InnovatAR: Local healthcare accelerator aims for lasting economic impact

February 26 - March 4, 2018

By Becca Bona


From both an economic and industry standpoint, Central Arkansas is ripe for healthcare startup companies to call home. In 2016, in conjunction with Baptist Health and Arkansas Blue Cross & Shield, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub conducted a healthcare accelerator program called HubX-LifeSciences, designed to support the medical industry and provide economic growth surrounding offshoot companies.


Seven high potential early stage healthcare companies were brought to Little Rock to take part in this intensive, three-month program.


Each received a $50k investment up-front, which was 100 percent privately funded. Participating companies had access to specialty programming – like HIPPA compliance forms and FDA regulatory approval firms, among others – that was meant to try to advance their development as a company.


“We also developed individual work plans with them,” says Jeff Stinson, now a program director with Health InnovatAR, who was then involved as a HubX-LifeSciences facilitator. “It was a very successful program.”


Of the seven companies, all were from outside the state of Arkansas, and two were from outside the United States, which unfortunately minimized the economic reach of the program. “The challenge, though, was that at the end of the program, all seven of those companies went back home,” Stinson explains.


This year, the program is back, although quite a few changes have been made. The healthcare accelerator is made possible by Innovate Arkansas, a state-funded initiative that helps scale promising Arkansas technology ventures. Funded by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and administered by Winrock International, Innovate Arkansas assists technology entrepreneurs in turning startup companies into viable commercial enterprises.


Warwick Sabin, now Senior Director of U.S. Programs at Winrock International, has made entrepreneurial development a priority since his former involvement with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. Sabin believes this type of development is key for attracting and retaining talent in Central Arkansas.


“Clearly, other metropolitan areas are doing an excellent job of creating an environment where entrepreneurs can thrive, and Central Arkansas needs to be able to compete in that arena,” he says.


To Sabin, a healthcare accelerator makes sense in Central Arkansas, due largely to the existing infrastructure.


“Not only do we have major healthcare institutions like UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Heart Hospital, Baptist, and St. Vincent’s that are huge employers, but we also have a lot of research activity and other smaller businesses and suppliers that feed into that larger ecosystem,” he says. “It only makes sense for us to build off of what we have and try to grow more to make Central Arkansas a true center of innovation in that industry.”


Health InnovatAR 2018


This year, the accelerator will bring in six companies, three of which already have Arkansas ties and three from outside the state that fall into four categories – Medical devices, Healthcare IT, Healthcare services, and Healthcare diagnostics. Similar to the 2016 program, the companies will receive a $50k up-front investment as part of their participation.


The shift to target local companies will hopefully affect the state at large, as Stinson says, “When you invest in Arkansas-based businesses they’re more likely to stay here, establish themselves, grow, and create jobs.”


The search for participating companies is currently ongoing, with an approaching deadline of March 31, 2018.


“We have a worldwide recruiting effort underway right now to attract as many applications to the program as we can,” says Stinson. “Of course, it will be a competitive application process – we will review all the applications that come in.”


The program, which will begin on June 1, 2018, has been extended from three to six months. New medical partners will also participate this go-round – the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), BioVentures, and the Arkansas Heart Hospital.


“They are among the most innovative healthcare companies in our state, due to their emphasis on research, innovation, and new technologies. Because of that, we think they’re a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do,” Stinson explains.


Teaming up: UAMS & The Arkansas Heart Hospital


Nancy Gray, President of BioVentures, an organization housed within UAMS, was involved in the 2016 Health InnovatAR program as a mentor.


Not originally from Arkansas, Gray has 30 years in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries under her belt, and understands the need for entrepreneurial development in the healthcare industry at large in Central Arkansas.


“When I first arrived in my position three years ago there really wasn’t a set of programs to support entrepreneurship in the healthcare space. There were great strides being made in other industries, but there are unique aspects to healthcare because of the regulatory environment,” she says.


Responsible for commercializing research and technology developed at UAMS through her work at BioVentures, Gray is familiar with dealing with patents, copyright materials, and trademarks. BioVentures also runs a startup incubator with labs and offices in which UAMS spin-off companies can rent space and further their work.


Through her ties to the University, Gray can see a loss of talent when it comes to research in healthcare, because even though Central Arkansas has a strong industry, the options are limited.


“We don’t have existing companies in things like pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, or the biotech industry – so what happens if we have young graduates with a four-year degree through the Ph.D. level that want to pursue a job in the industry?” she asks, before providing the answer – “They have to leave the state.”


Gray anticipates working closely with the companies that will participate in Health InnovatAR 2018, especially if they need lab space. She also feels she can give sound advice on landmarks a startup company might not be aware of, as she says, “I have a lot more I can offer in terms of advice to fundraising in this space and the different milestones you need to achieve to be able to secure funding.”


Jennifer Styron, Chief Financial Officer at the Arkansas Heart Hospital, works with Arkansas Heart Hospital’s business intelligence team to capture data in a meaningful way for the organization and uses it to improve quality and cost in healthcare.


The Arkansas Heart Hospital performs the third highest volume in coronary interventions in the United States, only behind two hospitals in New York, making them integrated in the industry not only locally, but nationally.


“We’re well known in the industry. We do tremendous volume, and because of that, buy a lot of supplies,” says Styron. “I can easily pick up the phone and call the executive of one of many global companies and make connections. Those are relationships that we have and will use in this program.”


By participating in the accelerator, companies will have access to this extensive network which would otherwise be nearly impossible to reach.


Styron is a firm believer that Central Arkansas is ripe for becoming an even stronger healthcare center – with a focus on startups – because she knows the infrastructure is already there.


“I think this program is another opportunity for Arkansas Heart Hospital to be actively involved in our community and keep our culture of entrepreneurship alive here,” she says.


Building a community of entrepreneurs


While the accelerator may seem like something outside of the public reach, there is an opportunity to get involved.


“When our program starts on June 1, we will have a public reception where all of our companies will present, and the public at large will have a chance to get to know these companies,” says Stinson. In fact, he says this interaction is greatly encouraged, as he continues, “If there’s a way you can help them or they can help you, we think that’s perfect.”


In terms of progress for Central Arkansas entrepreneurship as a whole, this tweaked model seems promising for growth, although there is still more to do.


“We need to look at our strengths here in Central Arkansas in terms of industry sectors, where we’ve built quite a bit of capacity, and try to use that to idolize more startup activity,” says Sabin.


“Healthcare is an obvious sector for Central Arkansas, but there are other industries we can look to, as well, and the more we do this, the more people will become accustomed to investing and cultivating a startup culture in our community.”


For more information on the Health InnovatAR program visit:  




Nancy Gray, Ph.D., director of BioVentures, shows off the common lab at BioVentures that has been used at different times by several of the startup companies there. (Courtesy of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/Johnpaul Jones)