Start-up Arkansas 

Acumen Brands, Rockfish and PrivacyStar propel the state's tech start-up culture.

Kristian Andersen has big ideas. When he talks about them, they come out in paragraph bursts. Of 10-part plans. Of sweeping visions. Of theories built on tangents supported by other theories.

A 38-year-old Conway native who built a successful design and management company in Indianapolis that works with web-based enterprises like Angie's List and Groupon, he's become the oracle of Arkansas's burgeoning technology start-up business scene since moving his family back to Arkansas four years ago, the person with the clearest — or at least most articulate — vision for how Arkansas can grow that culture into a national force.

So far, his grand ideas have come to fruition at an impressive rate. He laid out the vision for The ARK Challenge, a start-up accelerator that provides entrepreneurs access to business leaders, office space and seed money to launch fully formed technology companies in only three months. On Monday, the ARK's 15 teams of entrepreneurs — eight from Arkansas, five from elsewhere in the U.S. and two from outside of the country — started work in Fayetteville. All aim to develop companies tied to retail, food processing and logistics industries, not coincidentally the three industries in which Northwest Arkansas, and especially Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt, excel.

Andersen's also behind the forthcoming Arkansas Fellowship Program, a competitive post-graduate apprenticeship at innovative companies in Arkansas aimed at slowing the exodus of the state's best and brightest, and he led the way in launching Gravity Ventures I and II, a pair of seed-stage venture capital funds that actively invest in and provide guidance for Arkansas tech start-ups.

Even though he still spends much of his time in Indianapolis running his business, managing two Indianapolis-based Gravity Ventures funds and operating an 8,000-square-foot converted warehouse he co-founded that he describes as a "Moose Lodge for nerds," he mixes and mingles in Arkansas regularly. He squeezes a lot into a short time. In early July, his meeting with a reporter was the first of two lunches he was having that day.

To understand why Arkansas hasn't flourished, Andersen offers a formula successful tech cultures share.

"There's a recipe that no successful start-up ecosystem has ever deviated from: You need capital, you need talent, you need a corporate patron and you need a culture of risk."

Take Austin, for instance.

"If you don't have Michael Dell assembling work stations in his dorm room in the '80s, there is no Austin start-up scene. Were there other substantive businesses in the Hill Country of Texas, between San Antonio and Austin? Absolutely. But you needed a company that would attract and grow a highly trained technical workforce."

Preferably a workforce trained by a local research institution. All of the most vibrant start-up cities and areas — Boulder, Boston, Seattle, Silicon Valley — boast at least one significant university as well as at least one corporate patron, Andersen noted. Without the success of the latter, however, he said it's hard to establish the necessary culture of investing for a start-up community to thrive.

"When Dell popped, it made lots and lots of millionaires. It made lots of extreme millionaires — Michael Dell and his early lieutenants. And hundreds of people who were made lower millionaires. You know who invests in start-ups? People who've built and or worked in start-ups. So even if you look at the local investment community, the really active angel investors are people who come out of start-up culture.

"There's no shortage of really wealthy investors in Arkansas, but they're not predisposed to invest in high-risk tech start-ups. If you want to go start a community bank or a new subdivision, I've got a list a mile long who you could go talk to. But rarely is the wealthy commercial developer or banker writing checks to high-risk, early-stage firms."


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