Innovation Hub Announces $250K Grant From DRA

The nonprofit Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub announced Monday a $250,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority to be used for program support and administrative operations at the planned Argenta Innovation Center.

The Hub will break ground in early 2014 for the Innovation Center, a planned 17,000-SF facility that will promote economic development through entrepreneurship. It will entail the renovation and expansion of a former police substation located at West Fourth and Poplar streets in the Argenta district of downtown North Little Rock, and is expected to be up and running by early spring.

The renovated building, owned by project supporter Harold Tenenbaum, will serve as the Hub's permanent headquarters. Currently, the Hub operates out of temporary space located within the offices of the Argenta Arts Foundation on North Little Rock's Main Street downtown. 

Once expansion and renovation are complete, the Innovation Center will include a 5,483-SF co-working space, the Silver Mine; a maker space, the 6,130-SF Launch Pad, which will include 3-D printing, robotics and laser etching; a 1,296-SF section set aside for STEM education called the Steam Room that represents a partnership with Little Rock-based EAST Initiative; and an already existing arts program for students, the Arts Connection, which will take up 4,200-SF and help introduce visual arts to the innovation pipeline.

The total DRA federal grant is for $251,105. A little more than $200,000 will be devoted to construction and renovation while the remaining money is earmarked for programs and operations. DRA was established by Congress in 2000 and represents a federal-state partnership to enhance economic development in the Delta region. 

The Hub is looking to raise about $1.6 million to purchase the building from Tenenbaum, finish out renovations and purchase furniture and fixtures, and is a little more than half way to its goal.

The Innovation Center will be modeled after the Idea Village in New Orleans, but Hub executive director Warwick Sabin said it will be unique among similar facilities across the country because it will introduce in one facility the four components of co-working, maker space, STEM education (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and the arts. 

"Nowhere else in the country are all these things under one roof," he said. "We're creating an atmosphere where all these things can collaborate. These connections have been missing a little bit." 

DRA federal co-chairman Chris Masingill said the Hub will enable the central Arkansas startup ecosystem to accelerate innovation, and will serve as the front door for entrepreneurship in the state.

"This is a great project that will be the future of job development in central Arkansas," he said. "No longer will we be cutting up smaller pieces of the same pie. We are making the pie bigger."

Sabin, who represents District 33 (midtown Little Rock) in the Arkansas House of Representatives, called the project the state's most cost efficient economic-development strategy. The Innovation Center represents the Hub's first phase, and Sabin promised more big announcements in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, he wants to reach across the river and partner with the tech park planned for Little Rock's Main Street corridor and any other planned components of the area's startup ecosystem.

"This is a regional effort," he said. "We want to promote startup development for central Arkansas. There are a lot of great things happening here. We have an ecosystem but nothing really to bring it together and allow us to articulate it to the rest of the state. This can also help us work better with the startup community in northwest Arkansas and foster innovation in the Delta and south Arkansas."

One of the goals of the Innovation Center is to create an educational pipeline that leads to entrepreneurship, ultimately helping keep the state's brightest kids at home.

"In Arkansas, especially, we lose a lot of the most talented people quickly," Sabin said. "There's a certain impetus for us to create pathways to success so we can keep that talent here and connect people to what they need to be successful."