Arkansas Venture Center Launches With $500K Grant From State

Arkansas Venture Center Launches With $500K Grant From State
Gov. Mike Beebe at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. (Mark Carter)

The Arkansas Venture Center officially launched Tuesday morning in downtown Little Rock with a $500,000 matching grant from Gov. Mike Beebe.

The Venture Center is a membership-driven, nonprofit organization co-founded by local entrepreneurs Mike Steely and Lee Watson. It offers entrepreneurial services related to startup acceleration, corporate innovation and technical training. Memberships are $150 per year with student and veteran discounts available.

Since November, the AVC has been operating out of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, host of Tuesday's announcement and one of the center's founding sponsors. More than 750 people have attended AVC's 42 weekly and monthly programs and events -- more than 60 hours worth of programming -- since November.

Watson envisions the AVC as part of a collaborative entrepreneurial network along the river that includes the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub's Argenta Innovation Center and the planned Little Rock tech park along Main Street.

Beebe was pleased to contribute to another component of economic development in Little Rock. He compared the growth of startup activity to research.

"Startups are like research," he said. "Research ends up failing more often than not, but you gotta have it. All it takes is that one to make it. We've had some success, but we can do more."

Despite its Tuesday "official" launch, the Venture Center has been active for months. Sample events hosted by the AVC include 1 Million Cups, a weekly networking and entrepreneurial education program from the Kauffman Foundation; monthly women founders meetups; weekly sessions with startup mentors; and other training sessions and technology workshops.

Plus, Watson said the AVC will offer the only full-stack developer training in the state. 

The AVC is finalizing a deal with the Little Rock tech park authority to move into space on East Markham Street across from the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock. The space will be leased to Innovate Arkansas for the August-through-November fall run of the 2014 ARK Challenge, after which time the AVC expects to move in. Part of that deal, when finalized, will include parking in the Main Street parking deck and nearby lots.  

The Venture Center has already received "significant private investment," Steely said, and is modeled after proven programs in Nashville (The Nashville Entrepreneur Center) and Washington, D.C. (1776).

It has received public support from Innovate Arkansas, the city of Little Rock, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority, the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and the Arkansas Small Business & Technology Development Center. Other private support has come from Startup Arkansas, Startup Weekend and Accelerate Arkansas.

Founding sponsors of the AVC include Fidelity Information Services, founded in Little Rock in 1968; Acxiom Corp. of Little Rock; nGage Labs; Smiley Technologies; Stone Ward; the Arkansas Capital Corporation Group; the Little Rock Chamber; the state of Arkansas; Acxiom and PrivacyStar founder Charles Morgan; former Acxiom executive Jim Womble; and James Hendren, co-founder of Arkansas Systems, Accelerate Arkansas chairman, former AEDC commissioner and Synanomet CEO.

Program partners include Innovate Arkansas, UALR, the Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation, ASBTDC, UP Global, Startup Arkansas, Startup Weekend, the Kauffman Foundation, The Nashville EC, and Startup Revolution.

Innovation Is Key

Chris Cline, senior vice president with FIS, said a founding sponsorship was a no-brainer for his company.

"We know first-hand, having been founded here, the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation in Arkansas," he said. "We recognize the key to our long-term success is innovation."

Cline said FIS wants to collaborate and exchange ideas with homegrown tech talent through AVC. That kind of exchange between entrepreneurs and local corporations is exactly what the AVC founders had in mind.

"Getting the corporate buy-in is the most important part of making this work," Steely said. 

AVC team members include Watson, Steely and AVC liaison Jordan Carlisle of the Chamber. Board members include Cline; nGage founder Rod Ford; Hendren; Millie Ward, co-founder of Stone Ward; Womble; and Chamber director Jay Chesshir.

Its advisory board reads like a national who's who list of entrepreneurs, founders and investors:

  • Arkansas' own Kristian Andersen -- KA+A, Gravity Ventures, Pathagility
  • Nashville EC CEO Michael Burcham
  • Foundry Group and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld
  • 1776 co-founder Donna Harris
  • National MongoDB consultant Norman Graham
  • Morgan

The AVC's membership sits at 27 members, 19 of them company founders. Its 11 mentors represent the following sectors: technology, retail, restaurant, sales, management, strategic planning, minority procurement, nonprofit, legal, international and e-commerce.

Its recurring programs include mentor-driven Huddle Hour sessions, 1 Million Cups, Kiva Zip pitch events, and monthloy meetups devoted to subjects such as women founders and the Lean Startup model. 

Monthly programs include the Build It CEO fireside chat, the Code It technology workshop, the Drink It networking event, and the Pitch It elevator pitch workshop. Training programs include Pre-Launch, a business model validation program that runs for 10 weeks and begins June 30, and Sales Success 1, a program beginning July 19.

Other upcoming programs from the AVC include:

  • Startup Weekend Little Rock, July 12
  • Regional Veterans Startup Weekend, tentatively set for October
  • Startup Cup
  • Arkansas Venture Forum