Rod Ford's nGage Labs to Open Analytics Center in River Market

Gov. Mike Beebe and nGage Labs announced on Friday that the company will open an Analytics Innovation Center in the River Market District in downtown Little Rock.

The company plans to begin hiring "immediately" to fill at least 35 knowledge-based positions at an average salary "above $100,000." It will make its temporary home in the Capitol Commerce Building on Commerce Street, taking on 12-15 employees before moving into the Heritage West Building on East Markham Street in "two to three months."

Founded in 2009 in Scottsdale, Ariz., nGage Labs provides "on-premise customer engagement solutions." It said its new Little Rock office will develop science and algorithms required to use "big data" streams in delivering real-time, personalized digital experiences for customers of retailers, restaurants, campuses and sporting events.

Rod Ford, nGage Labs CEO, said the company "seriously considered" putting the lab at its offices in Scottsdale. But he said the support of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, coupled with a desire to partner with local universities "made Little Rock an attractive option." 

The company is getting $1 million from the Governor's Quick Action Closing Fund.  

"nGage Labs is about using the predictive power of big data analytics to transform impersonal mass mobile communications into a highly personalized and engaging experience, resulting in much higher levels of mobile commerce for our clients," Ford said.

"The investment in an Analytics Innovation Center reflects our commitment to deliver disruptive innovation that provides competitive advantage to our customers. We are an innovation company, seeing what others have seen - but thinking what nobody has thought, and we are super excited to bring these new ideas to market."

nGage Labs was founded as CopiaMobile Inc. The company maintains an office in Scottsdale. 

Ford is the former CEO of CognitiveData, a marketing technology company with offices in the River Market District. Merkle of Columbia, Md., purchased CognitiveData in 2009. Per the deal, Ford and his team joined forces with Merkle's consulting, data, analytics and creative groups to add its proprietary data offerings to Merkle's line of services.

"Now, what's happening, is the CognitiveData piece is going away as a standalone brand," Ford told Arkansas Business last year. "I'm just running a piece of innovation - the innovation development within Merkle for specialty retailers."

As of early 2012, CognitiveData had 125 employees in the Museum Center in the River Market, after adding 30 percent more office space in 2011. Merkle said the new space would allow the firm to add about 125 more employees.

Ford retired from Merkle at the beginning of 2013, and joined nGage as CEO in July.

'Home Court Advantage'

Ford, who lives in Little Rock and commutes to and from Arizona, said Little Rock and the River Market District provided a "home court advantage" when he was running CognitiveData. He said the company would bring in clients from out of state. 

"Clients would actually ask to visit," Ford said. "They get tired of Dallas and Chicago and want to see something unique. There are so many things they can do in Arkansas -- duck hunt, float the Buffalo -- and the River Market has that energy that attracts people."

Ford said that kind of energy also attracts the kind of technical talent he hopes to recruit to nGage. He also said he hopes to forge some sort of partnership with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, but that such partnerships are not "foundational to our success."

In June, UALR announced plans to establish the UALR George W. Donaghey Emerging Analytics Center, which would explore ways to leverage so-called "big data" in variety of applications, including medical and high-tech manufacturing. UALR said the center, located on the fourth floor of its Engineering and Information Technology building, would be available for use by private companies.

The center is led by Mary Good, a nationally recognized scientist who serves as special advisor on economic development to UALR and the AEDC. Good is also a former board member of Acxiom Corp. of Little Rock, a publicly traded data services company headquartered in the River Market. Under Ford, CognitiveData had several reseller agreements with Acxiom.

Also Friday, Ford expressed interest in the proposed Little Rock tech park, saying that he'd like to see it located in downtown Little Rock. If that were the case, nGage would like to be "the anchor tenant." But Ford said he is "on the sidelines" concerning the debate over the park's location.

The tech park authority board is considering three locations for the park: downtown along Main Street, the Sears building on South University Avenue, and a site adjacent to the UALR campus.