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Carving a Niche (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

3 min read

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maybe that’s why I, the editor of a newspaper aimed at a niche audience of business decision-makers, see two entities in Arkansas carving important niches for themselves and their communities.

First is the Venture Center, which last week held its second VenCent Fintech Summit in Little Rock. The annual event brings together banking leaders and financial technology innovators from the U.S. and abroad to discuss challenges and opportunities in financial technology.

Around 300 people registered for this year’s installment, which included appearances by U.S. Rep. French Hill; George Makris Jr., executive chairman of Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff; Darrin Williams, CEO of Southern Bancorp. Inc. of Little Rock; Rob Nichols, CEO of the American Bankers Association; and a host of entrepreneurs.

The summit is an outgrowth of the Venture Center’s work to help entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses of all sizes. And it expands the focus on fintech the center has cultivated through the FIS Fintech Accelerator, funded by financial services giant FIS and the state of Arkansas.

Broadly speaking, the goal of these efforts is twofold: to nurture the development of financial technology startups and their innovations, and to give Arkansas banks — particularly community banks — first crack at those innovations.

Among the innovations on display this year were two that help banks steer their most vulnerable customers away from sketchy check-cashing services and predatory lenders. Tapcheck allows employees to have access to portions of paychecks before payday. And Money on Demand (or MOD), an app Southern Bancorp is testing, provides cash advances with minimal to no fees.

Other parts of the summit featured high-level discussions on cybersecurity, combating fraud and regulating cryptocurrency.

Little Rock is ground zero for fintech. Systematics Inc., a pioneering data services company for financial firms, was founded here. It’s now known as FIS.

Today, the VenCent summit and other efforts by the Venture Center help maintain Little Rock — the state’s banking and finance capital — as a leader in fintech innovations, a desirable niche to fill.

Second is electric vehicle maker Canoo Inc., a California company that aims to establish a research, development and manufacturing corridor from Oklahoma to northwest Arkansas, where it says it will move its headquarters.

Last week Canoo unveiled a new EV line and signed multimillion-dollar incentive agreements in Oklahoma for its manufacturing operations there.

According to CEO Tony Aquila, Canoo’s strategy is simple: “We will only build what we have sold.” That means it books the orders for its vehicles, then builds them to customer specifications. Those customers are largely commercial — companies and government entities seeking zero-emission electric fleet vehicles.

That niche strategy stands in contrast to other EV makers seeking to build inventories of vehicles aimed primarily at mass markets. Certainly challenges remain for the cash-strapped company — it has yet to report revenue or profit. But as a niche player myself, that focus on a small but potentially lucrative market seems smart.

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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