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Winrock International

Pushing Through the Storm

Gre’Juana “G” Dennis, an adviser for Innovate Arkansas (IA), first began to notice the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in early February 2020. Business remained on track in the U.S., which had recorded its first documented COVID-19 case a couple weeks before, but the virus had already disrupted manufacturing plans for one IA client at the virus’s epicenter in China.

“It prompted me to go through my healthcare company portfolio and see who can be at risk from manufacturing disruption,” Dennis said. “It gave us so much insight to be proactive with our other companies. We started to tell them, ‘Get your manufacturing in order, and order as much as you can, because you may be down for a while.’”

Funded by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and administered by Winrock, IA provides business advisory services to help scale promising technology-based startups in Arkansas. Since that early brush with the virus, IA advisers have used their expertise to help guide the 188 companies they support through this unprecedented economic and public health emergency.

“It’s almost cliche for some people, but for us, one of the things that can distinguish and propels America’s economy are the people with dogged determination who don’t just do it for themselves, but do it because others depend on them,” IA Director David Sanders said. “That’s what we get to see, and one of the things our companies are doing, and they’re solving big problems in the process. That’s been the most heartening thing for me, seeing not only what they do, but their attitude.”

IA clients, like many other businesses, are facing headwinds in this difficult time. But some companies are also providing needed solutions to the challenges posed by the virus. One example is telemedicine technology company Innovator Health, which even before the crisis hit was helping one rural hospital turn its fortunes around. Since the start of the pandemic, Innovator’s technology has attracted increased attention from hospitals and venture capital firms who recognize its potential to protect doctors during the crisis by limiting personal exposure.

Another IA client that has stepped into the breach to help is Easy Bins, a northwest Arkansas grocery delivery service that targets customers who order groceries between 6 p.m. and midnight. Easy Bins saw its demand quadruple since February 2021, as well as the size of the orders. The company recently expanded into the southwest Arkansas town of Arkadelphia, and has plans soon to expand into neighboring states.

IA also began hosting a regular webcast to get the latest information to its entrepreneurs. On one webcast, Easy Bins CEO James Farmer said one of the biggest services rendered by IA during the pandemic has been peer support from fellow Arkansas tech entrepreneurs. “We’re all talking to each other right now. and that community is powerful … because you’ve got people who are going through similar things as you,” Farmer said. “Innovate Arkansas has been instrumental in plugging me and the company into that.”