to 126 this year, a record high from last year. The applicants were narrowed down to 12 semifinalists competing for more than $100,000. Four finalists will be announced during a Friday dinner with elevator pitches at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The keynote speaker will be Bentonville entrepreneur Chris Thompson, founder and CEO of Sidekick Mobile Technologies. His firm created Sober Sidekick, a sobriety and recovery smartphone app for people struggling with addiction or recovering from alcohol or drug abuse.

On Saturday, an expo will allow people to visit the startup teams. The final round of the competition will take place before the awards ceremony and keynote speaker Mitch Brooks, managing partner of venture capital firm High Street Equity Partners.

The Heartland Challenge winner will receive $50,000. Cash prizes will also be awarded for second, third and fourth place. The following semifinalists are listed by their startup and college:

  • CurveAssure, Johns Hopkins University
  • Hidalga Technologies, University of Arkansas
  • Hipond, Tufts University
  • Kreative DocuVet, Iowa State University
  • ProPika, University of Arkansas
  • RHM Innovations Inc., University of Rochester
  • Sakura MedTech, University of Illinois
  • Sustain-a-Plate, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Telo, University of Minnesota
  • Thryft Ship, University of Georgia
  • Wanderist, University of Arkansas
  • YieldEASE, Johns Hopkins University

In 2023, AtomICs won the $50,000 prize. AtomICs was co-founded by graduate students of Brown University who developed a patented process to store digital data using molecules.

Williams joined OEI as student programs director. She also oversees the Venture Intern Program and launched a student advisory board, allowing students to develop programs and recruit other students interested in entrepreneurship. Williams was part of a small team when she started at OEI. It’s since grown to 18 employees.

OEI Executive Director Sarah Goforth said Williams was recruited because of her ability to “get things done.” When Goforth joined OEI in early 2017 as director of outreach, she said Williams helped her succeed in her role. Now, as executive director, Goforth said, “Deb has been a partner in every way, a decision maker, and a leader right at my side. It’s hard to imagine having done it without her.”

Williams was promoted to her existing role in 2019 before OEI launched the Heartland Challenge. OEI staff wanted to host the competition to showcase the area as a “destination for people to come and live and be a part of it here, but also, it was really to build some recognition of this region as a destination for entrepreneurship.

“We have had a really strong graduate entrepreneurship program for years,” she said. “Carol Reeves led that program. She was the one who hired both Sarah and me to come back here and work. And this was something she had always had in the back of her mind. We’d had teams go to startup competitions around the world and do well. At one point, we were the winningest team of any university. We had more competition wins. That was something that was core to the original entrepreneurship programming of the university.”

Williams, Goforth and Reeves pitched a proposal for the competition and received a one-year grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Another grant supported the event for an additional five years.

“Even though it wasn’t face-to-face, it was incredibly successful because we were able — at a time when COVID was pulling funds from everywhere for startups — to execute the competition and get support and funding to startups who needed it,” Williams said. “Competitions were shutting down all over the place. We were one of the few that had the competition that year, and it was our first one.”

She noted that speakers at the inaugural competition included Steve Case, chairman and CEO of investment firm Revolution and co-founder of internet platform America Online. The startup that won the $50,000 in 2020 was Aurign, an automated music publishing platform led by a team of entrepreneurs from Georgia State University.

Maddy Stricklen is OEI’s Heartland Challenge program manager and has worked on the event for nearly four years.

“It’s a huge event to pull together,” Williams said. “We’re working on it all year long. We have a regular monthly meeting afterward. There’s the sponsorships, preparation, securing the venues a year in advance, getting speakers locked in, and I think it’s been as successful as it’s been because we have this incredible community of people connected to OEI … We’ve always had a deep network of alumni who continue to give back, want to see us succeed and want to contribute.”

Through this network, the event has attracted “exceptional judges” and “exceptional mentors” for the startups. She noted that the 2023 net promoter score for the startup teams, judges and faculty advisers was 100%. A net promoter score is a leading metric for customer satisfaction and loyalty.

“The experience is second to none, but what teams will say is that the prize money is fine,” she said. “If I win $50,000 in prize money for first place, that’s transformational, but teams that don’t win a dime leave here with a transformed opinion of what is happening in Northwest Arkansas. Also, the opportunities, resources, and people here give them this experience that’s so different — really investing personally and giving them honest feedback about what they’re trying to do.”

Goforth said competition teams have found investors, business partners and accelerators to join. The event has also provided value for competition judges.

Williams explained how the event’s goal has evolved to raise awareness of the region and develop relationships with entrepreneurs outside the area. She said that last year, area entrepreneur Ramsay Ball, an event judge, met another judge from Canada. They started talking about trade between the two regions. They created a program that led to a delegation from Canada visiting Northwest Arkansas to learn about businesses and how they might do business here. Triple the Trade occurred here over two days in August and included multiple events. She said a similar program will take place in Canada.

“That’s a win for the competition because it helps to bring recognition to our region and potentially bring business here,” Williams said. “It’s not necessarily we’re going to recruit startups to the region, but long-game, there’s a way for them to do business here and not necessarily be located here.”

Soon, Williams hopes to establish a startup incubation program for students and young alumni to help them find resources to bolster their businesses.