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Business support plans get $50,000

SBA cash to fund student programs by Andrew Moreau | October 12, 2021 at 1:59 a.m.

Two Arkansas entrepreneurial support organizations each have been awarded $50,000 through a competitive grant program offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The Conductor of Conway and the Science Venture Studio in Fayetteville both won grants through the SBA's growth accelerator fund competition, which provides financial assistance to promote research and development effort supporting entrepreneurs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors.

The SBA money will be used to expand the health sciences entrepreneurship boot camp the Conductor runs in partnership with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and BioVentures, a UAMS initiative that promotes the state's biotechnology industry. The health sciences boot camp, which has trained four cohorts, is a week-long initiative aimed at undergraduate students in Arkansas.

Federal money will attract students from other states and expand the cohort by nearly 60%, allowing for upwards of 35 participants when the next program begins in May, according to Grace Rains, executive director of the organization.

"The grant will allow us to take that program and bolster it by attracting more students and expanding outside of Arkansas," Rains said Monday.

Though the program is free to participants, Rains noted SBA funds could be used to help supplement costs for students who need aid. "We also hope to provide some stipend money to make it easier for students to attend the camp," she said. "We hopefully will be able to reach some students we haven't been able to attract in the past."

The five-day health services camp is held on the University of Central Arkansas campus and guides students through an entrepreneurial process that includes starting and funding a health sciences venture with their peers.

In Northwest Arkansas, the Science Venture Studio will launch a 16-week "Empower" initiative focused on female college students across the state. Science Venture was formed just more than a year ago to provide technical assistance and mentoring to regional entrepreneurs and startups focused on innovative research and technology.

Science Venture Studio identifies, recruits and vets early-stage companies and technology eligible for federal funding and it strives to enhance research and commercialization efforts aligned to the needs of the regional industry.

SBA funds will be used to launch an accelerator program in January. "We are starting a new effort primarily to reach women in STEM fields," said Katie Thompson, director of the venture studio in Fayetteville. "We want to be able to reach them early in their research efforts and provide the mentoring and technical resources they will need to be successful."

The accelerator will help participants explore potential commercial applications for their research. "Some of these may or may not have commercial potential but we want to set up a process to help them find out what applications there may be and the customers they might want to reach," Thompson said. "We want to focus on women because we recognize there is a gap in resources available to them, especially with programs that can work with them one-on-one to realize their potential."

Commerce Secretary Mike Preston commended the organizations for their efforts.

"Both programs are instrumental in helping underrepresented STEM entrepreneurs navigate the challenges in starting new businesses," Preston said Monday in a statement. "Arkansas has almost a quarter of a million small businesses employing almost 50% of the state's labor force. As a result, it is imperative that we do whatever we can to support entrepreneurs and help them connect with mentors and funding."

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