Chesshir: Startup Ecosystem Can Bring Downtown to Life

Chesshir: Startup Ecosystem Can Bring Downtown to Life
A rendering of Main Street's Creative Corridor by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architect.

Jay Chesshir wants to see the Main Street corridor in Little Rock return to the bustling days when downtown was the center of commerce in the city.

It's well on its way. The nascent Main Street creative corridor and Little Rock technology park are revealing signs of life, but Chesshir, president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, believes the continued development of Little Rock's burgeoning tech-based startup ecosystem can help get it there.

The major players in his big-picture vision include resources such as Innovate Arkansas, the Arkansas Venture Center, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, the ARK Challenge startup accelerator, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the BioVentures incubator at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute and the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, which is working with the state's research-producing universities to commercialize its federal research.

Plus, the Noble Impact program currently adopted by downtown Little Rock's eStem High School is cranking out student entrepreneurs and contributing to the growing feel of downtown as a destination.

All these resources complement each other, Chesshir said, and ultimately will have the tech park at their core. The recent hiring of Jordan Carlisle as director of entrepreneurship for the Chamber — part of a capital campaign for economic development started in 2011 — will provide cohesion in the effort to build a sustainable startup ecosystem.

"Only with the advent of where we are now with the tech park and working with Innovate Arkansas, the Venture Center and the Innovation Hub, did we know the time was right, and we found the right person for the position," Chesshir said.

Carlisle's role will include providing cohesion to existing resources and programs. Chesshir said it's not unheard of but certainly not common for the chamber in a city the size of Little Rock to have a staff position dedicated to entrepreneurship. Little Rock's approach, however, is a little unique.

"We've been very intentional about working with existing resources — that's where you begin to find uniqueness," Chesshir said. "All those resources and others create a differentiator as opposed to creating an entire entrepreneurship program that's cookie cutter."

Redevelopment will place a new coat of paint on downtown, but Chesshir knows that jobs will crank an economic engine that's been stalled for decades. The resources now available in central Arkansas, especially those created in the last year alone, have made Chesshir's big-picture vision possible.

Resources like the Venture Center and Innovation Hub have the potential to create promising tech-based startups while keeping tech talent at home and attracting new talent to the region.

Chesshir believes these resources complement each other.

"When you look at the continuum of process that starts with an idea and ends with commercialization of new job creation, you look at the Innovation Hub where people can come in with ideas and work with others," he said. "There are now many entry areas into that continuum of creating startup companies: One can move into the realm of entrepreneurship with the Hub, then you move into mentorship with Innovate Arkansas working with proof-of-concept and business models, then companies can move into the Pre-Flight stage with the Venture Center and let them work through the process, determine the validity of the technology and move on to actual accelerator programs through the AVC and the ARK Challenge."

The AVC emulated the model of the successful Nashville Entrepreneur Center, which partnered with Vanderbilt to help create a vibrant startup ecosystem. Chesshir believes Little Rock can benefit from the area's region institutions — UALR, UAMS, NCTR and Children's.

"Now, all of a sudden, you have an opportunity to create a startup hub that's taking companies and producing commercialization," he said. "This allows us to jump start a tech or biomedical startup hub and quickly move it to a place where startups can continue to evolve and grow."

In other words, incentive for central Arkansas tech talent to stay home.

"Now, our folks won't have to go to the coasts or even Austin," Chesshir said. "Add to that the AVC's technical training programs for existing businesses and you have yet another piece of the puzzle that allows you to create your own talent —- it's the circle of life that attracts creative people."

Little Rock is preparing its plate. Ultimately, Chesshir and other city leaders want to see central Arkansas sit down at the table of inland tech hubs like Austin and Boulder.

"From the outside looking in, you can see progress but people don't yet really know how much progress has been made," Chesshir said. "All the players have a vital role and will help shine light on things people don't even realize exist. All those parts are vital, but if you don't grow those parts, you can't be as successful nearly as quickly."