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University of Arkansas Launches Collegiate Startup Competition


by Tyler Hale

With its increasing number of accelerators, entrepreneur resource companies and major industry partners, Arkansas is quickly developing a reputation as an epicenter for startups in the United States. The University of Arkansas’ Office of Entrepreneurship is hoping to build on that reputation as they launch a new startup competition.

This new competition, dubbed the Heartland Challenge, is the first global collegiate startup competition to be held in Arkansas, according to a program release.

A partnership between the University of Arkansas’ Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Arkansas Capital Corporation, the Heartland Challenge aims to bring 12 startup teams to Arkansas for a two-day competition. During the competition, the teams will compete for prize money and will meet with potential investors.

The total prize money amounts to $135,000, a sum that will make the Heartland Challenge “very competitive” for startup teams, according to Sarah Goforth executive director of UA’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The top prize is $50,000. “It’s hard to imagine a high quality team from anywhere not wanting to have a chance to have a piece of that. So, we think we will get the best of the best,” she says.

Program officials are projecting that 50 teams will apply for the inaugural challenge. For the Heartland Challenge, the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation is casting a wide net for startups, aiming at a global scale. One of the 12 teams will be the winning team in the Arkansas Governor’s Cup’s graduate division, and other Arkansas teams will have the opportunity to apply for the competition, as well.

Once the twelve semifinalists are selected and come to Arkansas, they will participate in a 60-second pitch round. Teams will also participate in investor roundtables that are designed to stimulate real-life investor pitch meetings.

“That competition [the investor roundtables]…will be a little unconventional. They will have no have no PowerPoints or props or notes, and the idea is they connect with people as though they were meeting them for the first time in a restaurant,” Goforth says.

The investor roundtables will provide an opportunity to win awards in four categories: Social Impact; Health and Well-Being; Food, Agriculture and Sustainability; and Supply Chain Innovation. These categories, Goforth says, are designed to highlight the region’s strengths and expertise.

“We wanted to make a statement about some of the areas of strengths that we have in our region,” she says. “We wanted the students that come here to experience a little bit of that expertise.”

Creating the Heartland Challenge grew out of the University of Arkansas’ history of participating in startup and business competitions throughout the United States. Participating in business competitions has helped Arkansas startups grow and develop connections while they are learning.

“They have to work hard to pitch their business ideas in an intense setting and it creates discipline, builds connections and helps them build their companies,” Goforth says.

For example, Carol Reeves, who holds the Cecil and Gwendolyn Cupp Applied Professorship in Entrepreneurship in the Walton College, has mentored more than 90 undergraduate and graduate teams who have participated in competitions. These teams have won more than $85 million in funding and prizes, according to a university release.

“Over the past decade, University of Arkansas graduate student teams have competed and won over $3 million in prize money from high-quality competitions from around the globe,” Reeves said in a statement. “These student startup competitions simulate the environment that entrepreneurs face when they raise investment for high-growth businesses and are especially important for providing momentum and visibility for entrepreneurs in Heartland regions, like Arkansas, that do not have a large number of investors.”

The Heartland Challenge, Goforth says, has a dual purpose – preparing startups for the real-life experience of pitching to investors as they build their companies and serving to promote Arkansas as a destination for entrepreneurs and potential companies.

“The goal is to give the students an experience that presents what it’s like to pitch to venture capitalists as they’re building their companies,” Goforth says. “These are usually technology based, high growth, scalable ventures and they have a long path to market, and it’s pretty intense.”

“So we want to bring really talented graduate students in here to experience what that’s like and to see a little bit of the beauty of Ozark Mountains. And you know, ideally some of them will decide to relocate and build their companies here.”

The Heartland Challenge, supported by the Walton Family Foundation, will take place April 20-21, 2020.

Competition details and qualifications can be found here.

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Image from iStock

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