Tech Park, Venture Center Mark Companies' Move to Next Stage

Tech Park, Venture Center Mark Companies' Move to Next Stage
Three of the startups to "graduate" from the tech park's space at 107 East Markham shared their stories of growth at a recent Venture Center event: (from left) Unni Peroth of Bfonics, Sean Townsend of Elyxor and Jeston George of Apptegy joined Little Rock Chamber President Jay Chesshir.  (Mark Carter)

Little Rock Tech Park Director Brent Birch told his board Wednesday that things are busy at the park's downtown temporary space.

The park is working to acquire property along Main Street for Phase 1 of the $100 million project, and in January moved its command central into 8,000-SF of leased space at 107 East Markham.

It shares the space with the Venture Center, the entrepreneurial resource provider that advises the park's tenants, who pay a nominal monthly fee for a desk and co-working space.

Birch said the space has 15 tenants, down from a high of 18 in July. Eleven of those 18 early-stage startups outgrew the space and moved on to more permanent offices. 

"That says a lot to what we're doing," he said. "People are interested in this space. It's a pretty good testament to what's going on here."

Three of the more high-profile startups to occupy tech park space, each of whom moved into permanent offices downtown, were recognized this week as part of the Venture Center's Catalyst Speed Mixer for October: Apptegy, now up to 13 full-time employees, Bfonics and Elyxor. 

Birch told the Little Rock Rotary Club last month that once the tech park has moved into its permanent space on Main, the idea is for startups to percolate there, move up to below-market space provided by the park, and eventually graduate into permanent, dedicated space in the park.

He said the three startups recognized this week would've stayed in the park had permanent space been ready, and have signed one-year leases in their current spots with plans to come back once the new space opens.

Apptegy has created a school communications platform; Bfonics has developed a digital marketing platform; and Elyxor provides software engineering services. Apptegy was founded in Little Rock but Bfonics, founded in India, and Boston-based Elyxor had various ties to the city and decided to locate to Little Rock after experiencing the low cost of living and emerging tech scene.

Townsend said Elyxor had been looking across the country for a location to place its development center. Its founders — Mark Carleo, Pete Buletza and Andy Cowles — attended last year's Little Rock Tech Fest and, according to Townsend, fell in love with the city and decided to open the center here.

Townsend, who came to Little Rock from the U.K. to work for Acxiom and previously worked for Rockfish Interactive, said the tech startup scene in Little Rock is drawing people to the city.

"In my 10 years in Little Rock, this is the most exciting time for tech, even in the last two years really," he said. 

Townsend said Elyxor plants to grow its Little Rock office and make local hires.

Bfonics has 15 employees spread among India, Dubai, Dublin and Little Rock. Peroth has been in Little Rock for 20 years after first arriving in town for a six-month internship. Apptegy founder Jetson George credited the resources now available in central Arkansas with helping his startup grow.

"There's such a strong support system here," he said. "It's really important for entrepreneurs to get involved with the Venture Center and all the other resources."

Venture Center A-buzz

The Venture Center has been a resource for early-stage startups and entrepreneurs looking to validate an idea. But Venture Center President Lee Watson stressed that its programs are really about workforce development.

"It's all talent development," he said. "Can we do workforce development and high-growth entrepreneurship? It requires the first to create a pipeline for the second."

In its first year, the center has spawned more than 50 new jobs with member companies raising more than $1.5 million, Watson noted.

But in addition to entrepreneurs, aspiring and otherwise, employees at established companies are taking advantage of opportunities to learn and potentially advance their careers through events such as the Speed Mixer, the Jolt Hack-a-thon, the recent IBM lab hosted by the center and the Code IT series.

"Our message to our corporate partners is, 'We're about workforce development,'" he said. "There's a direct immediate ROI for sending your folks here. This is modern workforce development, and it's all brand new here."

Watson wants Little Rock to become a center of gravity for tech startup activity.

"This stuff can happen here," he said.

Jay Chesshir, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce president and Venture Center board member, believes it can. He said the presence of international startups who chose Little Rock when they could have opened offices almost anywhere. 

"This process will continue to grow," he said. "This ecosystem will grow in Little Rock and have tentacles all over the world."

Chesshir noted important upcoming events to the local tech community: David Cummings, founder of the Atlanta Tech Village, will speak at the Chamber on Nov. 18, and an as-yet unannounced but high-profile tech founder will speak at the Chamber's annual meeting, open to the public, on Dec. 17. 

Chesshir said it might be necessary to move the meeting to the Statehouse Convention Center once the Chamber reveals who the speaker is.

Plus, the Venture Center's third Pre-Accelerator class will hold its Pitch Day, featuring 19 teams and 31 entrepreneurs, on Dec. 15.

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