A new program is being developed at the U of A that will train and support regional entrepreneurs focused on outdoor recreation-oriented hospitality, service and experience businesses, as well as outdoor industry product design and development start-ups.

The program is supported by a $4.1 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

“This grant will help us create an entrepreneurial culture surrounding outdoor recreation and more,” said Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. “We could not create these programs for students, innovators, startups and small businesses without the support.”

Program partners include Walton College’s Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Venture Innovation and Executive Education program; the College of Education and Health Professions; the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation; and the Division of Economic Development.

The program will capitalize on a rising tide of student interest in creating new service and product businesses that capitalize on Northwest Arkansas’s rapidly growing prominence as a destination for outdoor recreation. It will also serve those with an interest in pursuing scalable ventures and developing regionally focused businesses.

The funding will support events and workshops throughout the three-year funding period, designed to grow the community of support and expertise for outdoor recreation innovation and business development. It will allow the creation of three signature programs:

The Undergraduate Outdoor Products and Services Certificate: This 15-credit-hour certificate will include immersive coursework and extensive interaction with industry partners. Beginning in their sophomore year, students in the program will join a three-hour Introduction to Recreation Industries to establish a foundation for the remaining coursework, including economic, environmental, cultural, political and ethical aspects of the industries. Students will then select one of two six-hour tracks – one focused on services, hospitality and experiences, and the other on scalable product ideas. This program is subject to approval by the U of A Board of Trustees and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

The Master of Science in Product Innovation: Designed to appeal to recent STEM graduates as well as those with no prior business or product development expertise, this program focusing on outdoor products will be delivered through online coursework and on-site experiences at the university’s Bentonville location, the Collaborative. Students will design, validate and prototype products and receive intensive mentoring and pilot opportunities with industry partners. This program is subject to approval by the U of A Board of Trustees and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

The Greenhouse Business Incubator: Located at the Bentonville Collaborative, the Greenhouse will provide broad small business support and deep product incubation for outdoor recreation entrepreneurs. This includes both Northwest Arkansas residents and degree-seeking students. The Greenhouse will serve a rolling, membership-based program for entrepreneurs developing small businesses with regional service models, including those aimed at the rapidly emerging cycling tourism ecosystem. All members will have access to co-working space, student interns, consultation, regular workshops and community-building events. Entrepreneurs seeking scalable ventures will have the opportunity to apply for an intensive 12-week product-incubation program – Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program – which will be operated twice per year. GORP participants will be eligible for support and admission into the university’s Venture Mentoring Service.

“Enjoying and sharing our natural environment makes so much sense for Northwest Arkansas – personally in terms of health, socially for building community and economically to attract and retain talent and tourism dollars. The U of A is perfectly positioned to support our emerging outdoor scene,” said Jon Johnson, who led the collaborative proposal and serves as chair of the Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Venture Innovation in Walton College. “The Walton family’s and local governments’ investments in trails and other outdoor infrastructure have already generated returns to the region, including the University of Arkansas. The Ozarks factor into many students choosing to attend the U of A. This grant will only accelerate that.”

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