ARK Challenge, 'NFL Combine' for Entrepreneurs, Names Winners

by Mark Carter  on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 3:22 pm  

Serial entrepreneur, startup guru and angel investor Kristian Andersen likened Thursday's ARK Challenge Demo Day to a football fan attending an NFL combine.

That's a spot-on assessment of the atmosphere surrounding the topping-off event of the three-month startup accelerator. Fifteen startups from Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, California, New York, Singapore and India participated in the program. On Thursday, they presented to more than 200 national investors and state business leaders.

Three startups were offered optional funding of $150,000 as winners of the inaugural accelerator: Btiques of Kansas City, Mo., and Fayetteville; MineWhat of Bangalore, India; and StackSearch of Fayetteville.

Demo Day, the culmination of three months' work for each participating startup, took place at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Fifteen startups were selected to compete in the ARK Challenge from an applicant pool of 85. Each was required to move to Fayetteville and participate in a boot camp designed to develop innovative solutions in the area's three industry clusters: retail, food processing and transportation and logistics. 

Each received more than $18,000, resources to develop their businesses and access to a national group of mentors.

Thursday's presentations represented the fruits of their labors.

The ARK is a Winrock International-U.S. Programs initiative and was one of 20 programs selected by the U.S. Commerce Department's Innovation Accelerator Challenge to help boost regional economic development.

Eight of the startups are from Arkansas, one is from India, and two are from Singapore. The rest came from across the U.S.

Each moved to Fayetteville in August. Two of Thursday's winners are rooted in northwest Arkansas. MineWhat's founders, both citizens of India, indicated they would try to remain in Fayetteville. 

Originally, the program aimed to award funding to two winners. But Gov. Mike Beebe, who attended the Thursday presentations, made the surprise announcement that the Arkansas Economic Development Commission will fund a third ARK startup on the condition that the startup would relocate to Arkansas permanently.

"This represents an amazing opportunity for every ARK startup, not just the winners," said Zack Hill of Refurrl of Conway, an ARK Challenge startup. "Demo Day gives us the opportunity to get before national investors we otherwise wouldn't have the chance to see.

"The overall talent and quality of the ideas represented here is so high. The exposure gained here will come back to pay dividends for all the participants."



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