Justin Urso began his transition to full-time director of the University of Arkansas McMillon Innovation Studio on March 15.
A UA graduate, Urso co-founded Concord Adams, a custom website design and development service, in 2017. In 2014, he co-founded Skosay, a retail technology company whose clients include Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale and Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Michigan. He also co-founded Big Box Karaoke in Fayetteville, which was named Small Business of the Year by the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce in 2019.
He has been a mentor to the UA Office of Entrepreneurship and Delta I-Fund and a member of the Walton College DREAM Advisory Board.
The McMillon Innovation Studio is described as “home to a community of interdisciplinary, collaborative undergraduate student teams” that “provides prototyping space for students and faculty across campus to connect and create together.” How does that look day-to-day? How do potential users become aware of what the studio has to offer?
We work with students in a variety of ways.
The most prominent way is with our design teams. Students from all different colleges on campus join the studio to work on big, real-world problems, bring ideas of their own to life and receive access to world-class mentors. Our work is done by helping students unleash their creative abilities to solve problems, going through customer discovery and eventually creating a prototype of their proposed solution.
After students have demonstrated that a viable solution is possible, they can join our Launch Lab program, where they gain access to potential seed funding and additional access to mentors.
Students become aware of the studio from their friends and also their professors. This upcoming year as we return back to campus, we hope to get back to being able to engage students directly on campus.
What made you want to be director of the McMillon studio? Do you have any new goals in mind?
For the past seven years I had the amazing opportunity to be a mentor to student teams with the Office of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the University of Arkansas. The entire staff there is great, and they are changing the world through their programs. Helping students reach their full potential has always been something that has excited me. I know during my own college career I got the most value from engaging with people who were doing the work I was studying.
When the opportunity to join the studio presented itself, I didn’t have to think long about how much I would enjoy working there and with the team. Of course, my having been a full-time entrepreneur for so long made the decision a bit challenging, but I know that keeping my own businesses moving forward allows me the ability to connect with students in a unique way, and it also shows my own passion for problem-solving and innovation.
Right now my focus is helping our current students, working with our staff and project leaders to prepare for Demo Day at the end of April. I do have some big goals for the studio and our students, probably too many to share at this stage. For the long term, however, I see the studio growing during the next several years with the hopes of doubling the number of students we are able to bring through the studio by the fall of 2022.
Which other businesses are you still involved with?
I’m still excited and passionate about the potential of Big Box Karaoke. While I am not working there day-to-day anymore, I am still involved in back-office work and will pick up the occasional shift on the weekend. It’s really a fun place to be, and it just gives me joy when I hear customers say, “It’s the best night out our family has had in a long time.”
As for Concord Adams, my wife, Mailena, is the star there. I’m an analyst by trade, so working on the reporting is about all I do these days for both businesses. It’s exciting to see our own businesses back on track in 2021 after a very difficult year in 2020.