Program set to create buzz in LR

The Little Rock Venture Center's accelerator program that begins Wednesday will stir up a flurry of activity in the area before it concludes in March.

More than 100 banking executives, regulators and industry experts will join the program as mentors and coaches to give feedback to accelerator participants. Some of those leaders are from Central Arkansas, but the great majority of them fly into town and stay for days or weeks to pitch in and lend advice and support.

The Independent Community Bankers of America is contributing $1 million for the second year in a row to support the accelerator, which will have 10 financial technology companies from as far away as Israel living and working in Little Rock for 12 weeks.

Tina Giorgio, an ICBA executive, will spend five weeks in town.

"I'll work directly with the companies to give feedback to help them build out their products," she said. "We also have community bank CEOs, regulators and bank-processing companies come through to provide feedback."

The accelerator is an intense learning environment and collaborative process. "It's really what is normally about an 18-month development process squeezed into three months," said Brian Bauer, managing director of the Venture Center's accelerator programs.

Those 12 weeks take nearly a full year to put together, with Venture Center employees and program supporters interviewing more than 200 companies to select the final 10 participants.

The selection process began a few months after the inaugural program ended in March 2019.

Bauer heads the Venture Center team that taps into a professional network to find ideal candidates. The team participates in several national and international conferences to find financial technology, or fintech, businesses that are developing digital products for community banks. Some companies are contacted and encouraged to apply while others call on the Venture Center to gauge interest.

The upcoming program focuses on key areas where community banks need digital support: marketing, fraud prevention, data analytics and mortgage lending. Finalists must have a product or service that solves problems in one of those areas.

"We make sure from the beginning of the recruiting process that we're bringing the right solutions to the table to address the problems the ICBA and their community of banks are trying to resolve," said Wayne Miller, executive director of the Venture Center.

ICBA represents about 5,000 community banks across the nation. The organization contributes $1 million to support the ThinkTech accelerator, including a $75,000 seed investment in each company selected to participate.

That gives the organization a meaningful role in the selection process. The 20-member ThinkTech selection committee includes 13 community bank executives and four members of the ICBA executive leadership team, including Giorgio. Three members are the Venture Center's staff.

Applicants are scrutinized and finalists are often asked to give live demonstrations of their offerings. They make a 10-minute pitch that is an investor-focused presentation.

Some are established companies with paying customers in the community banking sector. Four of this year's participants have annual recurring revenues of $1 million or more. Others are just getting out of the development stage and looking for that final boost to ignite a go-to-market strategy.

"It's a very thorough process," Bauer said. "We really look at the team as much as the product, their customer base and their financing. It's important to have leadership that is coachable and flexible enough to incorporate feedback."

Feedback, coaching and mentoring creates a strategic whirlwind that lasts throughout the three-month program.

Bankers, service providers and industry partners typically start the day with an overview from Venture Center personnel. They then delve into breakout sessions with the participating fintech entrepreneurs, pushing and prodding them to demonstrate the value of their offerings. That will segue into one-on-one sessions for an even deeper dive to discuss the issues the product was developed to address.

"The entire process is really a shortened feedback loop that is pretty intense," Bauer added.

While the accelerator's main goal is to provide products and services that either make money or save money for community banks, the program also offers an opportunity to showcase Central Arkansas and feature the area as a budding entrepreneurial ecosystem.

"One of the most important things that we do in the 12 weeks is give these companies exposure to Arkansas," Miller said. "We want to show them why Arkansas is a great place to start a business and to locate a business."

SundayMonday Business on 01/05/2020