Arkansas has flown under the national radar in terms of technology-based industry, but that could be changing. A strong tech startup ecosystem has taken hold, and the state is being recognized for tech-based innovation as well as its commitment to emphasize computer science in classrooms.
Arkansas is home to successful tech startups, established local companies who are thriving in tech-based industries and many programs and resources designed to help entrepreneurs drive local economies.
Arkansas Money & Politics is proud to highlight some of these tech leaders and the companies and programs they represent, which have helped boost Arkansas’ economy and advance its quality of life.
By AMP Staff
The state’s emphasis on tech startup development beginning in the late 2000s led to some significant success stories, Little Rock’s Apptegy one of the biggest. An education-tech startup founded in 2015, Apptegy has been recognized as one of the country’s fastest growing startup in the ed-tech sector.
It all started in Jeston George’s spare bedroom. George raised in-state venture capital to launch the firm after finding it hard to gather information on his nephew’s school programs with time enough to plan for them. He discovered that schools lacked a centralized tool for sharing information with students’ families and launched Apptegy — from that spare room — to address what he guessed was a big-market need. He guessed right. Apptegy’s Thrillshare software allows schools to enter news, stories and other forms of media into a single platform which distributes the information to linked tools such as social media, SMS, voice calls and websites.
George started with seven Arkansas school districts willing to give his product a try. Today, Apptegy serves more than 1,000 school districts in 49 states and employs more than 135 in downtown Little Rock. In the spring of 2017, after receiving several rounds of in-state investment, Apptegy announced an investment round of $5.7 million from Kansas City-based Five Elms Capital. With it, Apptegy will support continued sales-and-marketing efforts for Thrillshare and launch further product development.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson recognized the startup as an Arkansas success story.
“Apptegy’s story shows the power of Arkansans coming together,” he said. “The school leaders who chose to work with an Arkansas-based company helped pave the way for high-paying technology jobs in the state.”
Little Rock’s EAST Initiative (originally an acronym for Environmental and Spatial Technology) may fly under the radar in terms of name recognition, but its work in exposing Arkansas students to technology places it firmly among the state’s important tech leaders.
The EAST program empowers students through technology with an emphasis on community service. Its curriculum, adopted by 259 schools in four states, integrates technology into classrooms through student training and professional development for teachers.
Executive director Matt Dozier says most EAST Initiative schools are located in Arkansas but schools in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Pennsylvania have adopted the program as well. EAST provides training in 2D design, 3D printing, animation (including virtual reality), audio recording, design/development, coding/programming, geospatial learning, photography, videography, and it even trains for skills such as project management, public speaking and systems administration.
Funded through the Arkansas Department of Education as well as individual and corporate sponsors, EAST has served more than 225,000 students in 20 years. Studies of the EAST model reveal positive results for participating schools such as fewer disciplinary referrals, more college-bound students, improved communication and presentation skills, greater comfort and proficiency with new and emerging technologies, improved leadership skills and higher standardized test scores.
EAST currently serves 26,000 students, who completed 2.5 million community-service hours valued at $72 million in the 2018-19 school year.
In 2012, little A4 Solutions of Cabot was a tech startup providing IT services and support to government entities. By the end of the year, owner John Adams had purchased majority interest in mobile app developer Metova of Franklin, Tenn., and little was no longer part of the firm’s makeup.
A4 adopted the Metova name for its commercial enterprises — Metova Federal for its government work — and since has grown to become a national leader in the “internet of things” led by CEO Josh Smith, based in Conway.
The internet of things, IoT for short, refers to the billions of smart devices around the world that connect to the internet through sensors or wifi. These can include smartphones, cars, watches, thermostats…even washing machines and refrigerators and entail capabilities such as unlocking doors with your phone and syncing media across multiple mobile devices.
TechRepublic.com reports that 8.4 billion IoT devices were estimated to be in use in 2017, up 31 percent from the previous year, with IoT-related global spending at $2 trillion. The industry expects the number of IoT devices in use to hit 20.4 billion this year.
Metova, with more than 150 employees spread among Conway, Fayetteville and Tennessee, is an industry leader in helping facilitate this automation transformation. In 2019, Metova won the IoT Partner Enablement Company of the Year Award from IoT Breakthrough for its work in testing and certification of new connected devices and its management and operation of IoT networks and installations.
Plus, the firm was sourced in stories about IoT in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, was named an advanced tech partner in the Amazon Web Services partner network and was nationally recognized for its research that found half of U.S. drivers could stay connected while driving.
Founded in Little Rock in 1975, Arkansas Systems Inc. grew to serve more than 100 retail banking clients by offering electronic funds transfer (EFT) software for ATM management, debit and credit cards. Though operating very much under the Arkansas radar, it was a groundbreaking financial-services company.
Eventually, the company began providing key upstream software to Euronet’s ATM transaction-processing center in central Europe and in 1998, Euronet acquired it. Three years later, Euronet announced that it was relocating its software division and U.S. processing center to Little Rock, which became home to Euronet USA, led by Tony Warren, president and managing director of payments software. Today, Euronet Worldwide operates 60 offices in 160 countries and reported revenue of $2.4 billion in 2018.
