“Our challenge in the years ahead will be to adapt our agriculture, our government services, our health care system and our industry to our changing world without forsaking our values. In other words, let’s embrace the energy of change and all the opportunity it brings without forsaking our foundation. … My top priority is to grow the economy of this state, to create jobs, and for Arkansas to enter a time of sustained economic power and influence.” — Gov. Asa Hutchinson, during his Inaugural Address, January 13, 2015
When Gov. Hutchinson summarizes his vision for Arkansas, time and time again, he comes back to economic development and innovation. While our state as a whole is arguably playing catchup in these areas, two Arkansas-born nonprofits have recently joined forces to create a dynamic model of innovation that is poised to have statewide — as well as national and global — impact.
In June, Winrock International, an international development organization that traces its roots to a charitable endeavor established by Winthrop Rockefeller, and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub announced they were combining. Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Innovation Hub, was named senior director of U.S. Programs at Winrock.
“Gov. Rockefeller wanted Arkansas to be a place where innovative solutions are developed and tested for the rest of the country and the world,” Sabin told me recently. “This is in line with that vision.
“Winrock is well established as an innovator in international development. The Hub has created new models of innovation that overlap and align with what Winrock is already doing.”
Sabin tells me that, as far as he knows, there is nothing exactly like the Innovation Hub anywhere. He said he traveled around the country to observe and learn from a variety of entrepreneur and maker spaces. For one, from the very beginning, the Innovation Hub has included programs not only for adults, but also young people, which is imperative from a talent-development perspective. But that’s not the only difference that stands out.
“The Innovation Hub is unique in that it combines maker, entrepreneur, art and design spaces … all in one place,” Sabin said. Additionally, “most of these (spaces around the country) are in the largest urban areas. We’re trying to bring this model into rural areas (in Arkansas).”
In fact, Sabin said he is excited about a project that Winrock will be unveiling soon in the Arkansas Delta. The venture, which has yet to be announced, will be one of the first opportunities to establish an example of how all the components of the Innovation Hub can be integrated into a set of solutions for rural communities. The effort, Sabin told me, is expected to “pilot new strategies for economic, workforce and rural development in the Delta.”
But the impact has the potential to resonate globally as part of Winrock’s international solutions. “Much of the work (of the Innovation Hub) is applicable to developing countries,” Sabin said, where there is a growing need “to do more with less.”
The growing potential of this new collaboration has already generated excitement. Gov. Hutchinson spoke at the press conference in June when Winrock announced it was combining with the Innovation Hub. Here’s what Hutchinson had to say that day:
“This will spur real economic and community growth in our state and signals that Arkansas’ impact on the world will continue to grow. I’m especially intrigued by what this could mean in terms of workforce training, manufacturing, agriculture and, especially, the Arkansas knowledge industry.”
Already the Innovation Hub can point to the success of HubX Life Sciences, the state’s first privately funded health care accelerator program. The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub partnered with Baptist Health, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and The Iron Yard to attract seven innovative health care start-ups. The benefits, however, stretch far beyond the health care sector.
“We’re creating new models (that can benefit multiple sectors),” Sabin told me. “If successful, we’re going to change the face of community development and economic development in a huge part of our state.”