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At Northwest Arkansas business event, budding entrepreneurs pitch ideas, build companies

When Canon Reeves’ 10-year-old sister asked him recently to help her build a robot, the University of Arkansas computer science major thought it would be a simple, fun sibling project.

He was wrong. Not only was it difficult to find an affordable robotics kit marketed for middle schoolers, even the expensive ones seemed too boring to bother with – leaving little room for builders to indulge their creativity and explore the potential for modifications.

“I looked around and tried to find a kit that was affordable, and I couldn’t find any that would teach her what I thought would be adequate,” says Canon, 19. “It inspired me to ask, ‘If I was going to teach her, how would I do it? And how would I teach other kids as well?’”

That question turned into an idea. And that idea has now turned into a company: MORE Technologies, a Fayetteville, Arkansas-based startup selling “affordable robots for every kid.”

While Canon’s little sister gets credit for the inspiration, the idea only really took root and grew with help from a broader community of entrepreneurs and business mentors in Northwest Arkansas.

Canon had formed basic concepts for his robotics kit company when he entered an entrepreneurial competition in Fayetteville. The three-day Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend gave prospective entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their idea to a panel of judges composed of business executives and investors.

At the 2018 event, more than 60 entrants – ranging in age from 16 to 65 – joined the startup fray. The participants voted on their favorite pitches and winnowed the number of proposed companies to 11. Competitors then formed small teams from the larger pool of participants and spent the weekend trying to build a ‘working startup’ by brainstorming with mentors, developing business plans and creating prototype products.

“When you are starting a company, it can be really lonely. You can’t do it by yourself,” says Michael Iseman, entrepreneur-in-residence with the Startup Junkie Foundation, a nonprofit focused on supporting and building a vibrant entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas.

Startup Junkie Foundation, a Walton Family Foundation grantee, was the lead organizer for the 2018 weekend, along with Techstars, an international entrepreneurial support organization.

Canon says the event gave him access to resources – and expertise – he would never have had otherwise.

Although he had previously started two other robotics-focused companies, Canon says Startup Weekend put his latest venture on the fast track. He got advice from mentors and judges with successful business backgrounds – in retail, e-commerce and venture capital – who “helped us validate internally that we were on a good track.” He had free access to real-time market surveys that helped identify his potential customer base, build a website and produce marketing materials.

Most importantly, he built a team that included developers, a mechanical engineer, a business development expert and one of the only high school teachers in Arkansas who teaches drone classes.

“I don’t think it would have happened if we hadn’t come to Startup Weekend,” Canon says. “The event brought the right team together. It helped give us that initial energy and get over the initial fear of starting out.”

The unique aspect of Startup Weekend, Michael adds, is that it gives entrepreneurs “the space to focus on their idea and do a deep dive over the course of a weekend.”

Participants “by design come in with bare bones ideas. They get the energy and encouragement to push past ideation and actually start working on something,” he says.

“It’s important because entrepreneurs get access to our mentor network and just a larger network in general. People are convening for a long period of time around this idea of entrepreneurship and innovation. The connections that develop may not produce the business that they pitch during the weekend. But you are connecting with a bunch of people – maybe a co-founder, a potential mentor or future investor.”

For Canon, who won the Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend competition, business for MORE Technologies – which stands for Modular Open-Source Robotics Ecosystem – has already begun to percolate.

His product includes a basic kit with “everything you need” to build and program a robot – including tools and batteries – and customize it to perform different functions. In addition, the robots “are all open source” so kids can explore different configurations and potential uses.

“It is affordable and it is personalized to the kid. It’s very open so kids can explore what they want,” he says. “As far as what the robot can do, truthfully, the sky is the limit. All it takes is some creativity.”

Canon has already taken orders for 300 kits from schools and individuals and says he is working on a much bigger order. The company is raising capital through a Kickstarter campaign.

“An event like Startup Weekend brings visibility to the strength of the startup community in Northwest Arkansas,” he says.

“I have seen firsthand how strong the community is. But something like that really exposes that strength to people who didn’t know it already. Everybody who participated felt like they belonged there.”