ARK Challenge Rolls into Little Rock

by Mark Carter  on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 12:00 am  

The ARK Challenge's fourth installment, administered by Innovate Arkansas, kicks off this week in downtown Little Rock.

ARK 3 — the third installment of the public/private ARK Challenge startup accelerator that made a name for itself in northwest Arkansas — is underway in Fayetteville.

Meanwhile, ARK 4 launches this week in Little Rock. While the NWA version is offering more money to fewer participating teams — its focus is on startups with more traction — the Little Rock ARK Challenge is providing 10 teams with $20,000 in seed funding for the three-month startup boot camp.

That’s been the format of the first two installments held in Fayetteville in 2012 and 2013. ARK 4 will stick to that format but focus on the central Arkansas-flavored industries of “big data,” health care and government.

“The format for the ARK Challenge in central Arkansas will closely resemble that of the first two ARK programs in northwest Arkansas, in that we are working with early stage tech startups and following the proven 14-week accelerator model,” said ARK 4 Director Warwick Sabin of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. “Of course, we will take advantage of some of the unique resources available in our region to have some special events and programming, but otherwise it will be very similar to what we know is effective and useful.”

Jordan Carlisle, the new director for entrepreneurship and innovation at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, believes the presence of the ARK Challenge in central Arkansas will boost recent entrepreneurial progress that includes the launches of the Innovation Hub and the Arkansas Venture Center plus the planned placement of the Little Rock tech park along Main Street downtown.

“In the past, the ARK Challenge has built excitement and momentum in NWA, but most importantly, it has created a platform that encourages people to start new ventures with support from the surrounding community,” he said. “I strongly believe the ARK 4 will help fuel that same mindset in central Arkansas, which energizes other initiatives like Startup Weekends, 1 Million Cups, BarCamps, Made by Few, TEDx, the Innovation Hub and the Venture Center. Moreover, all of the innovative inertia spiraling out of the ARK will likely lead to a stronger community of entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs thrive, ultimately leading to successful companies.”

ARK 4 teams have been selected and all will become client firms of Innovate Arkansas, but their names can’t be revealed until all participants sign their contracts with the ARK Challenge. The fourth installment is expected to begin early this month and run through early November.

It will operate out of about 8,000 SF of ground-level space in the Block 2 building on East Markham Street, directly across from the Statehouse Convention Center.

Location, location, location. Sabin considers it a huge draw for ARK 4.

“Central Arkansas has a very diverse business community with a range of expertise across many industry sectors, and we plan to leverage that to the fullest through our corps of mentors,” he said. “We also have the advantage of being in the state’s capital, its geographic center and its largest metropolitan area, with all of the amenities that brings. I also think the timing for this program is right for central Arkansas, as our community leaders in business, education and government appreciate the need to be pro-active and collaborative in building the entrepreneurial ecosystem here.”

A diverse group has signed on to mentor ARK 4 startups and includes Arkansas Systems founder John Chamberlin; Ross Cranford of Cranford Co.; Arkansas Business contributor Robert Coon of Impact Management Group; Ruth Whitney, founder and CEO of inVeritas Research & Consulting; and London-based entrepreneur and investor Permjot Valia.

The central Arkansas startup ecosystem was identified last year in one national publication as a startup “hot springs,” with startup activity bubbling just below the national radar and ready to grow into something much larger. The ARK Challenge could help Little Rock begin to bubble over.

“The ARK directly contributes to the startup ecosystem in some fundamental ways,” Sabin said. “We have built a foundational network of mentors that will expand as they begin to get involved in helping entrepreneurs, and that will be a long-term contribution to the community. We will also pave the way for other accelerator programs to get traction and support, as the companies we directly accelerate will be the success stories that others will use to demonstrate the utility of the process.

“And those ARK companies will bring more entrepreneurial startups behind them and serve as the next corps of mentors. It is a virtuous cycle that needs the catalytic spark provided by the ARK.



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