ARK Challenge Accelerator Hopes to Continue Success

Ninety-two applications from across the globe were submitted for the second installment of the ARK Challenge startup accelerator in Fayetteville.

Later this month, perhaps even as soon as this week, ARK officials hope to name the 10 startup finalists who will relocate to Fayetteville and compete for up to $150,000 available to two overall winners of this mentorship-driven startup boot camp.

The ARK was federally funded two years ago as part of the highly competitive Innovation Accelerator Challenge, in which 20 programs out of more than 150 were selected nationwide by the U.S. Department of Commerce to advance “regional competitiveness.” The ARK’s mission is to drive tech-based startups to develop innovation in the retail, food processing, and transportation and logistics areas for which northwest Arkansas is known. The focus is on customer acquisition/market traction, programming/product development, and investor relations.

The ARK — that’s Acceleration, Resources, Knowledge — received $2.15 million out of $37 million devoted to the Innovation Accelerator Challenge. Additional funding has come from Winrock International, Gravity Ventures, Fund for Arkansas’ Future and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority.

The program is run by Winrock’s U.S. Programs division, which includes Innovate Arkansas, in partnership with the University of Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. It is a member of the Global Accelerator Network and is part of the Startup America initiative.

For the ARK’s second run, each participating team of two to five members will receive a seed investment of $20,000 in exchange for a 6 percent equity stake. The 14-week program will begin in June and run through early September. Teams will receive 24/7 access to the Iceberg co-working space in Fayetteville, which will serve as their base, and access to a wealth of mentoring, networking, promotion and general support from a group of local and national advisers including some of northwest Arkansas’ most successful entrepreneurs.

The program’s goal is to launch 10 successful startups that will be encouraged to plant roots in northwest Arkansas.

Demo Day, scheduled for Sept. 5 at the Great Hall of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, will showcase the teams’ ideas and award the two top winners additional funding of up to $150,000.

The ARK’s federal grant was designed to fund two installments, but ARK officials hope the program can continue into the future. Its first boot camp last fall was deemed a huge success and received national attention in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company and Forbes. Last fall, Gov. Mike Beebe even authorized the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to fund a third $150,000 winner.

The application pool for the second run includes 15 countries (the U.S., United Kingdom, Singapore, Russia, Romania, Italy, Israel, India, Ghana, Egypt, Croatia, Chile, Canada, Australia and Argentina) and 15 states (Arkansas, New York, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, California and Tennessee). Thirty-five applicants are from Arkansas. Last year, Arkansas teams Btiques and StackSearch, both of Fayetteville, were two of the three winners; MineWhat from India was the other.

Testimonials

This year’s application pool increased to 92 from 80, and Innovate Arkansas adviser and ARK Challenge mentor Jeff Amerine said it won’t be easy to pick the 10 participants.

“The process of selecting the best 10 is going to be a real challenge because we are seeing some excellent founders with strong teams, great business models and impressive technology,” he said. “I am very optimistic about the prospect of launching 10 scalable ventures from this crowd.”

Most of the 15 ventures launched from the ARK’s first run are going strong. Sara Beck, co-founder of Btiques, a social commerce platform for independent boutiques, called the ARK a game-changer for her business.

“With dedication and effort, it took us from a mere idea to a business with a future,” she said. “We can ensure the teams coming in that they will leave the program enriched with incredible knowledge and a zest for being a part of the energized and successful startup community.”

Beck said the entrepreneurs who come to Fayetteville for the ARK’s second run will be challenged and pushed to work outside their comfort zones. In return, they’ll be rewarded with “total access to the strategic tools needed to build a sustainable business from the ground up.”

“Personal and professional growth is ensured,” she said.

Sooligan is a location-based social network that enables users to find information about a new city. Founders Natasia Malaihollo and Nikka Umil were recent graduates of the University of California at Berkeley who put law school and other plans on hold last year to relocate to Arkansas for the ARK and to launch their startup. They officially launched their venture in February at the Super Bowl in New Orleans as part of the big game’s official social media experience.

“The ARK Challenge was by far the best decision we ever made for Sooligan and our team,” Malaihollo said. “We had heard a lot about accelerator programs and expected various scenarios, but were completely and pleasantly surprised by what we encountered in Fayetteville. The mentors in this program are truly genuine, inspiring, helpful and so kind. They want to see you succeed. They want your company to grow. They want to help you.”

ARK Challenge director and mentor Jeannette Balleza said the program is suited for small, tech-based startups.

“Like other Global Accelerator Network members, our format is mentorship-driven, is short term at just three months and provides seed investment and favorable terms to founders,” she said. “With those sorts of parameters, our program works best for agile, scalable startups that can not only build but also test and deploy products within a relatively brief period of time and with great capital efficiency.

“We look forward to accelerating another 10 startups this year to continue to strengthen what is quickly becoming a very vibrant Arkansas startup ecosystem.,” she said.