On Thursday at Crystal Bridges, in front of 250 or so national investors and Arkansas business leaders, the startups of the inaugural ARK Challenge turned it up to an 11.
Indeed, the 15 startups selected from a pool of more than 80 international applicants to launch the ARK…well, it’s pretty clear these guys go to 11.
Also hitting 11 last week on the night before Demo Day was Nat Gas Solutions, which won the G60 pitch contest held at the Iceberg coworking space in Fayetteville. G60 Iceberg served as sort of a warmup for the big show on Thursday. And the big news on Thursday was Gov. Mike Beebe’s surprise announcement that he had authorized the AEDC to fund a third winner.
Originally set up to offer up to $150,000 in optional funding to two “winners” as decided by a panel of judges at Demo Day, Beebe embodied the holiday spirit by playing Santa and tossing in another $150,000. The ARK judges, therefore, were empowered with selecting three winners instead of two.
We heard that Beebe was open to the possibility of eventually funding a third startup before the event, but his Demo Day announcement surprised everyone. His comments leading up to the announcement teased that something was up.
“All 15 ARK Challenge startups are winners, or else they wouldn’t be here,” he said. “All 15 are companies we think a lot of. All 15 are requested to make your home in Arkansas.”
And here’s his announcement: “I don’t want just two winners. I’ve asked our AEDC director to include a third company as a winner. We want all 15.”
After lunch (a working lunch for the judges, who made all the selections — the AEDC didn’t select the third winner), MineWhat and Btique were the first two winners while StackSearch was the choice to claim Beebe’s gift as the third winner. Each startup, by the way, had eight minutes to pitch.
Winners are expected to try and relocate to NWA permantly. StackSearch and Btique are based in Fayetteville already, but relocation won’t be quite as easy for and the founders of MineWhat, based in Bangalore, India. Still, MineWhat’s Pavan Kumar said they would try and do so.
Demo Day represented the end of a three-month adventure for the 15 participating startups. Startups cheered for each other (and gave ARK Challenge director Jeannette Balleza a standing O), marveled at each other’s ideas and presentations, and in the case of EpicPledge’s Weiting Tan, pitched for each other. Tan stepped in fairly last minute for Lincoln Vu of CayMay Education.
Despite the technical competition, it was a team effort, and the event carried a big-time feel. Folks, we’re just getting started. ARK Challenge 2 kicks off next spring.
Btique co-founder and Demo Day presenter Sara Beck called the experience “high-level, across the board.”
“I’m so proud just to be connected to this first ARK Challenge,” she said. “The opportunities presented today have been invaluable. The most valuable aspect was to be able to partner with the mentors, community leaders and all the brilliant minds involved in this.”