501 Life Magazine | Are you the next 'Shark Tank' star?
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Are you the next 'Shark Tank' star?

by Jeff Standridge

Most of us at one time or another have had an idea about a new product or a massive improvement to an existing one, only to find that exact idea sitting on the shelf 10 years later. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, mobile applications have opened up the world and have created big opportunities to get creative.

The likelihood of becoming the next “Shark Tank” star, however, is pretty slim. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, approximately 35,000 entrepreneurs and inventors apply to the show, of which only about 157 (0.4 percent) are selected to pitch. Only 112 (0.3 percent) will actually make it on the air. While the chances of hitting it big on “Shark Tank” are very limited, the chances of getting a start-up off the ground and funded right here in the 501 have never been better.

What should aspiring entrepreneurs do if they believe they have a business inside them?  

If your start-up idea has anything to do with technology or health care, your first stop should be Innovate Arkansas (InnovateArkansas.org), jointly funded by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and WinRock International. Its primary goals are to encourage technology-enabled innovation and to create jobs in Arkansas.

The Innovate Arkansas team works with business founders and inventors, providing a variety of technical, financial and intellectual property development services to assist with the start-up and financial support needs required to make the move to becoming commercially viable enterprises. The application process is simple, and businesses must only meet two basic requirements to become an Innovate Arkansas client. First, the client must be located in Arkansas. Second, the company created must provide Arkansas jobs with wage bases of at least 150 percent of the current Arkansas individual per capital income.

Start-up Junkie Consulting (StartupJunkieConsulting.com) is another, very prolific organization focused on building lasting venture communities. It does this through programs and practices aimed at talent development, retention and attraction and capital formation. Virtually everything happening in Arkansas relative to start-up community building, certainly in Northwest and Central Arkansas, have the thumbprint of Jeff Amerine and Start-up Junkie Consulting. And one thing that makes them so attractive to a start-up entrepreneur is they “pay it forward,” meaning their services are completely free to start-up and small business clients.

Several other organizations offering various programs and services for start-up entrepreneurs in the 501 include the InnovationHub (ArHub.org), the Arkansas Venture Center (VentureCenter.co) and the Ark Challenge (ArkChallenge.org).  

Once an entrepreneur has a plan, and perhaps even a product, outside funding often becomes necessary. In the past, many good ideas remained just that — ideas — primarily because the inventor or entrepreneur had no access to funding or didn’t know how to access it.

A number of “early-stage” or “seed” funds have been launched in the past six or seven years that make funding extremely accessible to solid entrepreneurs with strong business concepts.   

Cadron Creek Capital (CadronCreekCapital.com) is one of the newest funds launched this spring with a deliberate focus on leveraging the experience and expertise of its members to help their portfolio companies grow. Cadron Creek’s greatest interest is in early-stage Arkansas-based companies with innovative products or services and the potential for rapid growth in a sizable market. The Fund connects with entrepreneurs who have product and/or process vision, market insight, focused execution and dogged ambition.  

Cadron Creek Capital, by design, is following the lead of other Arkansas-based venture funds like Gravity Ventures (GravityVentures.com), Tonic Fund (StartupJunkieConsulting.com), Hayseed Ventures (hayseedventures.com), Xcelerate Capital (xceleratecapital.com) and Fund for Arkansas’ Future (ArkansasFund.com).

One other group of seed-stage investors is the Natural State Angel Association (NSAA) with more than 300 accredited investors who meet over dinner every other month in Northwest Arkansas. These investors hear pitches from various companies seeking investment, provide feedback to the presenting companies and then interested investors collaborate in deals. From 2011-15, NSAA members have invested more than $2 million in early-stage ventures.

The good thing about this “network” of start-up resources in Arkansas is that they all work together and communicate often. If you have an idea or a new start-up company, reaching out directly to Innovate Arkansas or Start-up Junkie Consulting can help you get on the right path to mentoring and funding.  

One local example of an idea flourishing into a company is 501’s very own Spencer Jones. A graduate of Conway High and the University of Arkansas’ Eleanor Mann School of Nursing, Spencer had an idea about how to make a hospital stay more “tolerable” for the patient and more cost-effective for the health care facility. Working as a Registered Nurse, Spencer observed that, particularly in diabetics, an IV would be inserted into the arm, and blood would be drawn repeatedly through direct needle sticks into other areas or repeated finger pricks to check blood glucose and other blood levels. So, Spencer invented the BVAD (bifurcated venous access device) which allows blood to be drawn from the same access point as the IV, requiring only a single needle stick. The unique design allows for two separate channels — one to deliver the IV fluids and medications and one to draw uncontaminated blood — all from one IV access point.

Spencer was accepted into the ArkChallenge last year and at the end of the 14-week program, was awarded the $150,000 grand prize at the demo day event. Since that time, Spencer has invented SafeBreak, a device to prevent the accidental dislodgment of peripheral IV lines and more expensive and invasive central lines (an approximately $1 billion problem in the U.S. alone).

With the early success of both of these medical devices, Spencer has formed and serves as CEO of LineGard Med, a company he founded to bring these products to market. Those are pretty impressive results for any aspiring entrepreneur, even more so for a 24-year-old Registered Nurse only a couple of years out of nursing school.  

While making it on an episode of “Shark Tank” might be very difficult, finding a quality start-up mentor and early-stage funding have never been more accessible to aspiring entrepreneurs in the 501. Do you have a business inside you? Why not make a few calls and see?