April/May 2016 Issue
A look at Arkansas’ diverse entrepreneurial
ecosystem, plus an update on local entrepreneurs
featured in AMP’s online elevator pitches.
Photography by Brandon Markin
“We haven’t even scratched the surface.”
That’s how Lee Watson, founder, president and CEO of the Venture Center in Little Rock, describes Arkansas’ entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is growing rapidly and has a potential beyond what anyone can foresee.
“There’s a lot of activity out there. There are a lot of entrepreneurs out there working in their garage or at Starbucks not knowing all these resources are out there.”
Though he knows the scene is thriving, putting exact figures on it is difficult. However, just looking at the Venture Center’s growth is an indication. When it launched in May 2014, Watson said they worked with seven startups. That number had grown to 76 by December 2015, and he said he meets new people every week.
What’s most beneficial about Arkansas entrepreneurialism is the quality of mentors available, Watson said. That’s evident in some of the new upcoming accelerator programs — HubX-LifeSciences, a health care focused accelerator involving Baptist Health, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and others; and, FinTech, a financial-technology focused accelerator sponsored by FIS.
What’s needed is better access to capital, especially early-stage capital for startups, he said.
“As a state, we need to do a better job getting the word out there, talking about the successes and opportunities,” Watson said. “We throw the word ‘entrepreneur’ out there, and it’s too generic. People don’t really get it.”
When people think of an entrepreneur, he said many picture “a room of white young hipster dudes,” but the Arkansas entrepreneur scene is actually much more diverse.
“We have that demographic, but the average age is around 40,” Watson explained. Many, he said, are on their third, fourth or fifth career, and bring wisdom and experience to the scene.
He said the ecosystem is diverse, but he would like to see more women, Hispanics and other minority groups involved. That’s something the state should work harder at attracting, he said.
“We want everybody involved in the entrepreneur ecosystem.”
The Venture Center offers many services and programs to entrepreneurs and startups, including mentoring, educational opportunities and a 14-week accelerator, which provides skills in building a business, generating revenue and developing a customer base.
One aspect of the program is the elevator pitch — something that’s essential to an entrepreneur’s success.
Watson likens the pitch to a set of puzzle pieces, where it’s all about which pieces fit together in the right order. The better the pitch, the better the likelihood of getting noticed.
“The shortness allows you to focus on clarity,” he explained. “They learn to boil something that in their head is very complicated into sound bites. It sets the hook. The 60-second pitch is about getting to the five-minute pitch, getting to the 30-minute and to the hour. It forces you to be very precise.”
In the following pages, we look back at three central Arkansas entrepreneurs who participated in AMP’s online elevator pitches. We revisit their ideas, the reasoning behind them and the status of their businesses. These elevator pitches and more can be found at armoneyandpolitics.com under the Entrepreneurs tab.
Founder and CEO, LineGard Med
SafeBreak is an inch-long medical device that connects IV tubing with a patient’s IV site. It has a dual valve that separates under a certain amount of tension, and when it separates, it seals on both sides, stopping blood loss and causing a nurse to receive an alert that the IV has been disconnected.
As a registered nurse, Jones regularly worked with patients with dementia who would often inadvertently pull out their IVs. He realized how much time it took nurses to remedy the situation. In fact, Jones surveyed about 170 nurses and 60 percent worried about IV issues during a shift. He found that someone else had patented the concept for SafeBreak, so he purchased that patent. As the technology has evolved, he has created a new patent for the product.
“It’s a testament that you don’t have to be the first person to think of it; you have to be the first person to execute it,” he said.
According to Jones, the product benefits a nurse’s workflow. SafeBreak means nurses would not have to re-order medication, restart IVs or re-inject patients. Therefore, he said, it leads to better patient satisfaction, and creates efficiencies and cost savings for hospitals.
LineGard Med has raised about $850,000 in capital and added a chief operating officer and director of engineering. Jones plans to start a clinical trial at Regional One Health in Memphis in fall 2016, and then submit the device for Food and Drug Administration approval, which is about a 90-day process. By early 2017, he plans to have six to 12 hospitals lined up to use the device, and, from there, grow organically.
