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Winrock International

Pushing Through the Storm

Innovate Arkansas guides businesses through the COVID-19 economic crisis

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. Business remained on track in the United States, 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 International, 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 more than 130 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,” Innovate Arkansas 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. In recent weeks, Innovator’s technology has attracted attention from hospitals and venture capital firms who recognize its potential to protect doctors during the crisis by limiting personal exposure.

“The most exciting thing is that everyone else is now recognizing what we’ve recognized for a long time about the difference Innovator’s technology can make,” Sanders said.

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 six p.m. and midnight. With grocery pickup and delivery appointments hard to come by at large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kroger, Easy Bins has seen its demand quadruple since February, 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.

“It’s good business for us, but we’re actually really helping people who are having a hard time getting into town,” Easy Bins CEO James Farmer said.

IA also began hosting a regular webcast to get the latest information to its entrepreneurs. The webcast has featured guests such as Congressman French Hill, who spoke about provisions to help small businesses in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress in late March.

“There are a lot of things in here that are geared towards preserving cash for businesses to get through this next two months of the health crisis washing through the economy,” Hill said in the webcast.

On another IA webcast, Easy Bins CEO James Farmer said that one of the biggest services rendered by IA during this time is peer support from fellow Arkansas tech entrepreneurs. The network established during IA’s monthly CEO forums has been a major help, Farmer said.

“We’re all talking to each other right now. and that community is powerful, because one, you get tips and tricks,” he said. “But it’s also kind of kindred spirits, because you’ve got people who are going through similar things as you. And so that help and that community, you’ve got to get that. Innovate Arkansas has been instrumental in plugging me and the company into that.”

Asked for one piece of advice he would give fellow entrepreneurs who feel overwhelmed right now, Farmer said, “You’ve got to breathe.”

“This is a really tough time,” he said. “That doesn’t have to be bad. Just let it be tough. The people that lose are the people who stop moving. You don’t have to make all the right steps. That’s not what’s required right now. You just have to keep moving forward. And that takes a lot of strength and a lot of courage.”

For Dennis, as difficult as it’s been to watch the effects of the crisis on businesses, she has also been inspired.

“This is people’s livelihoods, it’s life and death, and you’ve got entrepreneurs who have put their blood, sweat and tears — and it could all come tumbling down,” she said. “I’ve been inspired by the range of emotion. From ‘this is really tough,’ to ‘how am I gonna pivot?’ I’m watching these guys create and be innovators in a time of massive distress, and that is what entrepreneurship really is — the people who see opportunities in the eye of the storm. They aren’t burying their heads in the sand, they’re waking up every day trying to come up with solutions for the future. And that part is really cool.”

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