Conway Remains a Big Piece of Arkansas Startup Puzzle

For Arkansas to emerge as something more than an occasional blip on the national innovation radar, startup leaders agree the state has to maintain a unified front.

Northwest Arkansas has been the primary source of growth for the state’s startup ecosystem over the last decade, but leaders within the Arkansas startup community realize it will take entrepreneurs from Bella Vista to Helena to push the state permanently onto the national scene.

The biggest pieces to the Arkansas startup puzzle, of course, are located in the Fayetteville and Little Rock metros, but a growing component to the central Arkansas startup ecosystem -- one that many believe will continue to grow -- can be found in Conway.

Sometimes a forgotten component to the state's startup landscape, Conway is home to a growing tech scene and a few of the state's top tech companies, including Inuvo, Innovate Arkansas client firms PrivacyStar and Pathagility and budding startups like Eyenalyze and Dotbuzz.

Plus, it's home to the Arkansas Research Alliance, a public/private partnership focused on advancing economic development through university research. Global tech giants HP and Acxiom, the latter founded in Conway and now based in Little Rock, have large operations in town.

David Hinson, the CIO and executive vice president at Hendrix College and a strong supporter of the tech scene in Conway, believes the city has become more than simply "drive past" country between Fayetteville and Little Rock in terms of the state's startup ecosystem.

With three colleges, Conway’s demographics trend young and techie, and with a 2012 population exceeding 62,000 residents, it’s poised to overtake North Little Rock as the central Arkansas metro's second-largest city.

Those demographics include several strong tech communities such as Conway Local Wiki, BarCamp Conway, Wordpress Conway and Conway Geek Breakfast that Hinson said provide "touch points and networking opportunities among our burgeoning tech workforce."

In addition, Hendrix last year hosted ThinkBigArkansas, the official launch of Startup Arkansas, and annually is home to TEDx and Raspberry Pi events. The college has its own maker space that includes a 3-D printer, and the University of Central Arkansas now offers an innovation and entrepreneurship major through its college of business.

Startup Arkansas is an entrepreneurial resource for the entire Arkansas startup community organized by Lee Watson of Conway digital media firm Clarovista and the Arkansas Venture Center.

Indeed, Conway offers all the necessary ingredients for a tech-based startup ecosystem to thrive.

"I think the most obvious advantage is having three colleges and universities to supply talent and expertise," Hinson said. He cited the strong communications infrastructure provided by Conway Corp, the city-owned utility that provides Internet, cable, telephone, electric and water; the "long-range thinking" from city government to attract and retain employers, and a supportive local chamber of commerce.

"If you have the energy, and the courage, to undertake starting a new tech venture in Conway, you’re going to find plenty of support, encouragement and resources," Hinson said.

Brad Lacy, president of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, believes the city is attractive to startups because it has a history of launching and supporting them.

"Companies like Acxiom, American Management Corporation and Nabholz Construction all started with a handful of employees and have grown to become major employers," he said. "I believe that history proves that the community helps nurture a startup. I think the mixture of education, proximity to a larger city like Little Rock, a competitive local utility that pioneered high-speed Internet access in our state and region, and a legitimate business community that is diverse helps facilitate the development of startups."

Like Hinson, Lacy believes the presence of three colleges in Conway is a strong ingredient in the development of startups, particularly tech-based ventures.

"We are also a community of people who aren’t from here, which makes it easier for new people to assimilate," Lacy said. "The biggest advantage for tech-based startups is that we have an interesting mix of skill sets in the market because Acxiom started here. We also have the promise of producing hundreds of degreed young people each year to feed their respective businesses."

Mark McCuin, CEO of laboratory software startup Pathagility, simply likes living in Conway. While Pathagility maintains a Little Rock office presence, the firm officially is based in Conway with McCuin, and he doesn’t see a reason to move.

"You can build a tech startup anywhere today, but I just love living and working in Conway," he said. "It's a little hard to describe. I think it has to do with the combination of decades of exciting community growth but with the intimacy of a smaller city."

Lacy knows that in today’s mobile environment, entrepreneurs can be choosy about where they want to be based. Conway has taken measures to attract and retain them.

"They want cool places to live, interesting places to gather, and access to a diverse group of people," he said. "We have an economic development philosophy that is strongly grounded in community development and quality of place. Regardless of the business or industry, our experience is that quality of life always matters. You can’t 'incent' someone to go somewhere they don’t want to go."

Lacy said initiatives such as downtown redevelopment, city design guidelines and a focus on parks and trails have helped make Conway more attractive to companies and the potential entrepreneurs being produced by Hendrix, UCA and Central Baptist College.

"We want to build a nationally competitive community," Lacy said. "Ultimately, we are convinced that a nationally competitive community wins the economic development battle."

Conway native Kristian Andersen of KA+A and Gravity Ventures believes the city has as much entrepreneurial potential as any in the state, and he should know. Andersen, who splits his time between Conway and Indianapolis and is a co-founder of Pathagility, is involved in ventures across the country as a founder and an investor.

While the number of tech-based startups launched in Conway is down from a peak experienced earlier this decade, Andersen told the Log-Cabin Democrat in December that the city has a progressive entrepreneurial culture that promises more growth ahead.

Todd Jones is another local entrepreneur who chose to return home. Four years ago, he moved back to Conway from Fort Worth, Texas. He thinks a foundation has been laid for future entrepreneurial growth in Conway, and his tracks events and stories within the Conway tech and startup communities.

"There is an emphasis in both technology and entrepreneurship from both UCA and Hendrix," he said. "We also have some innovative companies such as PrivacyStar and Acxiom and we have talent. Young people like Luke Irvin are coming up and becoming leaders in the community in technology. Luke is the most skilled iOS developer in the state of Arkansas, and he lives in Conway."

Irvin’s latest venture, Techne Apps, debuted its first app, talentt, last week at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

"Conway does have people resources that can help take your business off the ground and get the word out," Irvin said. "Depending on age and living status, it's affordable to live and work in Conway and be comfortable, which helps you stay focused on your business and make sure it grows. There is some energy in the universities that I see will grow over time."

Lacy believes many Arkansans attribute Conway’s rise to suburban growth, but said a big part of the city’s growth can be attributed to its college graduates wanting to stay and out down roots.

"Conway is an incubator of talent for the central Arkansas economy," he said. "Our higher education institutions should be a pipeline of smart, diverse, young people whose ideas and talent freshen the regional economy. We have a committee that meets monthly at the chamber that we have named Startup Conway. Members include higher education officials, tech industry reps and entrepreneurs. The committee is working to establish goals to nurture a startup culture in the city.  We want to be deliberate in what we do. We believe it is important for our whole state."