When it comes to supporting entrepreneurs, Joe Bell, professor of entrepreneurship at University of Arkansas Little Rock, likes what he sees on the Arkansas landscape.
“I came here from Denver, and when you see what’s going on in Denver right now, Little Rock is somewhat in its infancy in terms of entrepreneurship,” he says. “But I will tell you, in the last 12 years I’ve seen significant growth and strides forward in the number and the quality [of startups] and the infrastructure to support entrepreneurship.”
Primary among these resources are incubators, entities that help people solidify their ideas into actual businesses. Bell calls these entities, which can be found from one end of the state to the other, a key part of the novice business owner’s toolkit.
“When you’re starting out, sometimes you feel very alone,” he says. “What these locations offer is an opportunity to bond with others going through the process in the same fashion you are. That’s a tremendous resource.”
Arkansas’ incubators take various forms. Some, like Startup Junkie in Fayetteville and Little Rock Technology Park, are standalone entities, while others are hosted by or partner with various branches of the state’s university system.
“We do tons of programming and entrepreneurial events and a huge component of what we do is free one-on-one consulting,” says Kim Lane, chief executive officer of Conductor, located on the University of Central Arkansas campus. “We meet with people from every single industry, all different backgrounds, all different ages. We have people from the college student who wants to start a new app all the way to a small business in Morrilton that is having struggles with HR and marketing.”
Some incubators, like Conductor and Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, combine networking, office space and shared expertise with “maker spaces,” which provide entrepreneurs access to high-tech machining and other equipment for creating prototypes.
“Typically, maker spaces are either campus-affiliated and therefore free for students and not the community, or public and everyone pays to use it,” Lane says. “Ours is 100-percent free to students and the community. So, we’re able to reach K-12 students all the way up to adults who come after work and make things.”
One trend among the state’s incubators is specialization, catering to the needs of a specific segment or industry. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ BioVentures, for instance, deals in the biomedical space, while Arkansas State University’s Arkansas Biosciences Institute Commercial Innovation Center focuses on tech-forward entrepreneurs.
One of the more unique specialized incubators is Delta Cuisine, a commercial kitchen and business incubator located on the campus of Arkansas State University-Mid South in West Memphis. That facility, which opened in 2015, caters to brand-new food entrepreneurs by helping scale up recipes, design production and provide certain types of advisory services specific to the food industry. Commercial-grade equipment is also available for a fee to perfect the process.
John Auker, Delta Cuisine’s executive director, says the incubator is a way for would-be entrepreneurs to learn the ins and outs of their business with minimal investment.
“Food businesses are historically very low-margin and they’re very costly to start up because of the equipment cost. They also have a very high failure rate,” he says. “The incubator makes sense as it mitigates the risk of a person taking that plunge. We enable them to do that without liquidating their 401Ks or tapping friends and family for all the money.
“At the end of the day,” he adds, “if it doesn’t work out all they’re out is what they spend at the incubator. That’s a better outcome than somebody losing $100,000 from a business not working.”