- (From left, back row) Justyn Horner, Eyona Mitchell, David Allen, Josiah Brann (from left, front row) Mark Brandon (mentor), Matt Bakke, David Woodbury, David Hudson (mentor)
A former cop and his childhood friend are in business to help you vote on bills in committee in Congress. A nursing resident at CHI St. Vincent Health Center is working to keep you from being used like a pincushion the next time you're in the hospital. A small-business consultant who has had to go to some lengths to get beauty advice may have just the thing for other women of color on her Angie's List-like website.
These and four other business start-ups are competing to take home the $150,000 grand prize in Central Arkansas's first ARK Challenge, the business accelerator program introduced in Northwest Arkansas and being held for the first time in Little Rock.
The seven businesses were chosen from 300 who applied for the 14-week "bootcamp" funded by Winrock International, Gravity Ventures, Fund for Arkansas' Future and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. They stood out, said challenge director Warwick Sabin (who is also the head of the Innovation Hub in North Little Rock), because their business plans were sound and they made it clear they were "committed to working hard."
The teams have been at it since Aug. 4, working in space leased from the Little Rock Technology Park Authority at 107 E. Markham St., a spare workspace that once housed a comedy club and other enterprises. They'll present their businesses on Demo Day, Nov. 12, before ARK Challenge sponsors at the Clinton Presidential Center. Only one will win $150,000 but the others may win the interest of angel investors at the event.
The ARK Challenge provided $20,000 (in exchange for an equity share of 6 percent) to each of the seven teams, the 24-hour accessible co-working space, guidance by business "mentors" and connections to the business community. (The third Northwest ARK Challenge just concluded with Demo Day at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The Northwest challenge has evolved from the initial model: It now provides $50,000 seed money to each of five businesses further along in their growth and no concluding award.)
Six of the seven companies taking part in the Central Arkansas challenge are from Arkansas; one is from Minneapolis (but may relocate here). The idea for the competitors: Keep the business plan lean and clean, make sales and prove the company is viable. The idea for Arkansas: Grow new companies that will stay in state.
The team behind Politapoll defies the stereotype of tech entrepreneurs. Justyn Horner, 34, was an Army sergeant turned lobbyist turned software designer. His childhood friend, Tim Brasuell, 34, was a policeman for 13 years. They are of differing "political persuasions," Horner said, but agree that individuals aren't getting their voices heard in Washington in the way the special interest and the newly unfettered big-buck crowd is.
It was Brasuell's idea to do something about that. The non-partisan app will send out alerts, asking (free) registrants to say yay or nay on a particular bill under consideration in Congress and will push the tally to their representative (the initial focus is on the 2nd District). It will also be able to livestream televised events.
The app will also use a dashboard to rate congressmen according to their votes vs. the polling, and will dock them points for skipping votes. It will, Horner said, "shine a spotlight on what [congressmen] are doing." Users won't be able to skew results by voting more than once. The beta app has been downloadable for several weeks; fine tuning of the software and business plan continues.
"We are basically lobbyists for the people," Horner said. He and Brasuell think legislators will appreciate the input Politapoll offers as well.
Eyona Mitchell, 34, is creating a web platform for women of color that will act as a clearinghouse for information on skin and hair care products, including products not normally marketed to non-Caucasian women. She was inspired by a large YouTube community of women and bloggers who share information about their beauty products. Companies will contribute product information — including videos — to the website and, once published, the website will direct that information to linked social media. The company will also invite beauty bloggers to come on to the site — Mitchell said there are 300 so far she knows she'll invite.
Beauty product companies, Mitchell said, "want more exposure. ... This will be a centralized place for them to advertise" to women of color.
Mitchell, who worked with the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and a small business consulting firm, came up with the idea for the company in her last semester at UCA, where she earned a master's degree in community and economic development. She has contracted with a web developer and four content producers for the initial rollout, which should be in a couple of weeks.
David Woodbury, 33, of Minneapolis, a member of the online founders collaborative F6S.com, has developed Linked Cause, a company whose platforms offer mutually beneficial opportunities for non-profits and businesses. Already online is Eatiply, which has 100 accounts in the United States, including 20 in Arkansas. Here's how Eatiply works: Restaurants feature a separate menu that diners can order from and part of the charge goes to a food-related nonprofit — "eat a meal, give a meal" is the slogan. In Arkansas, the nonprofit that benefits is the Arkansas Rice Depot. The diners know they're contributing to a good cause and the restaurant gets business.
