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City works toward co-working space

Posted: December 14, 2013 - 7:50pm
University of Central Arkansas students collaborate in the Imagine Lab, a dedicated dream and do space for Innovation and Entrepreneur majors.
University of Central Arkansas students collaborate in the Imagine Lab, a dedicated dream and do space for Innovation and Entrepreneur majors.

The local startup scene has been talking about creating a co-working space downtown for years, but there are mixed opinions about how a co-working space will be right for Conway.

Dan Fisher, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the University of Central Arkansas, teaches classes out of the Imagine Lab, a controlled co-working space for students.

A lot of communities have tried co-working spaces, but they haven’t proved a lot of success, Fisher said, so there’s something missing from that ingredient.

Michael Hargis, interim dean of the UCA’s college of business and director of EPIC, Entrepreneurship, Public scholarship, Innovation and Community engagement, says a unifying theme and purpose is the key ingredient for a thriving co-working environment.

“The ones you see that are most successful aren’t just co-working spaces,” he said. “They’re not just places where people come and go to use wi-fi, they have structure, events and reasons behind them. They have another draw besides just the space.”

In July, Little Rock’s Argenta Arts District announced plans to build the Argenta Innovation Center, a place for entrepreneurial startups in digital technology and engineering experimentation to come together.

The center will consist of three “structures, events or reasons” including an after-school arts program, a collaborative space for entrepreneurs and a maker space open to the community with computers and a 3D printer.

Brad Lacy, president and CEO of Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corporation, said the CDC has looked into creating such a space, but says Conway needs to build a more established startup culture before building an innovation center.

It’s basic supply and demand, said Lee Watson, founder and CEO of Conway media agency startup Clarovista and Startup Arkansas Champion, and the demand will come from community events like BarCamp and pitch contests like Gone in 60 Seconds.

“The city and the chamber and these other players have been supportive of these activities, and that’s critical because activities like these events are the beginning of building a strong startup ecosystem,” he said.

Luke Irvin, a local iOS App developer, Startup Arkansas Champion and founder of Irvin Media, says the demand is already here, but people don’t have a place to come together.

Irvin estimates there are already growing numbers of high schoolers who are experimenting with tech on their own time, but have nowhere to hang out and collaborate.

“They could go to Starbucks but, it is often crowded with many people using the Internet simultaneously,” he said. “With Conway Corp downtown, we could get amazing Internet speeds downtown if we had a legit place that’s open for the high school and college crowd.”

Conway has revitalized it’s downtown, but what Conway doesn’t have are cool places that are open until 2 or 3 a.m., he said.

“I want to walk in and see couches full of high school and college kids building startups,” Irvin said. “We need that kind of culture here, and we need the city and the chamber to approve of this kind of business.”

David Hinson, CFO of Hendrix College, has organized some organic co-working environments that pop up around the city each month.

Two years ago, Hinson started Conway Geek Breakfast , with the intent of creating a monthly gathering where local technology-inclined people could gather over bacon and eggs - the idea being to help establish an informal, recurring community of like minded folks to network, exchange ideas and make connections.

The group meets at 7 a.m. at Bob’s Grill the last Thursday of each month.

“People from Acxiom can rub shoulders with folks like Luke [Irvin] and Lee [Watson],” Hinson said.

For those unable or unwilling to get up for breakfast, Tech Tuesdays were established as an evening option to network and meet local developers, creatives and designers, Hinson said.

Lee Watson, founder and CEO of Conway media agency startup Clarovista and Startup Arkansas Champion, says networking events are great, and it’s important for Conway to continue to build network density, but the community also needs to continue to learn new skills.

“They need to be challenged,” he said, “and they’re hungry for it too.”

(Staff writer Michelle Corbet can be reached by email at michelle.corbet@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1215. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)

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