Startups win thousands at event
Competition showcases, supports promising entrepreneurs
FAYETTEVILLE — Northwest Arkansas-based startup companies that hope to eliminate the need for loose change, make solar energy more accessible or offer other services won thousands of dollars in cash and services at a pitch competition Thursday evening.
The leaders of five budding businesses delivered two-minute pitches in front of a panel of local business figures for about $12,000 in prizes during Arkansas’ first Cox Business Get Started NW Arkansas event at the Walton Arts Center. Cox has held dozens of similar events around the country to showcase and support promising entrepreneurs.
Francis Hwang, an information technology scientist
who recently moved to the area from California, won the grand prize of $11,500 for the company he co-founded, Bucket Technologies. Its computer program will allow shoppers at participating restaurants and stores to send the pennies and dimes they’d receive in change to their bank accounts electronically instead.
Sofi Overton, a Bentonville 12-year-old, snagged the runner-up spot along with an Apple Watch and $100 for Wise Pocket Products, which will sell children’s socks and leggings that include pockets big enough for smartphones, inhalers and other important belongings.
“Tonight, it’s all about the vibrant startup community and the innovation they bring,” Mark Tucker, sales and operations vice president at Cox, told an audience of more than 100.
Supporting small business has become a regional priority, with a growing array of events and organizations that offer to help local residents kick off or expand their commercial ideas. Fayetteville is home to Startup Junkie Consulting and centers at the University of Arkansas, for example, that provide mentoring at no charge. Other cities have similar groups, and Rogers on Monday is hosting the Arkansas Maker Summit to focus on small manufacturers.
The panel of four judges included Jeff Charlson, co-founder of Bike Rack Brewing Co. in Bentonville, and Lauren Stokes, owner of the local clothing company Lauren James.
About two dozen startups applied for Thursday’s competition, Tucker said. The finalists set up shop in a variety of industries, mostly by using digital technology.
Steven Zapata, who works as internal communications manager at Sam’s Club, is also launching a smartphone app called FanSpotz that will make it easier to find open parking spots on a game day. Property owners with space to spare input their price and number of spots, allowing users to find and reserve parking. The free app is already in use, and Zapata said he hopes to roll it out to 128 universities with Division I football teams by next season.
Bailey Mendenhall, who often works as a club disc jockey, introduced the SwoopJobs app, which can connect employers at restaurants who need to fill a temporary job with potential workers. He said it’d be useful when a dishwasher or bartender doesn’t show up when expected, for instance.
The fifth finalist was Tom Waggoner, director of Community Solar Partners. The business plans to build small solar farms in Elkins and elsewhere to form a kind of renewable energy cooperative that residents who can’t afford to build their own solar panels can join to reduce their power bills.
“Everybody needs power, and everybody needs to save money,” Waggoner said during his pitch.
Hwang, with Bucket Technologies, pointed out enormous amounts of energy and pollution go into the mining and forging of coins that are often lost or thrown away, adding up to millions of lost dollars across the country. He said the software to solve that problem will be available for free to retailers by early next year.
The finalists said even if they lost the prize, the event brought a chance for valuable exposure and networking. The panel also offered advice for any would-be entrepreneurs, emphasizing the need to be bolder than what feels comfortable and to learn failure’s lessons.
“In business, you only have to be right once,” said John James, founder of Hayseed Ventures in Fayetteville.
Sofi Overton (from left), 12, with Wise Pocket Products, stands with her parents John and Brandy Overton on Thursday as she describes her socks and leggings with pockets to Tamica Stubblefield, with Cox Business, during the Get Started NW Arkansas event at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. Overton was one of five local startups that gave a quick pitch for their business in front of a panel of judges, each trying to win $11,500 in money and support.
Jason McTee (left), project coordinator with Bucket Technologies, describes Thursday the facilitating coinless cash transaction into a free digital piggy bank technology, to Mark Harmon, with Rid-A-Pest Inc.