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Start-up challenge coming to Central Arkansas 

Warrick Sabin to lead it.

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Warwick Sabin, the director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in Argenta, will be in charge of Central Arkansas's first ARK Challenge, the tech business accelerator program of Winrock International and startup promoter Innovate Arkansas.

Tom Dalton, Innovate Arkansas director and an ARK Challenge mentor, expects the 14-week Central Arkansas "bootcamp" will start in either August or September. Little Rock Tech Park Authority board member Jay Chesshir has been negotiating a lease for a 4,000-square-foot co-working space at 117 Main St., next to the Orbea bicycle headquarters at 119 Main St., to accommodate the accelerator. Chesshir, who is president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, has worked with Dalton for some time to bring the ARK Challenge to Little Rock.

Sabin will continue to direct the Hub, a multi-faceted accelerator, maker space and technology education collaboration that is in the works. One part of the Hub, the Art Connection, is already up and running. "The work that I'll already be doing at the Hub and connections and relationships that I already have really corresponds perfectly to the goals and programming of the ARK Challenge," Sabin said. Sabin will start work in February on defining the type of companies the accelerator wants to attract, recruiting and running the program in fall on a "day to day basis," Dalton said.

The first two ARK Challenge competitions were in 2012 and 2013 in Northwest Arkansas, where the program is directed by Jeannette Balleza. A third challenge is expected to begin in Northwest in May.

Here's how the ARK Challenge works: Its leadership recruits nationally and internationally for startups to apply to be challenge clients. In 2012, 15 teams were selected from nearly 100 applications from U.S. and international applicants; 10 were selected for the 2013 challenge. The finalists each receive $20,000 for living expenses, workspace to create a prototype of their product and mentoring by persons with special expertise to help the teams commercialize their product. In exchange, the investors who have provided the $20,000 receive 6 percent of the startup's worth.

A demonstration follows the bootcamp and two winners are selected. They are each provided $150,000; winners and investors who provide the $150,000 negotiate on equity percentages. In a surprise move, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission awarded another $150,000 to a third client in 2012 and repeated that in 2013.

The Northwest Arkansas challenge focuses on commercialization of products having to do with the region's industry: retailing, transportation and the food industry. One of Sabin's roles here will be to work with Innovate Arkansas to identify the business interests in Central Arkansas, which could include health care, banking and data analytics.

The Northwest Arkansas challenges were part of a pilot program funded by the federal Department of Commerce's Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge; operating costs were about $500,000. Those dollars have dried up, so for this year's two accelerators — one in Northwest and the one in Little Rock — the state will provide $300,000 in operating funds for each rather than making an award to a winning company, and Innovate Arkansas will seek $800,000 in private investment from existing angel funds.

The Northwest challenge will be slightly different this year, Dalton said, recruiting businesses that are farther along in their development for five to seven spots. He said Little Rock's challenge will involve 10 clients.

The Tech Park Authority has taken on the job of creating accelerator space now while it figures out where to build its park, Chesshir said after a recent meeting, because the startups created there could feed into the park. Dalton said he believed initially that he would be leasing through the Chamber of Commerce. Where the authority will get the money to the lease the space for the accelerator has been a subject of discussion at the last two meetings of the tech-park board. Park sponsors the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the city of Little Rock have each committed $125,000 toward park startup costs, and it is expected that those dollars could be spent to get the accelerator space up and running. The ARK Challenge will lease from the park.

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