November/December 2015 Issue
As head of several University of Arkansas
programs and initiatives aimed at connecting
investors and innovators, Cynthia Sides is helping
to create gold in the state of Arkansas.
Photography by Beth Hall
It’s not magic when entrepreneurs and innovators meet up, but it may be alchemy.
One such alchemist in Arkansas is Cynthia Sides, director of the Industry Generating New Ideas and Technology through Education, or IGNITE, Program at the University of Arkansas, which she was hired to start two years ago. She helps make the transformational connection between scientific and technical innovators and that special breed of business professional willing to take some risks in order to bring something innovative to the marketplace.
IGNITE is part of the Institute for Nanoscience and Engineering at UA, where Sides is also associate director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
“We link Arkansas companies with researchers at the university; we’re a clearinghouse for industry engagement,” Sides, 35, said. She also teaches a class on emerging technologies, where she brings companies into the classroom so they can talk with graduate students from many different scientific backgrounds.
“As part of this program, we brainstorm together solutions for company or industrywide programs, we work on projects for these companies to fund, and this all ties into entrepreneurship,” she said. “We’d like our students to come up with new technology for possible patents and companies.”
That’s just one part of what Sides does with IGNITE. Sides, who has bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and English and a doctorate in biochemisty, works with UA’s Carol Reeves, associate vice provost for entrepreneurship, on a new-business class and business-plan competitions for college students.
Jerry B. Adams of Conway, who is president and CEO of Arkansas Research Alliance, has known Sides for three years.
“Cynthia represents the next wave of entrepreneur leadership from the U of A campus,” he said. “IGNITE has the potential of connecting corporate Arkansas with talented students and professors in a way that is collaborative, with strong reciprocal benefits.”
Sides, a Fort Smith native, said, “It’s a new world for me, but it’s a great opportunity. A lot of our students were like me, and they weren’t aware of these entrepreneurial opportunities in the sciences.”
She explained that a very small percentage of doctorate holders go into tenure-line science positions at universities. Academic jobs aren’t there for all graduates.
“The reality is that a very small percentage actually pursue academia,” she said of science and tech students. “They need to know about these opportunities, especially in Arkansas, so they can stay in the state and work.”
This “two-way, dynamic” conversation is needed in the state, said Sides, and she’s happy to make it happen. “Sometimes companies don’t know the best point of contact at any university, and students don’t know how to engage with companies — and neither do faculty researchers,” she said.
IGNITE serves as a clearinghouse for those conversations, making them meaningful for the innovators, entrepreneurs and the state of Arkansas, which gets to keep those science and technology minds through commercial opportunities that boost the economy.
“We’re not just focused on Northwest Arkansas,” Sides said. She roams the state, not only building relationships with companies, but also with universities. “We want everyone to be able to find the right partner,” she said.
But she is clear about one thing, “We want Arkansans to think of the U of A as the center for research and development in the state. That’s one of the roles we fill in terms of teaching, research and economic development. IGNITE encompasses all three of those roles.”
Arkansas is benefiting from Sides’ work with IGNITE. The organization’s first sponsored project is a partnership between the UA chemical engineering department and Lycus Ltd., a chemical company in El Dorado. And, students in an emerging technologies class have developed a prototype in response to a challenge by HD Nursing in Benton, to name a few of the outcomes in the two years Sides has been engaged in her work.
“The projects are different in scope, all are commercially viable and have the potential to help the companies involved,” she said.
And all make an economic impact.
Her mentoring work with students developing technology-based companies includes supporting a startup working on an Alzheimer’s drug therapy. And IGNITE has helped to increase awareness in the science and engineering communities of entrepreneurship overall.
“With IGNITE, there is now a direct pipeline for students and faculty in all departments, especially science and engineering fields, to connect with entrepreneurship activities,” she said.
It’s not the big things that keeps Sides engaged, but the simple knowledge that she’s helped someone. “I like being a conduit for inspiration or change,” she said.
“I like being able to inspire the students to consider a variety of careers, and, also the potential the companies have to grow and expand. I like to see the needs and to help to try to fill those needs by linking people together.”
Adams said the challenge to a program of this kind is adequate support from the university and the companies with which it connects.
“It takes very hard work, passion and intelligence. Cynthia, her mentors and this program appear to have all of this,” Adams said.
And now Arkansans will reap the rewards as Sides and IGNITE help change ideas into entrepreneurial gold.