The corporation is a global industry leader in processor software solutions, card-management software solutions, digital-banking software solutions and currency-conversion solutions. It’s credited as an early player helping facilitate the switch to digital payments as well as its role in identifying the increasing popularity of bar-code payments, real-time vouchers, QR codes, advances in technology coding and changes in hardware and cloud-based infrastructure.
Euronet developed the REN innovation platform to process and move any type of data to and from disparate applications and systems. In 2018, Euronet processed more than 280 million transactions in 26 countries, in all global currencies and for 58 different payment types.
Euronet’s physical money-transferring network is believed to be the second-largest in the world, reaching 369,000 locations in 150 countries.
Shortly after taking office in 2014, Gov. Asa Hutchinson recognized the need for more computer training in Arkansas schools and advocated for the introduction of coding into school curriculums across the state. In 2015, legislation was passed to expand computer science offerings in state schools and fund teacher training.
Starting with the 2016-17 school year, computer coding classes were made available in every Arkansas high school and $15 million dedicated to the program’s implementation. This push for coding also included the creation of the Arkansas Computer Science and Technology in Public School Task Force (CSTF) in 2015.
Hutchinson appointed the members and gave them three main responsibilities: research and recommend computer science and technology courses and standards, study the computer science and technology needs of Arkansas, and recommend strategies to meet the anticipated computer science and technology workforce needs of the state. The task force’s report advised that computer-science class enrollment should reach 20 percent among graduating seniors by 2020. In January, the state took a victory lap: Arkansas schools saw computer science enrollment grow in 2014-15 from roughly 1,000 students to 9,813 in 2019-20. Counting students enrolled in multiple courses, that number climbs to 10,420.
The state also increased the number of computer science-certified teachers from 20 in 2014 to more than 225 teachers who are fully endorsed with 220 more holding an approval code gained through development and training and dedicated $1 million to expand career-related computer science pathways, including robotics, mobile-application development and cybersecurity academies.
In Arkansas’ northeast corridor, one 114-year-old company rose from humble beginnings to become one of the Mid-South’s biggest local telecommunications providers.
Jonesboro’s Ritter Communications provides internet, television and phone services to 45,000 customers in 92 communities across Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee and Missouri. It also provides direct connections to 10 regional hubs and 17 national hubs.
Founded in 1906, Ritter Communications under CEO Alan Morse has grown and evolved to meet the ever-changing demands of an increasingly interconnected world. Recognizing the direction of future communications technologies, Ritter invested heavily in affordable, high-speed fiber-optic connections to provide fast internet service for community businesses.
Ritter also leads the industry with cutting-edge cloud computing technology and proactively strengthens its digital security technology to protect clients’ information. Ritter also provides intelligent data management to ensure business continuity in the case of a natural disaster or system failure.
Recent expansion projects include a $7 million broadband-fiber infrastructure project in Hot Springs, construction of a state-of-the-art data technology center at its Jonesboro headquarters, and a multi-million dollar broadband-fiber network expansion in Harrison.
Ritter Communications is a portfolio company of E. Ritter and Co., founded in 1886 in Marked Tree, and Grain Management, a leading investor in the global communications industry. In 2019, the Ritter parent company was recognized nationally by Family Business as one of 30 exceptional business families.
Your phone rings. You pick it up, seeing a number you don’t recognize. In the past, this was normal and you’d typically answer to see who was calling. Unfortunately these days, every call from an unknown number has a good chance of being a robocall.
These spam calls not only irritate consumers, they potentially harm legitimate businesses trying to reach customers. Little Rock’s First Orion contributed a little Arkansas innovation to provide comprehensive, groundbreaking solutions to protect businesses and customers from these aggravating spammers.
The company was founded in 2008 by Charles Morgan, the legendary Acxiom co-founder. Though it hasn’t achieved Acxiom’s $1 billion global reach, First Orion has reached more than 85 million consumers worldwide through the PrivacyStar call-blocking app which blocks an average of 50,000 spam calls per minute. It employs more than 200 workers and boasts more than 25 patents.
Many consumers may benefit from First Orion’s work and not even realize it. If you’ve ever received an incoming call marked, “spam likely,” then your carrier is partnering with First Orion’s AI call-monitoring programs to protect you from scammers. Available for iPhone and Android, the PrivacyStar app offers three levels of protection, utilizing data and mobile network integration in concert with a massive pool of data sources to determine and target scammers. It can be used to block calls from market and political researchers as well.
As executive director for University of Arkansas Technology Ventures, David Snow oversees the commercialization of research conducted by UA professors, students and affiliated startups. He says Technology Ventures helps identify, protect and commercialize intellectual property developed from UA research and other activities supported by the university.
Snow envisions Technology Ventures as a primary access point for the Northwest Arkansas innovation ecosystem. His group also serves external inventors and entrepreneurs to help bring products and technology to market, generating revenue as well as future research support.
In fiscal year 2019, Technology Ventures had 47 invention disclosures, a record for the university, an increase of 90 percent relative to the office’s historical average and a 52 percent increase over fiscal year 2018. In the last five years, 69 technologies have been licensed by the university. Technology Ventures also saw great success over the last year in provisional patent applications, non-provisional patent applications, patents issued and license/option agreements, Snow says.
