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Identifying gaps in support services for northeast Arkansas entrepreneurs wasn't difficult for the folks responsible for establishing the East Arkansas Regional Innovation System.

Filling the gaps, they believe, will be just as easy as identifying them.

Funded through a $500,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration and $928,112 in matching funds from a number of regional partners, the East Arkansas Regional Innovation System is to open in Jonesboro in May. Money for the project will help startups in the region grow beyond the idea stage.

The grant -- funded through the federal government's i6 program -- was awarded after the Delta Center for Economic Development at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro established that there was not only a need for supporting entrepreneurs in the region, but more than enough infrastructure in place to provide those services across a five-county region.

"There are currently significant gaps in support services to inventors and entrepreneurs in East Arkansas -- the EARIS [East Arkansas Regional Innovation System] project is more than a place or one single service," Heather Walker-Clark, deputy director of the Delta Center, wrote in an email. "EARIS is a system of care for inventors and entrepreneurs and it is a seamless system lacking no service needed for entrepreneurs to be successful."

Jonesboro will be the center of the project. An innovation hub, which will be supported by the innovation hub in North Little Rock, will be located downtown in the Craighead County city of 71,000 people. Like its central Arkansas counterpart, the innovation hub will include a co-working space for local entrepreneurs and a proof-of-concept center where ideas can be tested.

Centers for commercializing ideas will be located on the ASU campus in Jonesboro and at the city's industrial park. Jonesboro campus projects will focus on food technology, lab work and business incubation, while the industrial park center, in a partnership with ASU-Newport, will focus on manufacturing.

Pop-up centers will rotate between specific communities in the Delta. Lawrence, Mississippi, St. Francis and Crittenden counties will participate in the program and have access to the traveling services offered through the Delta Center, Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Manufacturing Solutions and ASU's Small Business Technology Development Center.

In-kind support of $886,967 is to come from the commission's Manufacturing Solutions, Ritter Communications, rural communities in the region and ASU. The Delta Regional Authority is another potential partner. Ritter Communications, for example, is covering the information-technology-related expense for three years at a value of $267,000.

Market research, strategic and sustainability planning, grant writing, meeting space and access to funding are among the services that will be offered by other partners to participating entrepreneurs.

Research from Dun and Bradstreet included in the grant application notes that 33 percent of new businesses fail within the first six months. Within two years at least 50 percent have folded, and that number is 75 percent by the third year.

The list of reasons for those failures is long.

"Poor management, insufficient capital, lack of planning, lack of uniqueness and value, lack of operating goals and objectives, failure to measure goals and objectives, failure to pay attention to cash flow, failure to understand the industry and target market/customer, poor or minimal marketing, underestimation of competition, lack of cost competitiveness, and lack of attention to accounts receivable and inventory," are the primary culprits, the grant notes.

In establishing the East Arkansas Regional Innovation System, organizers see an opportunity to reduce those obstacles. The East Arkansas Regional Innovation System also exists to help identify areas of need for innovation that can be unique to the region, which for years thrived because of agriculture.

Businesses using the center will pay monthly fees to help cover costs of equipment, training and other resources. It's a model similar to the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, which uses grant funding for only 15 percent of its operation.

The East Arkansas Regional Innovation System was one of 16 grants given through the i6 program. Each of those grants totaled $500,000.

"This project matters because entrepreneurship and innovation is what drives the U.S. economy more than any other entity or group," Walker-Clark wrote, later adding, "This is the ONLY system of care model in the state."

If you have a tip, call Chris Bahn at (479) 365-2972 or email him at cbahn@nwaonline.com.

SundayMonday Business on 03/06/2016

Print Headline: Program to fill in gaps on assisting northeast Arkansas entrepreneurs

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