Arkansas Innovation Leaders Meet with US Commerce Official

by Mark Carter  on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 10:52 am  

The U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, Jay Williams (left), holds a roundtable discussion Friday at the Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, that included (beginning second from left) DRA co-chair Chris Masingill, Hub director Warwick Sabin and Jerry Adams of the Arkansas Research Alliance.  (Photo by Mark Carter)

A "who's who" of Arkansas business and innovation leaders joined Delta Regional Authority co-chair and Arkansas native Chris Masingill and U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Jay Williams on Friday morning for a discussion on entrepreneurship and its role in economic development.

Hosted by the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, which plans to officially launch its Launch Pad maker space in North Little Rock at the end of September, the roundtable brought together state officials and private business leaders to bounce ideas off Williams and discuss the general "state of entrepreneurship" in Arkansas.

The consensus: Much progress has been made over the past decade but the state must continue to build its innovation infrastructure to attract more capital.

Innovate Arkansas director Tom Dalton credited the U.S. Economic Development Administration as being the catalyst behind the creation of his organization and ultimately the successful ARK Challenge startup accelerator that launched in Fayetteville in 2012 and expanded this year to Little Rock.

Williams said he sees similarities between central Arkansas and his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, noting the latter's transformation from a steel town to a thriving innovation hub. He believes central Arkansas is capable of becoming one as well.  

"You could be on the cusp on what happened in downtown Youngstown," he said.

Roundtable participants agreed that creating an innovation culture must start early and that STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education is a key: Too may schools continue teach students 20th century job skills.

"We've got to put kids at ease and make them comfortable with science, math and engineering," Williams said. 

The group also outlined Arkansas' innovation advantages -- a collaborative spirit, low costs of living and doing business, and momentum -- and its disadvantages -- lack of capital, an absence of infrastructure and the need for more innovation in the education system.

"Much of the K-12 system doesn't want to teach creativity, entrepreneurship or innovation until they get a textbook that tells them how to teach it," said EAST Initiative CEO Matt Dozier. "But you can't teach creativity and innovation. You have to put them in a position to develop it themselves."

Launch Pad director Joel Gordon said the maker space is striving to introduce tinkering and entrepreneurship at an early age. Noble Impact is a nonprofit that introduces high-school students to entrepreneurship through public service.

Noble CEO Eric Wilson told participants that the information most students currently receive is funneled through the same channels. He believes developing future innovators will require schools to change their approach to delivering education.



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