Northwest Arkansas is drawing national attention to its burgeoning entrepreneurship community, much of it focused on the ARK Challenge technology startup accelerator based in Fayetteville.
The ARK was one of 20 projects selected nationwide from more than 150 applicants to receive funding from the $37 million Jobs & Innovation Accelerator Challenge, an effort by the Department of Commerce to spur job creation within targeted regional industry clusters. The application phase of the project recently drew to a close, and 83 applications were received from across the globe.
"To say we were pleased to get more than 80 ARK applicants, not only from Arkansas and the United States, but from every continent around the globe, would be an understatement," said Innovate Arkansas consultant Jeff Amerine, who will serve as one of more than 60 ARK mentors. "Selecting the best 15 will be a challenge, but that is exactly the kind of high class problem we had hoped to have. This first ARK class has the makings of something special."
The industry clusters on which the ARK will focus are retail, transportation and logistics, and food processing. They were identified based on the presence and influence on the region of industry giants Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt Transport and Tyson Foods.
The project has focused national attention on the region, including recent stories and plugs from publications such as TechCrunch, the Dallas Morning News and even the digital newspaper GardenIsland.com in Hawaii.
Business leaders - some from Arkansas, many from across the country - have volunteered to serve as mentors. They include Collins Hemingway, who co-wrote the best-seller "Business @ the Speed of Thought" with Bill Gates; Snapette founder Jinhee Kim; CaseStack CEO Dan Sanker; Rick Webb, senior vice president for global business processes at Wal-Mart; and Greg Lee, former president of Tyson Foods International and current board member at Fayetteville's Virtual Incubation Co.
The ARK is a partnership among Winrock International (specifically Innovate Arkansas, the startup assistance program it runs with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission), the University of Arkansas and NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
It will entail two mentor-driven, entrepreneurial "boot camps," the first to run this year from August through November and the second scheduled for the spring of 2013. A total of 15 startups of one to three people each will be selected for each session and provided with $18,333 in seed funding. In return, the ARK will take a 6 percent equity stake in each firm.
The program is funded by both public and private sources. Three federal agencies are providing about $2 million: the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the Small Business Administration and the Employment & Training Administration. Other investors include the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, Winrock International, Gravity Ventures and the Fund for Arkansas' Future.
Startups will work in the areas of customer acquisition and market traction, investor relations and programming/product development related to the region's three clusters.
Essentially, they will try and conjure new innovation. To help in that regard, Innovate Arkansas will offer free support, including promotion. Each company is required to relocate to northwest Arkansas for the duration of the program, and will receive 24/7 access to Fayetteville's Iceberg co-working space and facilities at the UA and NWACC.
"We are looking for Internet and mobile technology startups that can prepare a product or process to demo within 14 weeks," said program Director Jeannette Balleza, an established entrepreneur in the area before joining the ARK and considered a catalyst behind the growth of the region's startup ecosystem. "Because of our location and concentration of expertise, we believe we can provide the most value to high-growth, technology-oriented opportunities that focus on serving the retail, transportation and logistics and food processing industry clusters."
At the end of the program, two startups will be offered $150,000 in additional funding with negotiable terms.
The goal is to provide a little extra incentive for companies - and Balleza hopes all 15 will be enticed to stay - to put down roots, create high-paying jobs and contribute to the state economy.
The 83 applications came from 14 states, including Arkansas, and 14 countries including the U.S. Balleza said 18 international applications were received from the following countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
Domestic applications numbered 65 with 36 coming from inside Arkansas. Other states represented among the applicants are California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.
"We are busy reviewing the applications and learning more about each of the tech startups and their founders," Balleza said. "We're seeing some really interesting ideas that address issues in retail, transportation/logistics and food using mapping, social data, gaming, video, search and more. Additionally, there are a number of promising applications from teams with compelling ideas in the consumer Internet space."