Located on the campus of the Arkansas Research & Technology Park in Fayetteville, Technology Ventures also works to stimulate the formation of startups based on university research in a collaborative community and develop corporate partnerships aligned with UA’s intellectual assets.
The UA is recognized internationally for its research in the fields of health, nanotechnology, energy related to the environment, food science/safety and supply chain/retail/transportation.
Ultimately, the goal of The Venture Center is to inspire social and economic change in the state, says executive director Wayne Miller.
On a more tangible level, its mission is to help tech-based startups and early-stage companies not only refine their business models but create products and services that are ready for market and connect these entrepreneurs to potential customers and investors.
The Venture Center, located in the downtown Little Rock Technology Park, offers many programs and resources to help accomplish its mission including the FIS FinTech Accelerator it hosts each year in collaboration with the state and FIS, a global financial-services technology leader based in Florida but with Arkansas roots.
Launching its fifth cohort in 2020, the FIS FinTech Accelerator brings 10 startups from around the world to Little Rock for a 12-week program designed to accelerate the development and growth of promising, early-stage fintech startups.
Past graduates of the accelerator have raised more than $53 million in capital since participating in the program. Technologies explored by past participants include artificial intelligence, next-generation password authentication, blockchain-powered instant payments and consumer-lending credit verification using big data and social media.
“This program provides invaluable exposure and go-to-market opportunities for the startups while introducing new technologies to financial institutions and companies that will enable them to better serve their customers,” Miller says.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is the state’s largest basic and applied research institution with a total budget of $1.3 billion and more than $100 million in annual research funding, notes Dr. Nancy Gray, president of BioVentures, the technology transfer/startup development/business incubator arm of UAMS.
BioVentures has spun off more than 40 life-science startups with 30 still in operation and boasting an annual payroll of $27 million.
“Our mission is to foster commercial investment in the development of inventions, discoveries and other work products flowing from the research at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s and the local VA Hospital in order to enhance human healthcare and stimulate economic development in the state of Arkansas,” Gray says.
BioVenture’s role is to partner UAMS research, business models and intellectual property with industries seeking to collaborate on commercialization. In short, BioVentures exists to promote the biomedical and life-sciences technology industries in the state while linking UAMS research to global markets and to help UAMS researchers turn their marketable research and innovations into viable products and services, Gray says.
BioVentures has partnered on several successful accelerators and boot camps, and some of its more prominent alumni startups include RxResults, a pharmacy risk-management startup; Angel Eye, which developed camera systems designed to allow parents of premature babies to remotely view their children in the hospital, and InterveXion Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical firm that developed innovative treatments for addiction disorders.
The Little Rock Tech Park is the physical embodiment of the commitment by central Arkansas leaders to recognize technology and research as an economic driver, says executive director Brent Birch. Its development along a rejuvenated Main Street corridor in downtown Little Rock has helped infuse not only a jolt of energy into the heart of the city but a cluster of research commercialization leading to high-paying jobs.
More than 40 tech startups, many of them working to commercialize projects borne from local research institutions, now call the park home. The park’s phase 1 focused on renovation of two 100-year-old buildings and was completed in 2017. Phase 2, currently underway, is adding wet/dry lab space to accommodate research activities as well as increase the park’s ability to attract and retain biomed and nanotech companies.
Created through legislation passed by the 2007 Arkansas General Assembly, the tech park opened for business in 2010 and is sponsored by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/Arkansas Children’s and the city of Little Rock. Birch says park sponsors are seeing significant and growing research activity, which will provide opportunities for commercialization and new business ventures, and the new lab space will be critical to that development.
Phase 3 of the tech park will expand office and meeting space; phase 4 will add an 800-car parking deck, more office space and new retail space, and phases 5 and 6 are scheduled to address future office, meeting and lab needs.
John James doesn’t fit the mold. A would-be family practice physician, James gave up medicine on the final day of his residency in 2001 to focus full-time on growing a retail ecommerce he had launched during his residency. James paid for med school with money earned through another startup — he published academic quiz bowl questions and study guides — launched from his dorm during his undergraduate years at the University of Arkansas.
After raising $100 million in venture capital in 2013 to grow his ecommerce platform Acumen Brands, unheard of for an Arkansas startup, James went on to launch his latest ecommerce platform, Fayetteville’s Engine.
Engine was built to help ecommerce brands adapt to market changes. Through his latest venture, James wants to turn the methods and best practices learned over more than 20 years into tools for brands wanting to grow their direct-to-consumer presence online. And his experience is vast. At Acumen, James grew a four-person startup into a multi-billion dollar operation of more than 200 that included 56 robots filling orders in a warehouse just off Interstate 49. Its ecommerce brands included Country Outfitter, which attracted more than 10 million social media followers and email subscribers in less than a year.
James’ Hayseed Ventures, founded in 2015, functions on three levels: as a startup studio focused on ecommerce; as a funding arm to gap-stage companies and as an educational nonprofit.