Arkansas Entrepreneurs Stay Optimistic in Tough Economy

Entrepreneurs meeting at the Arkansas Venture Forum in Little Rock Wednesday didn't seem fazed at the prospects of starting a new business in the current dismal national economy.

"As I talk with my venture funds, those that are just entering the market right now that have capital, it's a wonderful time to invest," Michael Tharp of Cimarron Capital Group said.

Many of the state's entrepreneurs, small business leaders, venture capitalists and service providers met to discuss how they have funded and maintained their businesses in the two tumultuous years since the forum last took place.

Turnout this year was good, according to Grey Williams, chairman of the event. He estimates that between pre-registrants and walk-ups, about 200 attended.

"We've seen a good mix of entrepreneurs. We've had investors here that have never been here before," Williams said. "We have really focused on those two audiences: Education for the entrepreneurs, and the investors getting to see some of the best companies that Arkansas has to offer in terms of the early-stage, high-growth kind of companies."

Panels Shed Light on Funding, Structuring

The conference featured three panel discussions, all aimed at assisting entrepreneurs in their journey toward business growth. "Gazelle 101: Key Elements of a Fundable Business Plan," focused on why entrepreneurs need to have a plan for their business, as well as "the proper gear" necessary for taking on outside capital.

The second panel, "Financial Fodder for Your Gazelle: Finding & Structuring Investment in Your Company," continued the National Geographic motif of up-and-coming entrepreneurs cast as gazelles surviving in a hungry market.

The panel talked about how a company can determine which type of capital will provide the best fit in the current economy and how to structure an outside capital investment.

The final panel discussion targeted entrepreneurs looking to get into the marketplace with their company. Called "The Packhorse to Workhorse: You and Your Gazelle," the panel featured Tom Dalton, director of Innovate Arkansas, which acts as a match-maker between outside companies and in-state businesses to foster growth in profit and wages.

Innovate Arkansas is a program in partnership with Winrock International and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Innovate Arkansas works with new technology-based entrepreneurs as they move new inventions and high-tech service concepts toward viable commercial enterprises.

Through its Web site, created in partnership with publisher Arkansas Business Publishing Group, it shares resources and other information about new technology and innovation in the state.

The luncheon speaker was Josh Quittner, Time magazine's consumer technology editor-at-large, who gave insights on marketplace trends. He also talked about where Arkansas is headed in its efforts to become an emerging growth economy in the new century.

Medical Innovations

Seven Arkansas companies seeking venture capital made presentations. Among them was Dr. Michael Zweifler of Accupal of Maumelle.

Zweifler, a Little Rock dentist, told the conference that the preconception of pain potential patients feared in scheduling dental appointments had caused an avoidance rate of 40 percent nationwide.

"I could put the nicest crown on a patient, but it's the painful experience of getting the injection that they remember," Zweifler said.

To remove the stigma of pain from his patients' visits, Zweifler developed the Accupal, a small handheld device powered by a triple-A battery that would remove the pain caused by injections to the palatal tissue on the roof a patient's mouth.

The Accupal vibrates the tissue, stimulating the nerves and stopping the pain from reaching the brain.

Zweifler formed a small business to manufacture and distribute the Accupal devices with three partners.

The Arkansas-based company manufactures the kit and sells its product to medical professionals through trade shows and the Internet. Dentists in the United States and 12 countries have paid the retail price of $479, almost ten times what it costs Accupal to manufacture and sell the device.

Of 350 kits sold, Zweifler says only three have been returned. Zweifler said his goals for the product include being picked up by a national distributor and possibly a merger with a larger company.