Support for technological development in the state of Arkansas has significantly increased over the past decade, thanks to factors such as conscious efforts to bolster STEM education opportunities and resources in schools and recognition of the positive economic impact of technological ventures throughout the region.
Grassroots organizations with the purpose of supporting entrepreneurial development and innovation through funding, networking and education have sprouted across the state and are steadily growing into lifelines for researchers and innovators, present and future.
The Arkansas Research and Technology Park (ARTP) in Fayetteville, operated by the University of Arkansas, is the blueprint for technological research and innovation in the state. And the tech park is blazing trails, sometimes literally.
A strategically planned “innovation system,” the park consists of three multi-tenant facilities and three multi-disciplinary research facilities occupying more than 120 acres. Each of the six facilities plays a unique role in helping to advance new technologies to the marketplace.
The Innovation Center is a key component to the flow of operations within the park. Featuring minimalist design elements such as clean lines, lofted ceilings, and plenty of natural light thanks to the building’s impressive window wall, the Innovation Center dresses the part as the touchstone of the tech park.
The actual building was the first LEED certified building in the state of Arkansas, as David Hinton, ARTP’s interim director, will proudly tell you. Hinton is also the acting executive director of Technology Ventures, a university department that commercializes and manages the UA’s intellectual property portfolios.
Hinton speaks of the purpose and accomplishments of each organization and project like a proud father.
“The Arkansas Research and Technology Park is now being recognized as a destination where startups and innovative companies want to be,” he said. “It is really a bustling innovation ecosystem in south Fayetteville where companies have the opportunity to start and grow while collaborating with the University of Arkansas. The park is a unique environment where companies and university labs co-exist resulting in many synergistic interactions even as you are just walking down the hall.”
One of those companies is Catalyze H2O, a water treatment startup. But its purpose goes much deeper than that.
“We primarily work on novel water remediation techniques,” research engineer Aaron Ivy said. “We’re currently working with the Army to remediate explosives out of wastewater without leaving behind any solid waste. So, what we do is try to come up with new methods of filtering water that won’t leave behind any dangerous after products.”
Catalyze H2O’s researchers will tell you that clean water underpins economic vibrancy.
“We make it our business to understand the clean water needs of industries. We target treatment goals to enable economic vitality and water sustainability.”
Catalyze H2O shares the lab space with award-winning biopolymer technology company, CelluDot, spun out of the New Venture Development course in the department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Venture Innovation at the UA’s Walton College of Business.
Hinton teaches the course with Sarah Goforth, director of the UA’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. They teach a structured methodology called the lean startup approach, which includes customer discovery and business-model creation and how to pitch to investors. CelluDot was started in this class, wound up winning a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation and moved into the tech park.
“I feel fortunate to be part of the journey and to have helped them along the way,” Hinton said.
The cutting-edge companies at the tech park have earned an impressive amount of them and know how to put them to good use, according to Weston Waldo of Technology Ventures.
“The companies that are within this park generate roughly 54 percent of the state’s total SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer Research [STTR] federal grant winnings that we receive,” he said. “ARTP is a research powerhouse.”
Waldo’s official title is Venture Development Program Manager. A technical description of Waldo’s role within the tech park would be working directly with inventions and inventors who represent potential startups and licensing opportunities and serving as a liaison between the startup ecosystems of the UA and the region.
However, Waldo’s enthusiasm for what he does goes far beyond any of the technicalities. A Texas native, Waldo previously was a program manager at Texas Tech. He’s all Arkansas now.
“I think if you ask anyone here, everyone would say that they love their jobs and love what they’re doing,” he said. “I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity to be here. It sounds cliché to say that, but it’s true. I really love my job. There’s so many layers and dimensions to it, and I love it all.”
For startups, making it to the tech park can represent quite a journey.
“There doesn’t seem to be a linear path,” Waldo said. “Sometimes individuals or groups are able to move forward a little faster because maybe they met a venture capitalist or are somehow able to fund the full thing from the beginning. But normally, it starts off with someone who has an idea, and they’re thinking, ‘What do I do with this?’
“They may go to one of David’s classes and participate in some of the early-stage programs, and they start to formulate a team and solidify that idea. Then they may write a business plan and seek out grant funding or early-stage seed funding that helps them to develop some minimal viable product. Then they get their first customer, and they test that all the way through, and they grow in scale from there. That’s kind of the traditional path.
“Generally, I would say the starting point is usually when someone is willing to say, ‘Yes, I want to try it.’ Because most of the entrepreneurs that I work with are first-time entrepreneurs. Many of them begin with no business background or experience with this kind of thing, but they say, ‘I am willing to be uncomfortable and to give this a try.’”
The Innovation Center also serves as the home office of the University of Arkansas Technology Development Foundation, a university-affiliated nonprofit that manages the park and provides essential technology transfer functions to corporate partners.
Dr. David Snow is the UA’s interim vice chancellor for economic development and president of the foundation.
“[The tech park] is inviting with a live, work and play atmosphere,” he explained. “It’s incredible how this is an epicenter for innovation for the state, and it’s continually growing. We’re almost full — we’ve got about 300,000 square feet of leasable space and about 10,000 square feet of that left. And some of that just got claimed the other day, so we’re having some really exciting conversations about the next move.
“We’re currently having some conversations about trail development in the city that will improve accessibility in the area. And there are a lot of other projects like that which are keeping us busy.”
The park is poised to continue its path as a growing community of thinkers and planners, thriving on enthusiasm from its leadership and a solid network of support from scientists, educators and entrepreneurs working together to help each other prosper. Waldo stressed there’s always room to grow that network.
“I think sometimes when people hear the word, ‘entrepreneur,’ or the details of starting a business, it sounds foreign to them,” he said. “They automatically think of Elon Musk or Bill Gates, and there’s no in between. I really wish more people knew that there is a seat at the table for them, no matter where you are in life, whether you’re retired or a college student or other professional. There are so many opportunities to get involved.
“Just reach out; there are tons of people willing to help. There’s a place for everyone. It’s not just for students or faculty. That’s my job, and there are tons of ways we can help connect. You can move at your own pace, and there’s people here who want to help.”
Photo credit: Austin Castrellon