With the groundswell of support for entrepreneurs in Arkansas, it can be hard to keep track of all the entrepreneurial support organizations and who they serve. While some organizations focus on supporting a few counties or a specific region, the I-Fund has distinguished itself by supporting entrepreneurs statewide.
“The I-Fund is for every Arkansan. Innovation doesn’t just happen in Little Rock or Northwest Arkansas – it also happens in places like Jonesboro, Horatio and Helena. All it takes to be a part of our proof-of-concept accelerator is an idea and access to a computer,“ says Amy Hopper, Program Officer at Winrock International.
The most recent cohort kicked off August 24 in Fayetteville. The diversity of the team locations was evident. Teams hailed from McCrory, Little Rock, Sulphur Springs, Fayetteville, Bentonville, Springdale, Conway and Jonesboro.
The I-Fund is a program of Winrock International. Funding come from a variety of sources with the Fall 2019 cohort being funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. This funding allows the accelerator to focus on entrepreneurs in Arkansas.
The I-Fund program services three to four cohorts per year. The Fall 2019 cohort is the ninth cohort since the beginning of the program.
Entrepreneurs form teams around their innovative ideas. Each cohort is comprised of 10 to 12 teams. The teams received support, training and mentorship to help test and validate their business idea.
There is a competitive element to each cohort. At the end of the 12-week program, the teams present to a panel of judges. The team that demonstrates the best scalable business idea may receive an investment to help them launch their business. The program’s ultimate goal is to create jobs in Arkansas and the Delta region.
Mentorship is a critical part of supporting new entrepreneurs. The I-Fund pairs an experienced mentor with each team. The mentor meets with the team weekly to discuss challenges the team is facing. The goal of the mentor is not to manage the entrepreneur’s work but to guide and nudge the team along the right path.
One of the primary goals of the I-Fund process is learning about product and market fit. Entrepreneurs are often in love with their business idea. Sometimes their love for the idea overrides good business decisions. To see if there is a market willing to pay for their business idea, teams must complete a 45 or more customer calls during the course of the program. Talking with customers reveals whether a customer views the team’s solution as a remedy for a substantial problem they have. The calls also prove or disprove if customers are willing to pay for the team’s solution. If the calls don’t confirm the team’s assumptions, the team is asked to re-evaluate their business model and original business hypothesis.
The Fall 2019 cohort consists of 11 companies. Learn more about the companies below:
- B&B Legacy Farms is working to produce value-added soy based product with wide distribution.
- Blade Solutions is reinventing the concept of lawnmower blades to reduce maintenance and improve safety traditional mowers.
- BridgeGap is an insurance product designed to eliminate the out of pocket deductible during insurance claims.
- CelluDotz plans to use nanocellulose products to reduce the amount of pesticides wasted during a traditional application.
- Curvahedra has created a math-based 3D art puzzle using interlocking shapes, which is designed to reinforce math skills while being fun.
- Micro Predictive Solutions seeks to predict and prevent Bovine Respiratory Disease in cattle.
- Phantoms seeks to improve breast cancer detection.
- Seven Minute Life is working to improve employee engagement in corporate goals through better communication and time management solutions.
- SpoilerAlert is commercializing a product packaging film that gives a visual indication when food has spoiled.
- Team Re Brew plans to recycle local used coffee grounds into sustainable and natural home garden products.
- Team TIBN is optimizing short-term healthcare contracts for healthcare workers.
Innovators and future entrepreneurs are constantly creating new ideas that could potentially become businesses. Knowing there is a statewide support program, like the I-Fund, might encourage them to turn their idea in to Arkansas’ next entrepreneurial success.
Full disclosure: The author has mentored multiple teams during the I-Fund process.