Now Woodbury is working on Drinkaply: The cause is global access to clean water. Through Drinkiply, when someone purchases a drink, the participating restaurant will donate to a nonprofit an amount of money equal to one person's water needs for a day. Woodbury, a former businessman and food truck owner, launched Eatiply in 2013; he said he was inspired to do cause-related work by Blake Mycoskie's business model for Toms Shoes (buy a pair to give a pair).
Like Linked Cause, tagless.com combines philanthropy with business. Gabe Couch, 29, of the tech design collaborative Few, is creating a website where users can hook up with a personal stylist to shop for clothing bought from philanthropic non-profits. Unlike other online shopping-for-charity companies, tagless.com buyers will shop at used clothing stores, making buying from tagless cheaper than the fairly expensive charity companies now in business. Users will sign up with the stylist, who'll find out what sorts of clothes they like and shop for them. Users can choose when the shopper should send things to them, and can keep what they want and return what they don't.
"We're focusing on men right now," Couch said; "there's a big boom in [online] men's shopping."
The slogan for tagless.com: "The best dressed for the right reason." Couch said the business model — which benefits the needy as well as the company — is a "millennials" model: "We look at ways to give back. That's the way we're wired."
Spencer Jones, 23, was in nursing school at the University of Arkansas when he was asked at his job to draw blood on a patient. "They had an IV site, and I said, 'Can I stop the infusion and pull blood?' They said no." Jones thought that was silly. "We've got DaVinci [surgical] robots and we can't create an IV site where we can pull out while pushing in?" Jones said the need for the idea will be clear "if you've had family in the hospital recently," and they've suffered multiple needle pricks. Especially if the patient is a diabetic, who needs blood draws four times a day, often starting at 4 a.m. "A lot of people say they can't go to sleep after that," Jones said.
Jones, now in residency at St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, decided to develop his idea — the only hardware in the Challenge — after an inspirational talk in a cab ride home from a wedding. He said his device — the bifurcated venous access device, or BVAD — is intricate "but the concept is simple." Thanks to its two-channel configuration, the device will allow blood draws a bit upstream from the delivery IV, "and the great thing is it's all painless. It's just a much better option for patients." Jones is in talks with a manufacturer, though the "design specs aren't nailed to the floor yet." He hopes to have a prototype ready by Demo Day; FDA approval will have to come next.
David Allan, 23, took a year off from Hendrix to do community service in Chicago through City Year. It was an experience "that helped me get myself together," he said, and got him thinking about service hours, and how software could help students and schools keep track. He came up with Acorn Metrics, took park in the Start Up Weekend 2013, and is now an Innovate Arkansas firm. His partners are Josiah Brann, 20, a student at UALR and the youngest member of any team, and Scott Shellabarger of NovaSys Health. The company also employs a team of developers that includes freelancers in Italy, Lithuania and Bangladesh. Not only will the software help students and schools verify hours, but Acorn will have a website where students can post about the places they served and the work they did, information useful to nonprofits looking for good volunteers.
Allan said that research shows that doing volunteer work reinforces the desire to do more, so it's not all about the money, which will come from the sales of software. Allan has got five schools signed up so far; he wants to have sold the software to several times that number by Demo Day.
You may have seen the YouTube introduction to Fair Share's Matt Bakke, Matt Seubert and Chad Hood (the one with "the prettiest face"). The Bentonville High School alums, all 23, who reconnected at the Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas, have pooled their various talents to come up with a way to track buying patterns so companies can compete for business. "We were informed by our experience in the Walmart culture," Bakke said.
Here's the idea: You share your banking information (via a secure form, through what is called an aggregator API) with Fair Share and once your bank approves the transaction, it sends future credit card charges to Fair Share's database. All information is stored anonymously; "we'll never know who you are as a person," Bakke said. The information is sold to companies looking for new buyers. For example: If Target sees an account that is spending a lot on widgets at Walmart, it could offer that account through Fair Share a gift card to draw that account's business to Target. Fair Share users access deals information through an app; that way companies are not directly contacting account holders.
Bakke said it's not just retailers, but other entities — like hedge funds and banks — that will be interested in seeing the buying trends of Fair Share's transaction pool to make decisions on investments and lending. "There's an entire shadow world of data out there," Bakke said, with company cookies tracking what products you're buying and shooting advertisements to you on, for example, Facebook. "We want consumers to get their fair share," Bakke said. "It's a rather involved technology," Bakke said, "but we're making awesome progress."