Is 2012 the Year of the Startup? (Jeff Amerine Commentary)

With the flurry of new startups, angel investment activity and accelerators, 2012 might well be "The Year of the Startup" in Arkansas.

Why now?

During the past 10 years, there's been a steady march toward creating a more robust venture ecosystem. The process began with a 2001 Milken Institute assessment, which identified the crucial links among education, innovation, entrepreneurship and achieving a higher standard of living. Accelerate Arkansas sprang to life as a result, and this group of notable business leaders developed a series of initiatives to help address some major challenges.

These initiatives included the creation of the Arkansas Research Alliance, Innovate Arkansas and the Arkansas Risk Capital Matching Fund. ARA works to attract "rock star" researchers to Arkansas' universities, IA provides mentoring and coaching to improve the growth of technology and knowledge-based startups, and ARCMF provides matching investment when qualifying early-stage companies have raised investment capital from other private sources.

These groups, coupled with other startup-focused incentives and support from various statewide sources, have created a startup-friendly environment.

The Fund for Arkansas' Future - the largest, oldest and most active angel fund in the state - also continues to play an essential role in providing needed early-stage capital across the state. FAF was joined by Gravity Ventures Arkansas, and GVA made five investments in Arkansas companies in 2011.

Moreover, if anyone had doubts about Arkansas' ability to compete in the startup arena, they need only look at the national and international success the University of Arkansas graduate business plan teams have had during the past five years under Carol Reeves' guidance. Fortune magazine took notice by highlighting Reeves in an article about the 10 most influential entrepreneurial women in the United States, and startups such as BiologicsMD, Cyclewood Solutions and Silicon Solar Solutions wouldn't exist without her.

Another indication of Arkansas' ability to compete nationally came in late 2011. A team comprising the UA, Winrock International and Northwest Arkansas Community College  - and known as ARK - was awarded a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to create an information technology and mobile applications-focused startup boot camp.

ARK will soon begin to recruit the best and brightest startups from across the country. The boot camp will engage the existing flagship clusters in retail, supply chain and food processing to identify their top information and mobile application challenges. ARK will then turn out 15 new startups each year, two of which will receive substantial seed investment and the opportunity to do 90-day pilot deployments within those clusters.

Additionally, the Northwest Arkansas Council last year unveiled its strategic plan and began to assemble a "coalition of the willing" to make it happen. From an economic development aspect, significant startup-focused objectives include supporting the formation of angel investment groups, creating startup incubators/accelerators, enhancing sustainable product development and expanding university technology commercialization.

Some of those activities were under way prior to the council's strategic plan being released. Even so, its support brought invaluable legitimacy and advocacy to initiatives such as the Iceberg Startup Co-working Facility, the Gone in 60 Seconds Elevator Pitch Contest and the Natural State Angel Association.

Everything I've mentioned thus far serves as little more than accelerant. The fire must come from those with the vision, fortitude and tenacity to actually create amazing new ventures. Some would question the romantic notion that optimism perpetually radiates from that strange breed we have come to generically refer to as "entrepreneurs." I believe it, and I believe the DNA for entrepreneurship in this state can compete on a worldwide scale. Some recent supporting examples include the successful acquisition of Rockfish Interactive by WPP and the rapid growth and multi-round venture funding success of Acumen Brands.

Out of adversity, necessity or design, intrepid startup founders in Arkansas dive headlong into the chaos of creating something from nothing with the knowledge failure may await. Even so, this new generation feeds on the spirit of legends like Sam Walton, J.B. Hunt, Don Tyson and Sheridan Garrison.

In my view, we have every reason to be optimistic 2012 will be the "Year of the Startup" in Arkansas. Together, we can make it happen.

(Jeff Amerine is a technology licensing officer and entrepreneurship instructor at the University of Arkansas, an Innovate Arkansas adviser and blogger, and a Gravity Ventures Arkansas manager. He can be reached at JAmerine@UArk.edu.)