At the ARK Challenge: start-up dreams are made of these 

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Representatives of each investor, plus two non-investor venture capitalists and a national mentor, picked the winners.

Before the selection process, Gov. Mike Beebe made a pitch for Arkansas as an entrepreneurial haven.

"Arkansas in general and Northwest Arkansas in particular have a disproportionate entrepreneurial success rate. We have per capita probably matched just about anybody in terms of the number of entrepreneurs who have taken risks and successfully developed the kind of business operation that is envied not just across the country, but around the world."

The governor requested that each of the companies that emerged from The Ark make its home in Arkansas.

If Btiques is successful, shoppers will know its name (and tagline: "You're unique, shop unique."), If the other two winning companies are successful, only those working behind the scenes in ecommerce will know them. MineWhat, led by Janakiram (Ram) Ganesan and Pavan Kumar Thiruvuru Vijayan of Bangalore, India, provides automated assistance to move customers through an ecommerce site and tracks customers' behaviors to predict what they want to buy.

"It's the online equivalent of being in Best Buy and buying an HD TV and having the guy in the blue shirt direct you to the Monster Cables," explained Kristian Andersen, a marketer and investor with Gravity Ventures who served as a mentor to MineWhat.

StackSearch, led by Mark Brandon and Sloan Ahrens of Fayetteville, builds off a similar premise — that decreasing the time it takes customers to find the product they're looking for increases sales. StackSearch gets users to products quickly through what's called faceted search, or guided navigation. When you shop Amazon by department and then drill down into subcategories, you're using faceted search.

Brandon said his faceted search is faster than his competitors because of "precomputation."

"It's like McDonald's. Their key to speed is building a bunch of burgers and leaving them under a heat lamp. We compute millions and possibly billions of product combinations and make them hot and ready to serve. Our competitors are mostly loading their queries from scratch."

In the coming days, ARK investors will negotiate with each of the three winners on the terms of their optional $150,000 funding. The money promised by Gov. Beebe will come from the General Improvement Fund and will either filter through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Quick Action Closing Fund or the Arkansas Development Finance Authority.

Funding is in place for the administration of The ARK for another round, and investors have once again pledged their support. The next competition will likely run from June to September to allow for participants who're still in college.

At Crystal Bridges, Kristian Andersen likened the excitement surrounding the culmination of The ARK to the thrill of being a football fan at the NFL combine. That's an apt metaphor. Each is built on identifying ability and trades in jargon that can be difficult to penetrate. But because of initiatives like The ARK, more Arkansans may be casually tossing around terms like "deal flow" and "behavioral analytics" in the not-too-distant future. If a couple of local start-ups grow to national stature, what's been a fairly insular culture may tilt more mainstream. Leaders of Acumen Brands of Fayetteville, the ecommerce company behind the popular CountryOutfitter.com store many insiders peg as the most likely to explode, provided guidance to three ARK ecommerce companies. The company also volunteered to beta test the products. If the likes of MineWhat and StackSearch do what their founders say they do, Acumen is poised to reap the benefit well before any of its competitors.


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