Star­tups win thou­sands at event

Com­pe­ti­tion show­cases, sup­ports promis­ing en­trepreneurs

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAN HOLTMEYER

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

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.

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