You might not know that Little Rock has a world-class center for early-stage companies and budding entrepreneurs. Even if you did, you might not realize that entity attracts companies from around the world to its accelerator.
But if you are one of those entrepreneurs or startups, particularly in the financial tech space, you know Little Rock’s Venture Center as the true north of your industry.
“On fintech, we’ve been able in three years to position this program and this place as really, the center of the universe when it comes to bank-enabling innovation,” said Lee Watson, Venture Center president and CEO. “If you’re a fintech person and you think your business is good for a bank, there’s no better place in the world to go to than Little Rock.”
“People are recognizing, in Chicago and New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles and others, that Little Rock is really starting to get that reputation. Private equity firms all over the country are calling and saying, ‘What’s going on in Little Rock?’ That hasn’t happened before.”
Helping to fuel these efforts is the Venture Center’s robust partnership with FIS, the world’s largest provider of financial technology solutions, which maintains a significant corporate presence in Little Rock. FIS is a major partner in the Venture Center’s annual FinTech Accelerator, a highly competitive program which attracts scores of early stage fintech applicants for one of the accelerator’s 10 seats.
“This year, we brought in about 281 applicants from around the globe. We had 47 countries apply, 26 states and six continents if you add it all up,” said Wayne Miller, managing director of the accelerator. “I joke that we didn’t get Antarctica, so we’ll have to work on our marketing.”
Each participant company receives $75,000, a relative pittance compared to the value of the guidance and mentorship that bombards them during the 12-week program. Top-ranking executives from FIS help shepherd companies through the various components of solidifying and advancing their respective companies to solve real-world problems faced by FIS’ multitude banking clients.
“One of our key selection criteria is whether or not these fintechs are creating solutions that are helpful to banks, in other words, bank-enabling,” Miller said. “We’re looking for solutions that are helping bankers, that are solving problems, that come in all shapes and sizes.”
“We have FIS’ involvement at very much the highest level of that organization. I think that’s really a key differentiator for us in terms of a top-down view of what we’re doing here.”
Watson is quick to point out the Venture Center is about more than the accelerator, successful as it is. The organization also supports a raft of other workshops and mentoring programs for its membership, roughly 32 percent of which are women, minorities and veterans. It’s pre-accelerator program is a particularly popular resource.
“It’s one of the first programs that we started and it’s very successful for first-time entrepreneurs that have an idea they’ve worked on a little bit and they’re trying to figure out if this thing can become a company or not,” Watson said. “Over 12 weeks, twice a year, we have entrepreneurs and operators who have built successful technology companies lead groups of entrepreneurs through the process of learning how to build a company.”
The Venture Center’s track record for direct economic development in its short history is impressive. Watson noted in three and a half years, the entity had helped launch companies that created more than 650 jobs and attracted $57 million in private equity investment. A comparable organization in Nashville, a city regularly touted as the tech startup mecca of the South, created 1000 jobs and attracted $100 million in private equity in five years.
Watson noted quality of life and business resources make smaller states like Arkansas very attractive to startups from elsewhere, as evidenced by several companies from the past two accelerators that moved their headquarters to the Natural State.
“The cost of living is very low, there are some really good producers of talent here and the environment, the lifestyle, the outdoors, are quite strong,” he said. “Another thing is, Arkansas is a big small town. You have access and support here that you can’t do anywhere else. You can get a CEO of any company in Arkansas to spend time with somebody; if we have a company that’s needing to raise money, we can put 50 investors in the room in a couple of weeks.”
“You have an incredible ability to access people here and people want to see other people be successful. You just don’t have that, even in places like Dallas, and certainly not New York or out west.”
The Venture Center
417 Main Street, Little Rock, AR 72201