by Mark Carter
Posted 12/5/2013 09:59 am
Updated 8 months ago
Among the standing-room-only crowd gathered in Argenta Monday for the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub's announcement of a $250,000 federal grant from the Delta Regional Authority was a group of Greenbrier High School students.
The students are participants in the Little Rock-based EAST Initiative program, and perhaps more than any other group they stand to benefit from the DRA grant that will speed up the opening of the Launch Pad maker space in the nonprofit Hub's planned Argenta Innovation Center.
Their interest in the Launch Pad, a technology lab space for students and entrepreneurs, comes naturally. Last month, a group of six EAST students at Greenbrier High School launched a weather balloon from the campus of Westside Elementary School in Greenbrier that reached an altitude of roughly 24 miles -- "near space" -- and stayed aloft for 111 minutes.
It took various temperature, distance and altitude readings before crashing back to earth about 100 miles from Greenbrier in an east Arkansas rice field. The students tracked its progress through GPS. The balloon carried a camera and small computer that took pictures, video and read data, all available at GHSSpaceBalloon.Blogspot.com.
The space balloon students, who secured FAA and air traffic control approval to make the launch, are project leader Ben Benton, Alex Dixon, Foster Hines, Zach Hollenbaugh and Max Huggins. Benton said the group worked for about a year in class preparing for the launch. He's excited about the possibilities that'll be offered by access to the Launch Pad, which is expected to officially "launch" the Innovation Center in the spring.
EAST Initiative president and CEO Matt Dozier said the center will open doors for kids who previously had limited opportunities to reach their potential.
"Here, kids won't be time constrained; they won't have to worry about grades or being tardy," he said. "They can just enjoy problem solving."
The facility currently exists as the Arts Connection, an after-school program for high school students located at Fourth and Poplar just off Main in downtown North Little Rock. The building, a former police substation which owner Harold Tenenbaum is selling to the Hub, is being renovated and expanded to about 17,000-SF to accomodate the four components that will make up the Innovation Center: the Arts Connection, the Silver Mine co-working space, the Launch Pad and the STEAM Room, devoted to students in partnership with EAST (environmental and spacial technology).
(Go to ARHub.org for design plans, including video of the Innovation Center.)
Hub executive director Warwick Sabin and Launch Pad director Joel Gordon envision the Innovation Center as the local lab in which students, entrepreneurs, adults seeking a change in vocation and even employees of local companies can experiment, train and learn.
The center will provide them the means to do so. Gordon calls it an "entrepreneurial and tech rec center."
"What I really see this place as is a touchdown," he said, likening entrepreneurship and technology to football and basketball for the generation coming up. "There are a lot of incredible organizations all over the state with similar missions, and we're creating a venue that's a physical focus point. This is the sort of thing that begins to create a community."
The center will provide central Arkansas entrepreneurs with their first true, comprehensive co-working space, and it'll offer the state's first maker space filled with the latest tech toys, including 3-D printers and robotics. Plus, it'll provide the STEAM Room space for EAST students from high schools across the state to get hands-on experience, and through the Arts Connection, entrepreneurs will be given opportunities to introduce visual elements into their work, and students will learn entrepreneurship through the arts.
It's a model unique in all the country, Sabin believes -- combining the four elements of co-working, maker space, education and the arts under one roof. Partnerships are planned with local businesses and schools and the center will offer various membership levels for individuals, the details of which are still being worked out.
But students will represent a big part of the center, which will open as youth entrepreneurship seems to be exploding in Arkansas:
- Josh Moody, a senior at Little Rock's Catholic High School, led the Overwatch startup to a win at the 2013 ARK Challenge accelerator in Fayetteville.
- Little Rock's Noble Impact, a nonprofit that teaches high-school students entrepreneurship through public service in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service, took a team of eStem High School students to Startup Weekend Northwest Arkansas, where its students created the Passion Pull startup.
- Plus, Noble Impact is scheduled to host the first-ever Startup Weekend devoted to high-school students next year at eStem.
- The Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation's Youth Entrepreneurship Showcase entails business-plan competitions for students across the state in grades 5-8 and 9-12 and attracts more students each year.
- Sparkible offers after-school programs that introduces entrepreneurship to high-school students.
- The Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup business-plan competition for college students continues to get bigger each year, and Arkansas teams have earned renown for their success in national and international competitions.
- Recent Global Entrepreneurship Week activities in Little Rock included a young CEOs forum in which Moody joined David Allan and Sreesh Reddy, the Hendrix College founders of Acorn Hours, and student entrepreneur Natali Hall, a junior at Little Rock Christian.
And now, students in Greenbrier are launching space balloons. For them, the Launch Pad couldn't have come at a better time. Gordon believes shop and computer class now are essentially the same thing, and sees the Innovation Center as a potential pipeline taking in the state's young talent, cultivating it, and creating job opportunities that'll help keep that talent in Arkansas.
"We're heading for the next space race," he said. "We've got to get the kids now."
Sabin wants to capitalize on the potential to create a true innovation corridor reaching from Argenta down Main Street in Little Rock.
"This is the economic development strategy for the 21st century for Arkansas," he said. "In terms of return on our investment, we're always better off growing companies in Arkansas. Just a few success stories like we're already seeing in Arkansas will attract other companies and more young talent, and help grow an organic economy. This is a way to turbo charge it."