Three years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with a few community leaders in Little Rock and Memphis about the entrepreneurial work they were doing in their respective ecosystems. Those conversations were compiled into an article that depicted an ever-growing web of privately funded organizations, non-profits and publicly funded initiatives, all working together in harmony to launch businesses and fuel economic growth. In this follow-up article on those partnerships, we’ll reflect on where things stood three years ago and assess how far they’ve come.
When I last spoke with Lee Watson, president of the Venture Center in Little Rock, the Venture Center had just completed its first year of pre-accelerator courses and launched a systematic mentorship program. I asked Lee to talk about what was key to their success thus far, and he replied, “One of the most important pieces of building a sustainable ecosystem is creating corporate partnerships.”
Since that time, the Venture Center has created those partnerships in spades, most notably their partnership with tech-banking giant FIS (NYSE: FIS). FIS is the world’s largest global provider dedicated to banking and payments technologies, and happens to be conveniently headquartered in Little Rock. The Venture Center and FIS teamed up to launch their first Financial-Tech accelerator program in 2016, and are currently on their third cohort this year.
For this accelerator, 10 companies are selected from all over the globe and are hosted in Little Rock for a rigorous 12-week program designed to accelerate the growth of their early stage financial technology venture. Each company receives $75K of initial capital investment, along with access to 25+ banks, FIS’ C-Suite, a robust network of mentors and $100K worth of Amazon Web Services credits. Many of these companies are still growing and impacting the Arkansas economy in big ways.
Another influential force within the Little Rock ecosystem I spoke with was Jay Chesshir, CEO of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. At that time, Jay remarked on the importance of the tech park’s physical space and its ability to help incubate companies, many of which were tech transfer startups that bloomed out of UAMS Bioventures. Roughly two years after his remarks on the value that physical space can bring, the Little Rock Tech Park was opened.
This Tech Park is a 38,000-square foot, multi-tenant facility located on the 400 block of Main Street, right in the heart of downtown Little Rock. This facility is already home to 40 different companies, with expansion plans for wet and dry lab space for biomedical and nanotechnology companies. Whether it’s financial technology, information systems or biomedical research, this facility is poised to be an incubator for innovation within the state.
Across the river in Memphis exists a robust startup ecosystem similar to the one in Little Rock. I was lucky enough to get plugged in thanks to the ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator that calls Memphis home, but this program is just one of many that make Memphis a special place for entrepreneurs. Many of the programs and initiatives are directly supported by Start Co, a venture development organization located in downtown Memphis. To help organize all of the entrepreneurial activity in the area, Memphis launched the Entrepreneurship-Power Innovation Center (EPI Center). The EPI Center serves as a central point of contact for the region’s ecosystem and coordinates resources from various organizations in the community such as accelerators, incubators, mentors, investors, networking programs, and technical assistance programs for entrepreneurs.
In 2015, I spoke with the President of the EPI Center, Leslie Smith, about her experiences with entrepreneurial economic development. One of her key points from that discussion was about creating a shared strategy amongst the players needing local resources, noting that, “You have to have clear intention when you organize that choir, but you need the variety and diversity. The complexity and diversity of your ecosystem is where the richness is created.”
There is no doubt that over the past three years, Memphis has continue a tradition of diverse economic development, largely led by Start Co and the EPI Center. In addition to the ZeroTo510 program, Start Co currently hosts Sky High, an Education Tech focused accelerator, Upstart, a Women-Led Tech accelerator, and the Launch Delta Home Services accelerator in partnership with the Fortune 1000 company ServiceMaster. In a future that is consistently becoming more diverse, Memphis is laying the foundation for dynamic economic growth.
Some common challenges that still exist within these ecosystems are that the bets they’re making are long term, and evaluating their success is complex and difficult. Leslie Smith noted how difficult it can be to balance the storying telling side that shows how people’s lives are impacted with the metric driven narrative of activities and outcomes. Organizations like the Kauffman Foundation and the Brooking’s Institute provide vital assessments and action plans that help localities to analyze economic status and strategize for the future.
While the aforementioned macro-economic tactics are important, the boots on the ground participation of everyday citizens is vitally important as well. Local support for your startups can be as easy as attending a pitch competition or lending your unique knowledge to some young entrepreneurs during a startup weekend. For those with the financial means, angel investment organizations like the Natural State Angel Association can provide a great way for interested investors to evaluate and connect to promising regional ventures. The involvement of the community in the entrepreneurial ecosystem is not just important for the morale of the future job creators and innovators, it also helps ensure that our local economy has long term growth in diverse sectors.