ARK Challenge, 'NFL Combine' for Entrepreneurs, Names Winners

Serial entrepreneur, startup guru and angel investor Kristian Andersen likened Thursday's ARK Challenge Demo Day to a football fan attending an NFL combine.

That's a spot-on assessment of the atmosphere surrounding the topping-off event of the three-month startup accelerator. Fifteen startups from Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, California, New York, Singapore and India participated in the program. On Thursday, they presented to more than 200 national investors and state business leaders.

Three startups were offered optional funding of $150,000 as winners of the inaugural accelerator: Btiques of Kansas City, Mo., and Fayetteville; MineWhat of Bangalore, India; and StackSearch of Fayetteville.

Demo Day, the culmination of three months' work for each participating startup, took place at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Fifteen startups were selected to compete in the ARK Challenge from an applicant pool of 85. Each was required to move to Fayetteville and participate in a boot camp designed to develop innovative solutions in the area's three industry clusters: retail, food processing and transportation and logistics. 

Each received more than $18,000, resources to develop their businesses and access to a national group of mentors.

Thursday's presentations represented the fruits of their labors.

The ARK is a Winrock International-U.S. Programs initiative and was one of 20 programs selected by the U.S. Commerce Department's Innovation Accelerator Challenge to help boost regional economic development.

Eight of the startups are from Arkansas, one is from India, and two are from Singapore. The rest came from across the U.S.

Each moved to Fayetteville in August. Two of Thursday's winners are rooted in northwest Arkansas. MineWhat's founders, both citizens of India, indicated they would try to remain in Fayetteville. 

Originally, the program aimed to award funding to two winners. But Gov. Mike Beebe, who attended the Thursday presentations, made the surprise announcement that the Arkansas Economic Development Commission will fund a third ARK startup on the condition that the startup would relocate to Arkansas permanently.

"This represents an amazing opportunity for every ARK startup, not just the winners," said Zack Hill of Refurrl of Conway, an ARK Challenge startup. "Demo Day gives us the opportunity to get before national investors we otherwise wouldn't have the chance to see.

"The overall talent and quality of the ideas represented here is so high. The exposure gained here will come back to pay dividends for all the participants."

It might have done so for CayMay Education of Singapore. After its presentation, CayMay founders were approached by a senior official from Wal-Mart International who expressed interest in CayMay's 360-degree online camera, developed as part of the startup's online education technology.

"We were surprised by his interest," Caymay CFO Jenny Bac Nguyen said. "He wanted to know about a certain aspect of our technology that we hadn't thought of marketing on its own."

Btique co-founder Sara Beck said the funding will enable her firm to hire more employees and officially launch next year. Her firm has developed an automated social commerce platform for independent boutiques. 

MineWhat developed a cloud-based e-commerce consumer engagement platform. StackSearch invented a cloud-powered product search server designed to increase conversions for e-commerce clients.

Participating ARK Challenge startups are:

  • Agricultural Food Systems, an Innovate Arkansas client firm based in Siloam Springs. The perennial pitch contest winner developed a product to accurately measure the tenderness of meat.
  • Btiques, Kansas City, Mo., and Fayetteville, has developed an automated social commerce platform for independent boutiques.
  • CayMay Education of Singapore, offers a platform where teachers can create and sell lesson plans online.
  • Earn & Play of Cincinnati developed a mobile app that connects brands with customers at the grocery store shelf.
  • EpicPledge of Singapore is a mobile app leveraging social media to provide incentives to accomplish personal goals.
  • Farmeto of Fayetteville connects small farmers with retailers in an online marketplace.
  • Mass Vector of Fayetteville provides real-time analytics for e-commerce companies.
  • MineWhat of Bangalore, India, created a cloud-based, e-commerce consumer engagement platform.
  • Refurrl, an Innovate Arkansas firm based in Conway and winner of October's G60 Conway pitch contest, leverages social networks to help users to buy and sell from friends.
  • SavvySinc of New York provides startups with targeted discovery of beta users and customers.
  • Sooligan of Berkeley, Calif., has developed a social media platform that enables users to find and share information about any city in the world.
  • SpareTime of Fayetteville created an engagement platform that provides charitable organizations a way of marketing their projects to volunteers and donors.
  • StackSearch, another Innovate Arkansas firm based in Fayetteville, has invented a cloud-powered product search server designed to reduce cart abandonment and increase conversions for e-commerce clients.
  • Streamix of Fayetteville created a crowd-curated music platform for music venues.
  • Truckily of Kansas City, Mo., built marketing software, a social network and an app for food trucks and their customers.