This summer, early-stage startups will have the opportunity to put their ideas to the test through a program designed to develop business models and promote entrepreneurship.
Winrock International has opened application for the Summer 2019 cohort of the AR Innovation Fund (I-Fund). The deadline to apply for the program is Monday, May 20.
The I-Fund, which is modeled after the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps, provides entrepreneurial training, mentoring and funding for Arkansas startups that are in the early stages of development.
Kicking off on June 8, the program will be 10-weeks long and consist of instruction and customer discovery interviews. The kick-off event, held June 8-9, will require all of the teams’ presence, but the remaining events – training session, mentor meetings and more – will be virtual. Program officials are also planning to have events that bring the participants together occasionally during the course of the program
The I-Fund is limited to Arkansas companies and to startups that are early-stage and needing validation. Teams that are still in the idea phase and startups that are pre-revenue are eligible to apply.
According to I-Fund Program Officer Amy Hopper, I-Fund participants will learn from experts in a broad range of fields, from corporate law to marketing to finance. According to Hopper, the program strives to bring in subject matter experts who can discuss issues that will impact the entrepreneurs but that they might not have considered.
“We bring in people to talk about marketing and branding and also raising capital because, that’s one of the most difficult things about being an entrepreneur, especially in the heartland, which is what we’re trying to change,” Hopper says.
The business instructors will focus on the I-Fund cohort’s ideas. Using a hypothesis-driven curriculum, the instructors and participants will determine the value and necessity of each company’s idea.
“Our instructors are well versed in lean startup methodology and understand how to prove out a business model. We spend a lot of time on the problem. We have had companies completely scrap their business model because of it,” Hopper says. “It’s disappointing, but think about all the time and money they’ve saved by doing this in 10 weeks rather than spending two years hacking on it and spending a lot of money or the bank’s money.”
One of the major benefits of the I-Fund is the mentorship each participant receives. Each team has a dedicated mentor assigned to them, according to Hopper. Many mentors have started businesses themselves and can provide insight to the entrepreneurs from their own experiences.
“I would say the biggest resource that we provide, beyond just the training, is we match every single company with a dedicated mentor. Many have started their own company. They’ve been there, they know what it’s like and they provide insight where we can’t,” she says.
The mentors also accompany the startups to discovery interviews where the I-Fund participants can pitch their ideas and receive feedback. These meetings are a vital part of determining the utility of each team’s idea.
There are several requirements for teams that are applying for the I-Fund. One of the requirements is that each team must have at least two team members. Three members is preferred, but single-founder companies are ineligible. This requirement is in place to enable teams to clearly assess how clients and investors are responding to their ideas during discovery interviews.
“Entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic people and they sometimes can hear what they want to hear,” Hopper says “And so by having two people at customer discovery, when they leave that they can really talk about what happened in there. Was the customer actually optimistic about what they’re doing or was there hesitation?”
The companies that apply must have scalability. Hopper says the I-Fund is looking for companies that are not limited to a set number of people they can hire and can continue to create jobs.
“We really want to create companies that will employ lots of people in an area. If there’s IP, that’s a telltale sign that it would be a good fit,” she says.
Applying to the I-Fund, Hopper says, is a no-brainer. “There is no downside to applying. You don’t have to have taken any steps in pursuing your idea yet. It’s just an idea, and everything we provide is free,” she says. “If you’re willing to put in the effort, I think that you can get a lot out of the I-Fund.”
To apply for the AR I-Fund program, click here.
The deadline to apply is Monday, May 20.