IN THE NEWS: Gov. Hutchinson pitches Arkansas to tech startups

This article was written by Wesley Brown and originally appeared in Talk Business & Politics.

As 10 out-of-state entrepreneurs gave presentations to attract new investors to their startup firms on Wednesday (July 26) at the Clinton President Library, Gov. Asa Hutchinson made a “pitch” of his own for those executives to consider relocating and building their companies in Arkansas.

The governor made his pitch at a packed Demo Day gathering of the Little Rock Venture Center’s 2017 Fintech Accelerator program at the presidential library, where select startups came to the end of their intensive 12-week program for early stage companies looking to breakout in the fast-growing financial services industry.

“I am here to welcome you and thank each of you for being here exposed to the great state of Arkansas over the last few weeks. I got to know some of those that are here and their companies and they are incredible people and incredible talent from across the globe,” Hutchinson told a standing-room only crowd at the Clinton Library’s Great Hall overlooking downtown Little Rock.

After engaging the business-friendly crowd with brief details from his standard economic development speech about the state’s job growth, foreign investment, low unemployment, entrepreneurial spirit and diversified economy, Hutchinson said the state is also developing new ways to attract high-paying, technology-related firms to Arkansas.

“In terms of technology, what does it take for a technology company to be located somewhere?” Hutchinson asked rhetorically. “One, you need to have a quality of life that millennials like. We are developing that in this state and investing in biking trails and our outdoor sports and our downtown living. All of this attracts (millennials) and is a great quality of life.”

The Republican governor also said Arkansas policymakers, legislators and business leaders are working together to bring more venture capital to the state and bolster the state’s talent pool and keep high-skilled, professional workers from leaving state. In recalling a trip he and Arkansas Economic Development Commission Director Mike Preston made to West Coast to recruit technology jobs to Arkansas, Hutchinson said he learned the state needs to work harder to develop its own talent and create a better environment for tech startups to take root locally.

“We wanted to tell Silicon Valley the great stuff that we were doing in Arkansas, but it didn’t take us long to realize that there was only one thing they wanted from us – and that is our talent,” he said. “So, we left there and said we are going to have to develop our own technology companies here and we are doing that.”

Hutchinson received robust applause from the roomful of business leaders, financial and banking executives, venture capitalist and investors, when he shared one of his favorite stories about his administration’s executive mandate to require computer coding training for all high school students in Arkansas.

“Arkansas is leading the nation in computer science education,” he said.

Hutchinson ended his brief speech by reminding the out-of-state startup executives of the state’s rich entrepreneurial history, citing top corporations in the state’s banking, private investment, retail, manufacturing, telecom, data analytics, trucking and food industry that started as small ventures.

“We want to be helpful and Mike Preston is here to sign a contract with you. We want you to do business here,” Hutchinson said jokingly. “Some of you are going back to your home area, and we want you to be a success in your new technology business, and we want you to expand and when you expand – come back to Arkansas.”

Before Hutchinson’s speech, founders for the two international and eight U.S. teams at the Demo Day event gave 15-minute “pitches” to more than 350 investors, financial services executives and community leaders in the crowd, hoping to close new venture capital deals before many of the startup executives return to their out-of-state headquarters.

This year, according to Venture Center President and CEO Lee Watson, the 2017 program received 295 applications from startup financial technology firms across the U.S. and 39 other countries.

Companies from the 2016 accelerator cohort have gained impressive traction since last year, including three Series A capital raises and an endorsement American Banker Association. Six of the ten companies were selected for the High Potential (HiPo) Network by FIS, five have been accepted to other highly competitive programs and all 10 have raised additional capital post-program. Two of those companies, LumoXchange and Mortgage Peer Network, have moved their operations to Little Rock. Another 2016 participant, St. Louis-based PFITR, is in the process of relocating to central Arkansas.

The chosen companies were each are given $50,000, with a potential to earn an additional $100,000 to $300,000. Over the past 12 weeks, they have participated in a “boot camp” mentoring and training program from Jacksonville-based financial services giant FIS and The Venture Center.

FIS CEO Gary Norcross, who introduced Gov. Hutchinson, explained to the crowd why it was important for the Fortune 500 company to back the Arkansas program for early stage financial services firm. Formerly known as Fidelity National Information Services and based in Little Rock, FIS’ first growth spurt began in 2003 when it purchased Alltel’s information services business for $1.05 billion before relocating to northeast Florida.

“We started as a company here in 1968 and it means a lot for us to come home and be a part of all the wonderful things that are going on in this state,” said Norcross, whose company employs more than 55,000 people worldwide and has annual revenues approaching $10 billion.

The Demo Day event, which ended Wednesday with reception at the Clinton Library and a VIP dinner for the startup company founders and guest wraps up the 12-week Fintech mentoring program. This year’s participants included eGiftify of London, England and Little Rock, Alpharank of San Francisco, Alto IRA of Nashville, Tenn., Bond.ai of New York City, Hedge Hog of Detroit, HC Mobile Apps of Ann Arbor, Mich., Omnetrium of Chicago, Quotanda of Mexico City, WalletFi of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Xplanr of New York City.