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Northwest Arkansas EDGE Report: Innovate Again, Innovate Here

November 5, 2019
The region's legacy of innovation needs to be intentionally nurtured and grown through an entrepreneurial ecosystem

The Economic Development: Generating Entrepreneurs (EDGE) Program, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, was initiated to 1) assess policies, players and programs in Northwest Arkansas (NWA), 2) engage in pilot collaborative programs in entrepreneurship between Austin and NWA, and 3) develop a nationally distinctive strategy for entrepreneurship for the region. The program managed by the IC2 Institute at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) involved the following key activities, which are further detailed in Appendix One:

  • Four extended visits to the NWA region, each involving multiple IC2 Institute staff;
  • Conducting interviews with 64 regional stakeholders and 45 students;
  • Engaging >244 residents in four Dialogue Sessions, including >185 unique attendees;
  • Hosting 9 visitors from NWA for an Austin Immersion Experience including engagement with >27 Austin-region participants; and
  • Provision of four reports: 1) Regional Assessment, 2) Regional Economic and Educational Benchmarking, 3) Dialogue Session and Immersion Visit Summary, and 4) Final Report.

A rich history of world-leading innovation is expressed in the remarkable fine art resources in the region, the anchor companies of Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods, the outdoor amenities offered to experience the natural beauty of the region and the collaborative spirit connecting five major communities. Innovation is a defining character of the region, and this legacy needs to be intentionally nurtured and grown through an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Thus, the final report theme is: “Innovate Again, Innovate Here!

Despite a history of iconic examples of world-changing entrepreneurs in three distinct industry sectors, a nationally competitive entrepreneurial ecosystem has not evolved naturally in NWA. The region appeared comfortable in its current economic and cultural success, focused on stable organizational and societal structures, and fractured among five small cities. Residents generally desire to stay near work or home and not collaborate regionally. Many traditional company representatives and residents appeared uncomfortable with risky, chaotic, non-conforming nature of an innovation and entrepreneurship lifestyle. While producing a highly ranked and successful economy, these elements are not conducive for creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Significant challenges exist for the region to achieve its entrepreneurial goals and these are further detailed in Appendix Two.

The region is at an important crossroads. Will innovation arise from the region again – from its anchor companies, from new entrepreneurial ventures, through university research – diversifying and growing the economy? Or will the region continue to lean on its anchor companies as headquarter sites and watch as innovation is outsourced to and developed in other regions of the country. Opportunities exist to innovate the NWA region to create an Innovate Again, Innovate Here entrepreneurial culture offering the following:

  1. Diversification and sustained growth of the regional economy;
  2. Revitalization of the region through retention of youth for workforce;
  3. Continual re-invention of a business community adapted to current opportunities; and
  4. Increased regional coherence and collaboration.

We use a roadmap model with the creation of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem as the destination for regional collaboration. To reach this destination, while focusing regional efforts, we recommend using two main roads in the form of two innovation clusters: 1) Data science related to retail, logistics, supply chain and mobility, and 2) Food + Technology. Both clusters benefit from regional strengths in the university and business sectors while the second offers synergies for engaging and supporting existing regional food, beverage, art and music ventures.

Through the EDGE studies, four underpinning needs emerged for strengthening the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem in pursuit of technology-based growth. Addressing these needs can function as landmarks for organizing action strategies and measuring the region’s progress. These include the following:

  1. Startup funding
  2. University-industry engagement
  3. Building careers and sustaining workforce
  4. Region-wide entrepreneurial support

Key recommendations include the following:

  • Startups and small business need expanded equity and debt financing options – recommended collaborative fund and banking finance strategies;
  • Need for regional leadership in entrepreneurship – recommended “University on the Move” initiative for the University of Arkansas to form the “hub” for entrepreneurial activity in the region;
  • Essential need to motivate and incentivize employees from regional anchor and vendor companies to actively engage in the entrepreneurial ecosystem – recommended open innovation and corporate innovation strategies to stimulate company and staff participation;
  • Growth of “local” culture – recommended strategies for elevating food, beverage, arts and music sectors to support entrepreneurial goals;
  • Advancement of local workforce – recommended strategies for regional engagement from training/degree programs, corporate internships and adaptation of elements of the Campus Philly model for the broader region to solve workforce needs.

It is our belief, that as NWA initiates a coordinated and intentional strategy to Innovate Again, Innovate Here, the truly unexpected nature of the region will be amplified and positioned for long-term economic and social prosperity.

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