A Conway native, Jones graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor of science in nursing. He worked as a certified nursing assistant while in college and as an RN at CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock on the medical-surgical floor. He won the 2014 Ark Challenge business accelerator competition and, in 2015, participated in ZeroTo510, a 12-week medical device accelerator program in Memphis.
Founder and CEO, Noteimals
Noteimals is a series of books, flashcards and an iPhone/iPad app designed to help children learn to read music. It uses the Animal Note Method, an associative learning technique, to teach the concepts of note reading, timing and musical theory. It is designed for toddlers and elementary-school age children, but can be used by anyone of any age. The initial app is free, but it includes in-app purchase capability for additional features.
Cook said she had a difficult time learning to read music as a child, and, when she became a music teacher, she found that other children had the same issue. Cook developed the concept for Noteimals in the late 1970s when she drew ears on the notes in sheet music and created a story around them for her students. In the mid 1990s, she developed a series of books, and about five years ago, she decided to turn it into an app. Stas Filippov, who was Cook’s foreign-exchange student from Russia and now serves as vice president of technology at Visual.ly in San Francisco, created the app, and Cook helps with the programming.
“It changed the whole dynamics of what I was doing education-wise,” she said.
Cook said Noteimals helps teachers and parents with music education. Turning notes into animals with stories makes learning easier and more fun. It is beneficial to schools, she said, because many school districts often lack resources when it comes to music education. Noteimals can be used via iPhones or iPads. Plus, she said, students can use it independently in the classroom, which can free up teachers who work with multiple students on many different instruments.
“I don’t want kids to fight music,” she said. “I don’t want them quitting because note reading is so hard.”
Some schools and music teachers currently use Noteimals, and Cook said she ships books all over the country. Next, Cook said the team will work on marketing the app, adding to it and getting it used in more schools. She said Filippov and her youngest son, Ward Cook, who is a technical adviser at CenturyLink Technology Solutions in St. Louis, will soon team up to take over the business promotion side of the company and turn it from a “hobby business” into a “full-fledged, thriving business that will not only support them but other employees.”
Cook, who lives in Vilonia, has been a music teacher for more than 50 years, including working in the Little Rock School District. Currently, she works with beginning band teachers in the Vilonia School District, and also teaches individual students, from ages 2 to 17. She presented Noteimals at 1 Million Cups at the Venture Center in Little Rock and 1 Million Cups in Kansas City. Also, Ward Cook is participating in the University of Missouri-Kansas City Entrepreneurship Scholars Program.
Founder and CEO, My Color of Beauty
My Color of Beauty is an online marketplace, similar to Etsy, dedicated to providing beauty products — makeup, skincare and hair care — for women of diverse backgrounds, specifically African-American and Asian women. It mostly sells all-natural products from small companies around the country. The company started as a content-only site, but re-launched in January 2016 with the e-commerce component.
Mitchell said the frustration with finding beauty products that “actually worked” led her to create My Color of Beauty. Initially, she wanted to create a beauty subscription box, like BirchBox, for “women of color,” she said, but eventually decided to sell products. The company receives a commission from each sale, and Mitchell said the amount varies by vendor.
The North Little Rock-based My Color of Beauty benefits small businesses, artisans and writers by giving them a platform to promote and sell their products and brands. The site provides blog posts and videos with information about products, tutorials and more. This information is also pushed out via the company’s social media platforms, specifically Instagram and Pinterest. Mitchell said the site also helps give young writers a place to post and promote content.
“It’s a discovery site,” she said. “These are products you can’t find at Wal-Mart.”
Since re-launching her site, Mitchell said business has picked up. She said she plans to produce more content and get more feedback from the content, as well as collect data on customer needs and wants. Ultimately, she wants My Color of Beauty to be the “Google of beauty products.” Also, Mitchell plans to begin private labeling of her own products to sell along with the others on the site.
Mitchell has a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in community and economic development. She has worked with many small businesses and in the startup community. She is also a community organizer of 1 Million Cups, the weekly program at the Venture Center in downtown Little Rock.