LITTLE ROCK — The Delta Regional Authority and Winrock International announced Wednesday the two are partnering on a $1 million initiative to fund startup costs for innovative entrepreneurships in the eight-state region served by DRA.
Called I-Fund, the public-private partnership program is intended to provide Delta-based entrepreneurs with training, mentoring and access to capital during the time when most enterprises are struggling to launch and find a path to market.
The I-Fund was launched earlier this year in a limited capacity providing support for five student-led startup businesses. Officials said expanding the capacity of the program will enable it to provide a structured, 12-week training program that will reach budding entrepreneurs throughout the eight-state Mississippi Delta region. In addition to training in the basics of starting a business and building a market, the program is to include mentoring from accomplished business professionals, as well as up to $50,000 in initial investment capital for each startup.
The expansion is intended to provide resources for 25 teams scattered throughout the eight state region.
At the heart of the program, officials said, lies the need to create quality jobs and the resulting increase in economic activity in the economically depressed Delta region.
"There is no more important task facing this region and the country than creating and maintaining high-skilled, good paying jobs," said Rodney Ferguson, CEO of Winrock International. “This project is really about jobs. It’s about creating jobs, expanding jobs, and actually improving the types of jobs and the livelihoods those jobs represent for people across the region.”
Jeff Stinson, director of entrepreneurship for the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, which is a part of Winrock International, said the initial launch of the program, which included eight student-led startup businesses participating from five universities, demonstrated the need for such a program.
“Those teams got $5,000 up front of investment, and then we put them through a very structured 12-week training program on how to both develop and document their proposed business model and more importantly, on how to vet all of the assumptions behind that business model in the marketplace,” Stinson said.
Each team was required to call on 60 potential customers during the 12-week program and vet their ideas with them in advance, Stinson said, with the goal at the end of the 12 weeks to assess the progress and decide if the startup was ready to launch or if more work was needed.
“Along the way, they have staged investments that go into the company prior to launching,” said Stinson, who added that out of the first cohort, half of the teams reached the end of the program and launched their startup companies successfully.
Moving forward, Stinson said potential participants will apply for acceptance to the program through a website that is currently under development. Those accepted will be placed into a cohort with other participants, all of whom will meet regularly via videoconference for training, encouragement, and assessment. Each participant is initially provided with $5,000 in startup capital.
Asked how that money, as well as additional funding, up to an additional $45,000 over the 12-week program, can be used, Stinson said there are a number of uses allowed, among those travel costs or prototype development.
“Ideally, whatever it takes for you to be able to develop your product or service or technology,” he said. “This is an early stage, proof-of-concept validation fund, so it’s the very earliest dollars, which are often the hardest for entrepreneurs to get.”
Chris Masingill, chairman of the DRA, called the proof-of-concept a natural fit for the public-private partnership he oversees.
"This strategic investment aligns with our core mission — creating jobs, building communities, and improving lives by making the Delta an innovative hub for the startup leaders of tomorrow," he said. "These investments will help make the Delta an innovative hub for the entrepreneurs and startups of tomorrow."