Arkansas Innovation: The Ingredients Are in Place

The ingredients are in place for Arkansas to become a tech-based innovation hotbed. All it needs are the right hands in the kitchen.

Jeff Amerine has firsthand experience in cooking up environments that foster innovation. A former U.S. Navy and Air Force officer, Amerine finished his military career as R&D program manager for Air Force defense communications, which led him into the commercial arena. Currently, he teaches entrepreneurship and technology commercialization classes at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, and is an officer at the UA's Technology Licensing Office where his job is to take the world-class research being done there and guide it to commercialization.

Amerine has held senior leadership positions in seven startup ventures and three Fortune 500 companies. Before joining the UA in February 2008, he served as the vice president and general manager for KonaWare Transportation & Logistics, a startup headquartered in Silicon Valley that focused on mobile-software solutions.

An adviser to Innovate Arkansas and author of the Techpreneurship series that runs each Thursday in IA's INOV8 blog, Amerine knows a little about startups and the proper environment to grow them. He believes the time is right for Arkansas to come out from under the national innovation radar.

"I've lived the startup scene in Arkansas as a technology entrepreneur and a coach/mentor over the last six years," he said. "In 2004, the situation was pretty bleak. At that time, those early-stage firms that succeeded largely did so through sheer tenacity, determination and luck. 

"In 2009, the picture has changed. Through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and university leadership, we have the beginnings of a truly viable entrepreneurial support structure."

That support, he believes, is embodied in entities such as Innovate Arkansas, a joint venture between the AEDC and Winrock International, and the Arkansas Small Business & Technology Development Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In addition, Amerine noted the entrepreneurship curriculum now being offered at community colleges and universities across the state.

"We should all take great pride in recent success in state, regional, national and international business-plan competitions against the best schools in the world," Amerine said. "Arkansas has repeatedly stunned the best and brightest from elsewhere."

Specifically, Amerine noted:

AgRobotics - A past Governor's Cup winner and now a viable farming innovations company based in Little Rock.

Ground-up Biosolutions - Won last year's Wal-Mart Better Living sustainability competition against worldwide competition. A UA startup.

Silicon Solar Solutions - Another UA startup that placed third in the San Francisco International Business Plan competition behind MIT and the Illinois Institute of Technology and has received a $200,000 Arkansas Science & Technology Authority funding commitment in addition to a recent private investment.

MerchantView - A former Governor's Cup Tri-State Competition winner based in northwest Arkansas, this retail-sales data analyzer has received funding from the Fund for Arkansas' Future and is closing in on a commercial launch of its services.

CollegeTokens - Placed in the top six at the undergraduate Governor's Cup last year.  Based in Fayetteville, this innovative coupon-by-text approach is expanding in college markets across the country.

Others to watch include Arkansas Power Electronics International, another UA startup that Amerine calls the world leader in high-temperature power electronics; Capsearch, a Web-based legislative research utility based in Little Rock; MeritBuilder, a Little Rock startup that could represent the future of personal branding; and, another Little Rock firm that intends to harmonize the interaction between consumer and direct marketer.

Another early-stage UA firm, SFC Fluidics, recently received a $5 million  Department of Defense contract to develop a microfluidic anti-biological warfare test system. Advances in lighting through nanocrystals made by yet another UA offshoot -- NN-Labs -- are leading the way to new commercial breakthroughs.

And the work being realized through the UAMS BioVentures program and the UALR Nanotechnology Center may soon place Arkansas on the biomedical research map.

Before long, several of these innovative tech-based Arkansas startups could become household names - or be the seeds that grow into products that do.  

Amerine credits "an unprecedented level" of cooperation and collaboration between university technology-commercialization programs in the state and funding sources like ASTA and the Fund for Arkansas' Future.  

"The Arkansas Research Alliance, Green Valley Network initiative and additional sources of early-stage funding will come online in a serious way during this next calendar year," he said. "These are all very positive developments. Even so, there is much more to be done."

State government is doing its part. The AEDC has recruited internationally to bring tech-based manufacturing to the state. Arkansas is poised, if it hasn't already, to become the epicenter of the nation's wind-turbine production.

But Amerine stresses it must be a public-private joint venture.

"The time has come for the private sector in Arkansas to rally behind early-stage technology investment," he said. "We need active, vibrant and organized angel-investor communities across the state.  We have one angel fund today. We need several more.  We simply can't rely solely on venture capital firms from outside the state to provide the risk capital needed to drive a knowledge-based economy. 

"Like most everything else that has ever been great in Arkansas we must do it ourselves. The time is now for us to grow our own venture-finance community."

Enabling homegrown entrepreneurs to secure funding in Arkansas is one component. Creating an environment that produces those entrepreneurs is another.

"Beyond funding, we also need the private sector and flagship enterprise leadership to embrace and nurture the startup culture," Amerine said. "Those that leave flagship employers with great skills and technical savvy to take great risks in startups should be encouraged in their endeavors. The large enterprises in Arkansas should realize the willingness to accept the departure of key people to launch great new enterprises is what led to the tech-venture booms in Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin. In those areas, the culture of entrepreneurship drove success for everyone in the region.

"The same can and should be true here. I'm ready for it to be Arkansas' turn."