Arkansas can become a leader in the knowledge-based economy if its state government, industries and educators work together to develop a workforce attractive to innovators and to diversify its portfolio by bringing in a big company to complement homegrown successes.
That’s what attendees of the first Arkansas Innovation Council Summit were told Tuesday at the Robinson Center ballroom in Little Rock.
The first speaker was Ross DeVol, a Walton fellow with the Walton Family Foundation.
The state ranks in the bottom 10 for human capital investment, risk capital and entrepreneurial infrastructure, research and development inputs, technology concentration and dynamism, and technology and science workforce, according to the Milken Institute’s 2018 State Technology & Science Index. DeVol is former chief research officer at the Milken Institute.
On Tuesday, he said, “To be frank, Arkansas needs to get on the map.”
That’s not to say the state hasn’t improved. He said its overall score on the index has improved by six points since he joined the foundation in 2017.
He spoke a lot about Utah’s success climbing to the top of the index over several years and said Arkansas could do the same thing by taking a number of steps.
DeVol suggested the state develop a strategic vision, award incentives based on economic impact, recruit anchor tech firms (large and established tech companies, like Apple), take advantage of public-private partnerships, promote commercialization of research and development efforts and increase access to early-stage risk capital.
In response to a question from the audience, DeVol said Arkansas needs both an anchor firm and homegrown startups for a diverse portfolio.
The panel discussion following DeVol’s presentation served to reinforce many of his points.
It was comprised of:
- moderator Stan Green;
- Richard Brown, dean of the University of Utah College of Engineering;
- Mark Mason, principal and founder of full-service technology consulting firm Affirma Consulting, which is headquartered in Seattle and recently expanded to Fayetteville;
- Elliott Parker, managing director of corporate innovation for High Alpha Venture Studio of Indianapolis;
- Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; and
- April Seggebruch, co-founder of Bentonville software company Movista.
Brown said higher education institutions and industry leaders working together have made a huge difference in Utah, where the number of engineering graduates from his university has increased from about 40 to more than 1,000 over the past few years.
For the past five years, Brown said more than 80 percent of those students have stayed in Utah after graduating. Since 2006, the UU's College of Engineering has spun out 74 startup companies.
Mason said he choose to expand to Fayetteville because recruitment and retainment of talent is a priority for Affirma Consulting. He said he felt he could hire University of Arkansas graduates. He noted that a lower cost of living and good quality of life are key to retaining workers.
Parker said the relationship between the startup community and established companies is also important. “We believe that, over the next couple of decades, the success that large established companies achieve will be determined in large part by the quality of the engagement that they have with startups,” he said.
Brown said being a leader in the knowledge-based economy is all about engaging in a necessary cycle, “involving the government allocating the funds, the universities growing the workforce, more industry coming to the state because we’ve got a growing, young, well-educated population. And the new companies require even more employees, so we go round and round.”
Utah has also implemented incentives for venture capital investments, he said, and that has made a difference.
Everyone on the panel seemed to agreed that there is a need for Arkansas to develop an engaged investment community and for universities to encourage commercialization efforts by students and faculty.
The summit ended with a keynote presentation by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who touted the state bringing coding classes to every high school in Arkansas, spending $2.5 million to certify computer science teachers, holding a blockchain summit, helping fund the cybersecurity range at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and many other initiatives.
About the new Arkansas Innovation Council, he said, “I see this as an opportunity to make sure Arkansas not only enhances our workforce and our education but that it’s guided by industry and those people who are dependent upon" the knowledge-based economy.