Business, civic officials say ‘Innovation Hub’ concept needed in Fort Smith

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

There has been a lot of buzz about the new Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub set to launch later this year in North Little Rock. The public-private partnership is a model that its executive director said was not specific to just central Arkansas, but could work in other regions of the state, including Fort Smith.

Warwick Sabin, a Little Rock state representative who became executive director of the non-profit in September 2013, said the innovation hub is about helping entrepreneurs be successful at home in Arkansas by giving them the tools necessary to achieve success.

"The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub is designed to promote more entrepreneurship and startup business development in Arkansas," he said. "And it does that by providing resources, equipment, tools, access to programming and networking opportunities and really trying to connect and align all of these entities that are doing good work in this area in our state."

It does that through four key elements — the Art Connection, the Launch Pad, the Silver Mine and the STEAM Lab. ARHub.org explains each element:
• The Art Connection: "The IN place for North Little Rock teens, with studios where they can put their artistic abilities into profit mode."
• The Launch Pad: "The IN place for makers, tinkerers, inventors, innovators and even small and big companies looking for a cool place try out ideas and make new things."
• The Silver Mine: "The IN place for incubation, acceleration and co-working, and for finding all the support you need to morph great ideas into profitable business ventures."
• The STEAM Lab: "This super hot place IN the middle of the Argenta Innovation Center (the ARHI's headquarters in North Little Rock), incorporates elements of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. It's perfect for training, networking and hobnobbing with other makers, doers, engineers and artists."

The ARIH is similar to other business incubators across the nation, and according to Sabin — an Arkansas alum who earned his masters degree at Oxford University before returning to the Natural State — the goal is to retain Arkansas talent as well as attract new talent to the state.

"And one of the biggest problems we've had over the years is keeping our most talented people in this state because either they feel like they don't have access to educational opportunities, or they feel like they don't have access to capital and they have to go outside the state to get the investment capital they need to make their idea a reality,” Sabin explained. “But if we can create an environment here where through education and access to resources, people are developing their native talents and then we're able to retain them because we're giving them the opportunity to create a business or work with a company that does what they're interested in, when they're successful, that will serve to attract talent and that virtuous cycle continues."

Overall, Sabin said if the ARIH is successful with individuals who may join the non-profit and make use of its resources, it will do more than benefit ARIH and participating entrepreneurs, it will be a boon to the Arkansas economy.

‘WHAT PROGRESSIVE CITIES DO’
And it is that long-term benefit to the economy that has Fort Smith business and community leaders interested in seeing something similar spring up in the western Arkansas region.

Steve Clark, founder and CEO of Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics, said cities like Fort Smith cannot ignore what other cities are doing to attract business, including the development of business incubators such as the Innovation Hub.

"I think I'd approach it from the angle that cities that want to refer to themselves as progressive, they do what progressive cities do," he said, adding that the challenge is getting the right group to back such an idea locally.

"The difficulty is where does something like this fit? Is it the Chamber? I can argue it doesn't fit there. Their job is to recruit existing businesses to Fort Smith. Does it fit at the university? Not really. They find themselves in the theoretical and not the practical."

Sabin said the ARIH was its own entity, but had also formed partnerships with a variety of groups, namely Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions. Additional funding and support has come from the Wingate Foundation, Delta Regional Authority, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, as well as the North Little Rock Economic Development Commission. He also said the key is unity instead of division.

"Even if you're a community that doesn't have a lot of resources, you can accomplish things by forging partnerships across mutual interests that exist among organizations, municipalities, counties and states. I think there's an imperative to do that because we need to make the most of what we have. Whatever I think of Arkansas, I think that we're a state of 3 million people, which is smaller than most metropolitan areas around the country. And we cannot afford to divide ourselves up on the basis of geography or any other distinctions that may exist. We work a lot better when we take advantage of all the resources that exist within the state, when we hold hands and work together."

POTENTIAL OBSTACLES
While Fort Smith businessmen are interested in trying to get something like the ARIH launched in the region, they know it will not be an easy task. The memory of the region's last effort at a similar effort at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith still lingers.

Dr. Paul Beran, chancellor of UAFS, acknowledged the lack of success with the university's now-shuttered Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center and said efforts in the last few years to re-launch the IEC have been unsuccessful.

"The vision was that somehow the IEC was going to be a generator of ideas and thus (bring investment in) new small business thus jobs, but it never really panned out that way. Frankly, as far as the university's piece in this, I did a very extensive community-wide conversation about this two years ago in which we talked about the IEC and what it would take to recreate the IEC in a more meaningful way for the community. And frankly, the conversation stopped and there has never been any more mention of it."

He said success for a business incubator depended on more than one entity to house such a facility and to fund it, as well, and he said so far, no one has stepped up to the plate.

"Always follow the money and you will find why something's happening or why it's not happening," he said.

LEADERSHIP NEEDED
Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, spoke along the same lines and said to his knowledge, there's been no meaningful action to move forward with any proposals or plans for any sort of business incubator in the region.

"We do need to pursue starting up some sort of innovation system and I've heard of some different meetings about getting it going, but I haven't seen anyone willing to step up and get it going,” Allen said.

Clark said while that may be true at this point, it was not due to a lack of will.

"Everything rises and falls on leadership. Typically these are a cooperative arrangement between public and private (entities). I know there is interest with private. I can't speak for (the public sector). ... I think there's definite interest. Do I think that the business community will step up? I absolutely believe the business community will step up."

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As for timing, Beran — who said the university would welcome efforts to create a business incubator to the area — cautioned individuals expecting a group of leaders to step up tomorrow to create an organization out of nothing, calling it a "pollyannish approach" to business innovation.

That said, Allen "would like to think that it would be sooner rather than later."

"However, I'm not quite sure I know the answer to the question. Maybe we'll get to the point where we're not willing to settle for the status quo. Maybe we'll realize that we're losing some of our young and creative minds and maybe when we get to that point, people will say it's time to do it and do it now. I'm not sure if that's in the next year or two or five. It's happening all around us and I think we should explore the opportunity more and have some serious talks about it."

Clark said whatever discussions there are about how to launch in the Fort Smith area a business incubator similar to the Innovation Hub, the region does not have the time to wait.

"I think in the end, the message is (that) we can't be disappointed when we don't get what we want if we're not doing the things necessary to be heard. We need to emphasize that Fort Smith is willing to invest in the infrastructure for a healthy entrepreneur ecosystem. If we want to be seen as relevant in terms of talent, (attracting) and keeping our best and brightest, I think we have to find our position on this field as it relates to entrepreneurship, not just saying we're going to help for the sake of entrepreneurship, but a definitive plan and definition of success."

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