University hub, foundation add to Northwest Arkansas’ entrepreneurship network

FAYETTEVILLE — The network of groups helping Northwest Arkansans turn their ideas into businesses is growing — again.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, celebrated Friday opening its new Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub aiming to help faculty, students and alumni use their research discoveries as the seeds for commercial ventures. The hub stands just off the downtown square next door to City Hall.

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To learn more about the Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub and other entrepreneurship programs at the University of Arkansas, go to entrepreneurship.uark.edu/.

Across the square, the nonprofit Community Venture Foundation is also expanding and rebranding after winning three-year grants worth more than $2 million from the Walton Family Foundation, the U.S. Economic Development Administration and other sources, its executive director said. The group offers entrepreneurship education programs for kids and consultation for adults.

The two efforts are pieces of an interlocking assortment of groups and businesses hoping to guide or supercharge entrepreneurship in the area. Some, such as the new hub, focus on specific groups of people or types of businesses. Others, such as the foundation will take in any would-be entrepreneur and help with budgeting, marketing and establishing a healthy company.

Many of the organizations are based in Fayetteville, but a co-working and mentorship space called Exchange opened over the summer in downtown Bentonville as well.

“We need to be the best Arkansas, the best Northwest Arkansas, the best Ozarks region that we can be and play to our unique strengths,” said Jeff Amerine, founder of Fayetteville’s Startup Junkie Consulting, which shares a location with the venture foundation. “It’s maybe an infinitely long march that you have to constantly grind away on, because you’re never really done.”

The entrepreneurship hub will host co-working space, networking events and workshops and give several of the university’s small business-focused programs a home of their own for the first time, said Carol Reeves, associate vice provost for entrepreneurship.

“It’s hard to overstate how excited and thrilled we are about this,” she said. “Entrepreneurship can be a lonely endeavor, and we wanted a space where students who are interested in entrepreneurship, and faculty and staff, can come together and learn from each other.”

The hub is named for business leader Jerry Brewer, his son and both of their wives, who Reeves said donated about $600,000 toward its construction.

Around 200 people attended the hub’s opening event Friday afternoon. Reeves told the crowd she hopes the hub launches an interconnected web of businesses helping each other grow, such as a colony of aspens spreading outward from a central parent tree.

Several businesses have already sprung from the work of university students and professors, including Fayetteville-based Picasolar and WattGlass, which are developing technologies to improve the efficiency of solar panels and recently partnered with an international solar manufacturer based in China. The two were among many startups showcased during a “startup crawl” Friday evening that also featured live music and locally brewed beer.

Calvin Goforth, founder of VIC Technology Venture Development, started his company more than a decade ago after a stint as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The company licenses technology developed by researchers around the world and to use as the basis for new companies.

Something such as the new hub would’ve met a big need back when Goforth started out, he said.

“I understood technology, not business,” he said, and many researchers today are in the same situation. He also said he welcomes the proliferation of groups and businesses with aims competing somewhat with his company’s. The main limitation for new ventures in Northwest Arkansas is finding the investors, he said, not finding new opportunities and ideas.

The groups fostering entrepreneurship often have their own niches; the new hub will serve the university community at the very beginning of a business idea, for example, while Hayseed Ventures in the middle of the square tries to take more established and growing companies and power their value into the millions of dollars.

Community Venture Foundation began focusing on computer science events for young girls and other programs focused on children. It had just one full-time employee up to this year, said Haley Allgood, executive director. She plans to add at least four full-time employees, continuing the programs for kids while expanding to adults.

The foundation will take the name Startup Junkie Foundation, essentially the nonprofit analogue to the for-profit Startup Junkie Consulting. Both will provide consultation and mentorship for budding businesses at no charge.

“We’re building out a fantastic team here,” Allgood said. “We’ll be able to really jump in and meet with entrepreneurs on a more frequent basis.”

Fayetteville dominates the region as a home for groups such as the foundation thanks to the university and other factors, but they benefit all Northwest Arkansas cities, said Mike Harvey, chief operating officer for the nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council, which works to encourage healthy economic growth in the area.

“Other communities view it that way, too,” he said, and there’s talk of starting more entrepreneurship efforts around Benton County as well. “I think in the coming years you’ll start to see that community start to blossom.”

The university hub’s opening ended on a note of encouragement to anyone thinking about starting a business. It’ll be challenging and rough, and there’s always a chance of failure, but the startup community can help, said Corey Thompson, founder of WattGlass.

“Don’t quit without asking for help first,” he said.

NW News on 09/30/2017

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