The majority of my business career has been spent in Arkansas – 34 years with a technology startup that has become a major company in Arkansas and has proved a knowledge-based business can thrive in the state, as have other major companies like Wal-Mart, Verizon and Tyson Foods.
I have to admit that during my career I was generally heads down and not as aware of the priorities and challenges of Arkansas as I should have been. But, I think this is very characteristic of most fast growing companies – their local, state or regional issues are on the periphery unless they are direct obstacles to their business.
In the late 1990s, I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in a statewide task force looking at knowledge-based job creation in Arkansas. This task force included an exceptional group of business leaders and the group eventually morphed into Accelerate Arkansas, an organization that still is providing policy leadership for building a knowledge-based economy in the state.
What I have learned over these past years with Accelerate Arkansas and from now running one of its major initiatives, the Arkansas Research Alliance, is that it takes vision, a great deal of relationship building between state agencies and the private sector, and unending tenacity toward making progress.
The challenges involve commercializing intellectual property from research universities and developing a place that can accelerate and develop new enterprises from both the university as well as from private sector ideas as with Innovate Arkansas.
The challenges include recruiting top, innovative university research leaders, as with Arkansas Research Alliance. It means developing early stage funding for risk capital, like Funds for Arkansas – Angel Fund – State of Arkansas Risk Capital Matching Fund. It means efforts to unlock the intellectual property held at federal laboratories, as seen in a recent memorandum of understanding signed between the FDA and the State of Arkansas.
And it means increases in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce development, as with the STEM Coalition and the newly introduced STEM Works.
Arkansas’s fiscal discipline and leadership from Governor Mike Beebe and the state agency coordination has benefitted the state during the recent economic challenges. Arkansas is not faced with a staggering deficit and it has used its Tobacco Settlement moneys strategically. The coordination provided by the state agencies connected with education and economic development has been a model in recent years.
The cooperation of the research universities has also been an accelerator for the state. The Tobacco Settlement has spawned the Arkansas Bioscience Institute that has drawn five institutions together to aggressively pursue developments in the bioscience sector. The institutions have celebrated their 10-year anniversary and their progress bodes extremely well for their next planning horizon.
Arkansas’ challenges are probably no different than in most states – but the recent history of Arkansas “connecting the dots” is encouraging for its future. The economic ball will be carried by the private sector and the supporting “seed” organizations provided by Accelerate Arkansas, the state agencies and the public and private organizations that have been established in the last five years are very encouraging.
Arkansas is making excellent progress but it is not where it needs to be and there is much work to do.
But there is strong progress, excellent leadership and and optimism for the state’s future, all good things.
(Jerry Adams is president and CEO of Arkansas Research Alliance.)