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Update: ‘Conductor’ Innovation, Entrepreneurial Initiative Launches at UCA

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The University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Startup Junkie Consulting of Fayetteville and the Central Arkansas Venture Team (CAVT) on Wednesday launched a public-private initiative called “Conductor” to drive entrepreneurship and innovation.

The CAVT is a group of executive consultants, startup founders, coaches, local leaders and technology experts.

The university has contracted with Startup Junkie, which will run the program through Sept 30, 2019. Startup Junkie will be paid $436,000 annually, or a total of $1.3 million, according to UCA spokeswoman Christina Madsen.

Part of the Conductor initiative is a 1,000-SF maker space with advanced tools, technology and equipment. The university has partnered with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub at Winrock International on that part of the project. The Hub is located in North Little Rock. 

The equipment being brought into the maker space costs $30,000-$50,000, according to Joel Gordon, director of making for the Hub.

The maker space is set to open in February and will be inside the new $16.3 million Donaghey Hall, Madsen said. It will share the first floor with businesses that have leased space in the 67,500-SF hall at the corner of Donaghey Avenue and Bruce Street. Students who live on the other three floors moved into the hall in August.

“What is this thing called Conductor? You know about the partnership. You know about the collaboration … It’s not a building. It’s not a site. It’s not a co-working space, yet,” CAVT team leader Jeff Standridge said during an event Wednesday announcing the partnership. “It’s a movement. It’s a movement to create a culture where startup entrepreneurs can be identified, can be cultivated — where innovation can be cultivated and where all of those can thrive.”

The program will focus on delivering mentoring, counseling, training, capital readiness, technical assistance, pitch competitions and weekend workshops to startups, small businesses and emerging investors in central Arkansas for free. It will also provide innovation and commercialization support for UCA’s academic programs.

Brett Amerine, chief operating officer of Startup Junkie, and Gordon with the Hub also attended Wednesday’s launch event. 

Gordon said the maker movement he’s been involved in for 19 years democratized manufacturing by giving startup tools that they needed for initial small-scale production.  

“Seventy-two percent of potentially successful startup companies died on the vine, and the reason most of those companies died is they had a great idea, they had a great product, but they did not get that product made,” he said, referring to a statistic favored by the entrepreneurial lab TechShop in San Francisco. 

The Conductor is now part of the maker movement, organizers said, and Standridge told Arkansas Business it has been in the works for more than three years. 

“Conway has a very unique set of assets, as does UCA. It is critical that we begin leveraging these collective assets to drive innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said. “The difference in leveraging the services of the Conductor for a student, faculty or any other aspiring entrepreneur could literally mean the difference between getting their idea off the ground and never seeing any benefit from their idea or invention.”

The maker space took less time to plan, about nine months, Gordon said. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to use the space that will be modeled after the Hub’s North Little Rock location, and two people will be hired to work there, he said. 

In contrast to a typical woodworking-type shop with saws and hammers, the UCA space will be a digital facility, with 3D printers and computers. It will be somewhere people can make “21st century crafts,” Gordon said.

He also said Arkansas is “a little ahead of the curve” in embracing that maker movement by having facilities like this.

A group from UCA visited the Hub earlier this year.

“We talked about what they wanted to do for their community and things just fell into place … UCA has a great team,” Gordon said in a news release. “We are very happy to be collaborating with them.”

Over the next few months, the Hub said it will be looking at the innovation and entrepreneurial needs of students, faculty and staff to ensure that the new space adequately serves the campus and surrounding community.

In planning the new maker space, Gordon has worked closely with TJ Johnston, director of special university projects and community affairs at UCA; Nabholz Construction of Conway and Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock. The same contractor and architects were hired to build Donaghey Hall.

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