story by Josh Taylor Souza, special to The City Wire
The Ark Challenge competition winds down next week. This is the second of three stories that highlight the 15 teams vying for the top two prizes of $150,000 each. To read the previous story click here.
FAYETTEVILLE – There are 15 entrepreneur teams gearing up for their big showdown as part of the 14-week “ARK Challenge.” These tech-centric ventures hail from India to Ohio with a couple of locals in the mix.
There’s little time to spare as the final “Demo Day” is set for Nov. 8, when all 15 teams will pitch their venture to a panel investors in hopes of securing two top prices of $150,000 and other awards from angel investor networks also in attendance, according to director Jeannette Balleza.
The challenge focuses on three fields (retail, transportation and logistics and food processing) and includes two boot-camp challenges with the goals to introduce 15 viable ventures that are primed for funding, pilot-ready and adequately positioned for new job creation in Northwest Arkansas.
Agriculture Food Systems (Siloam Springs, AR)
The most field-tested team in the final-fifteen in the ARK Challenge might be Agriculture Food Systems (AFS).
Founded by Hugh Lawson Hembree V and three friends from John Brown University, AFS is pitching a project called a “Tender ID” that can test the quality and tenderness of a beef carcass while it’s still on the line.
“Being named to the finals in (The ARK Challenge) was total validation for all of our hard work and it has been an incredible experience,” said Hembree. “We feel very strongly about our product and its ability to succeed in the market. Since coming here we have been able to make some valuable contacts that should pay dividends down the road.”
The AFS management team negotiated a limited option on the technology while at John Brown University and entered the 2011 Donald W. Reynolds Arkansas Governor's Cup business plan competition where they took first place in four categories, including innovation.
The target clientele for the Tender ID is prime for the local market with major players such as Tyson and Cargill.
“When we first decided to take on this project as a class assignment we thought at most we might be able to swing a few free steaks out of the deal if nothing else,” joked Hembree. “This business has come a long way in a short time. ... We have had a rare opportunity placed in front of us by making it here and we are trying to make the most of it.”
Btiques (Fayetteville, AR / Kansas City, MO)
Btiques, the brainchild of brother sister tandem Sara Beck and Will Carter, is a web system and a mobile app that will cater to independent fashion stores.
The company, which expects to be ready for launch in early 2013, would provide independent boutiques a centralized platform to sell their products online. It would also allow customers to follow the store through Twitter and other forms of social media.
“It is our company’s belief that social commerce is the future of online sales,” said Beck. “The Northwest Arkansas market would be a great pilot area for the product because local boutiques are abundant in this area. Our product would be a big asset to the local business community by taking the online sales to another level and helping raise awareness of the stores in terms of social media.”
Both Beck and Carter have backgrounds in marketing. If all goes as planned, Btiques would cut its teeth in the Northwest Arkansas area early next year.
“The ARK has been a blessing for us,” said Beck. “We have had the chance to learn from some of the most brilliant minds in business, technology and marketing.“
Earn and Play (Cincinnati, OH)
The mobile app known as Earn and Play is the third startup business for founder Pablo Arellano Jr., who had success with previous ventures American Beauty and YO-Deal.com.
YO deal was dealt in 2010 and over the last year Arellano has been fine tuning Earn and Play, which will be the first mobile app to connect brands with customers at the shelf.
“I think with this being my third attempt at a start up business I have already learned a great deal, but coming to the ARK Challenge has pushed me even further,” said Arellano. “This product is geared towards grocery stores and at the most basic level is going to help store owners build their brand by meeting the customer literally at the shelf.”
Arellano, who has worked in the past with Proctor & Gamble, is one of six members of the Earn and Play team, but he is the only member who made the three-month relocation to Fayetteville.
“The ARK is great opportunity to present this product to some serious investors,” said Arellano. “The team and I have been working hard to fine tune this company and we are confident about our chances for the demo day.”
SpareTime (Fayetteville, AR)
The team of Aron Shelton and Alyssa Snyder, are no strangers to successful start-up companies. The duo broke through with a popular local non-profit organization known as Seeds That Feed a couple years ago and continue to show a knack for giving back to the community in their newest venture – SpareTime.
“This project started with me challenging myself with ways to get involved in my community,” said Shelton. “Our goal is to help organizations market their projects to the newest generation of volunteers and donors.”
The premise of SpareTime is to provide an engagement platform in the social media for local organizations. In essence it will help local organizations reach an audience that isn’t being reached.
The timing of this venture is spot on as the Millennial generation has made it quite clear they are looking for meaning work and ways to give back to the communities in which they live. This duo says companies that want to recruit and retain millennials could benefit from SpareTIme.
“We’ve had success with a previous non profit project and we’ve known each other for a long time. ... I think our working chemistry can be an advantage,” said Snyder. “Even though (Seeds that Feed) was a successful venture we were still blown away when we got selected for the ARK Challenge with (SpareTime). It meant a great deal to get that kind of validation for our idea and hard work.”
Mine What (Bangalore, India)
No team traveled further than Mine What co-founders Janakiram (Ram) Ganesan, Pavan Kumar Thiruvuru Vijayan, who made the trek from Bangalore, India, to Fayetteville for the duration of the ARK Challenge.
You won’t find many software techs that are sharper than what you see in this crew, headed mainly by Ganesan. Mine-What provides a cloud-based, pattern informed user engagement platform to e-commerce businesses.
The main goal of the software is to help companies yield a higher online conversion rate, thus increasing revenue.
“We are a company that wants to seek out fast solutions by asking the right questions,” said Ganesan. “I think some start-up businesses are focused on things that aren’t as important. Our product will provide a better chance at bringing a customer back, because we are focusing on the user behavior as opposed to only the page traffic.”
The company is nine months in the making and will soon be ready to pilot. Ganesan says Mine-What already has at least six e-commerce businesses on board with the piloting of the product.