This month in Arkansas is all about tech. Gov. Asa Hutchinson proclaimed it Techtober, and there’s a range of events on the calendar to help celebrate the state’s tech heritage as well as showcase the latest and greatest innovations developed in Arkansas. Founded last year, Techtober is a collaboration among Arkansas startups, schools and entrepreneurial supporters, including Innovate Arkansas, The Venture Center, even the Boy Scouts of America. We got in touch with John Chamberlin, the “head pumpkin-bot” behind Techtober, to find out more about what’s in store this month.
Who’s benefitting from Techtober? The entrepreneurs involved in Arkansas tech? The support organizations that support them? The general public? Investors interested in what’s going on in the state?
We think all of the above. First of all, it’s a fun way to look at, and link, all that is going on. It helps us feel that we are part of something larger and that others are filling holes in the ecosystem. It brings together the supporters and social connections of each organization into a larger collective effort. The result should be encouraging to entrepreneurs and investors and help advance the supporting organizations.
The greatest long-term result will be increased consciousness of the role of technology and entrepreneurship in Arkansas: past, present and future.
How interested is the general public in tech in Arkansas? And what purpose does it serve to better educate them?
Arkansas has many people who are passionate about entrepreneurship, technology and research commercialization, but not enough. Without better and broader understanding we will miss opportunities, we will lack appropriate policies. With broader awareness of the options, our children will have greater choice in career and better economic prospects.
One example of success through understanding and forceful action is the Governor’s Computer Science Initiative and Computer Science Task Force. The private side of this began over a decade ago with the Arkansas STEM Coalition and others. Previous policy changes helped fill gaps in STEM teachers and institutions supporting project-based learning (UTeach, the East Initiative and Project Lead the Way, for examples). Gov. Hutchinson added strong political leadership and Arkansas became the first in the nation to have computer science classes in all high schools.
Are there a few events you could point to that are unique to Arkansas’ tech sector?
There are so many unique events: This is the third year of the Computer Science Leadership Summit and that is strongly linked to both the Arkansas STEM Coalition and the Governor’s computer science efforts. There is the Life Sciences Summit, building on research at the universities, particularly UAMS, and the startups associated with that research. Arkansas is not a huge name in Life Sciences, but we are the home of both NCTR, the only FDA lab outside the DC area, and MCBIOS, the third largest bioinformatics association. I like the fun events of the Arkansas Science Festival and the EAST Night Out events around the state where students show off projects that use technology to serve their communities. I also admire the effort and great results of Made by Few and Little Rock Tech Fest. Then there are the many events sponsored by the Venture Center, the Innovation Hub and Startup Junkie.
How would you describe Arkansas’ tech sector?
I think the overall theme of technology in Arkansas is solving real problems. This has been true since the 1950s and 1960s, for example in computing and biological science. The poultry industry grew through use of technologies such as optimal feed formulation and university research in nutrition and genetics. Trucking is big and one of the largest players, J.B. Hunt, got a boost from Hunt’s invention of the rice hull bailer to solve problems with chicken litter.
If you think of Financial Technology, Systematics (later Alltel and now FIS) began in Central Arkansas in 1968. Arkansas Systems (later ArkSys and now Euronet Software Services) began in 1975. Those companies have financial technology clients in over 70 countries. Acxiom also has many financial clients.
What about drawbacks of tech in Arkansas? What still needs work in order to make it a robust industry for the state?
There is a growing ecosystem, with gaps. Various people are working to fill some of those. You can see the pathway from elementary school to university computer science and project-based learning from groups like EAST and the computer science initiative. We start to see research commercialization as one path to startups with companies like VIC Technology Venture Development, which began in Fayetteville on the university campus and now has branches on both coasts.
But perhaps the largest gap is communication. Communities, parents, students and businesses all could better understand how their futures are linked to the success of technology and entrepreneurship in the state.