A Drone’s-Eye View of the 2022 NWA Tech Summit

The Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit, self-described as “the Heartland’s premier technology conference,” returned for its ninth edition this October. This year’s summit, with the theme “Fast Forward,” hosted 1,700 attendees in venues across downtown Bentonville. The summit’s 137 presenters represented a range of industries as well as big names in Arkansas business like Tyson Foods, Walmart and J.B. Hunt. According to statistics provided by NWA Tech Summit Director Kris Adams, 43% of this year’s presenters were women and/or BIPOC, and visitors traveled from 27 other states to attend.

NWA Tech Summit Director Kristopher Adams.

The three-day summit featured breakout sessions across five tracks: mobility and supply chain, health and wellness, entrepreneurship, cybersecurity and Web 3.0. Keynote presentations throughout each day’s programming and were livestreamed to the breakout session locations. Demonstration booths included companies showing off the latest in artificial intelligence, autonomous and electric vehicles, robotic dogs, drones and blockchain network technology.

According to organizers, the tech conference “serves to enhance, prepare, and diversify the NWA economy” and is for “everyone who is interested in how technology can help businesses and communities collaborate to solve common challenges.” The conference was a networking opportunity for attendees and sponsors as well, with receptions and a “Convos & Cocktails” happy hour. Also on display was a gallery made up of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) — unique digital versions of art pieces created using blockchain technology.

Demo booths from companies like Tyson Foods featured the latest in robotic and other technologies.

The general mood surrounding the event was overwhelmingly positive, with Chief Technology and Automation Officer at Tyson Foods Scott Spradley noting, “I’m ecstatic about the capabilities of the tech community in Northwest Arkansas. The level of talent and the investment by the private sector has created a perfect storm for growth.”

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In the mobility and supply chain track, speakers addressed the evolving landscape of transportation, sustainability, innovations in technology and pandemic-imposed obstacles. DroneUp Vice President of Marketing and Strategy Brielle Giordano spoke to the “far-reaching potential of drones,” while Executive Vice President of Highway Services at J.B. Hunt Eric McGee pointed out “how tech is disrupting transportation.”   

George Richter, senior vice president of supply chain management at Cox Communications, gave a keynote presentation addressing supply chain challenges in a “post-pandemic” world. Supply chain engineering executives from Walmart took part in two different keynote speeches, one described as an “innovation and automation update” and the other involving business-to-business (B2B) short-haul logistics company Gatik on the developing landscape and logistics of autonomous vehicle fleets.

Mary Lacity, Ph.D., director of the Blockchain Center of Excellence at the U of A, spoke during the Web 3.0 sessions.

Breakout sessions covered even more topics in transportation and supply chain management. A few of the sessions, featuring executives from companies like Movista, RevUnit and Snowflake, dealt with improving the use of data to create more intelligently-connected supply chains and improve supply chain resiliency. Other sessions addressed AI, automation and drone technology, with representatives from Hewlett Packard Enterprises and Eaigle taking on topics like “human-centric AI” and the use of networks and applications in supply chain automation.

In another session, Executive Vice President at Envirotech Vehicles Sue Emry made the case for last-mile electric vehicles, including the market opportunity and positive environmental impacts that leveraging last-mile EVs could have.

Emry commented, “As we look towards the future of mobility, EVs will be vital in lowering delivery costs and increasing gross profit and bottom line results for manufacturers and distributors across the country while simultaneously lowering harmful emissions.”

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In the health and wellness arena, a keynote speech on “health beyond health care” featured the perspectives of Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Salesforce Geeta Nayyar, MD; Chief Medical Officer at Tyson Foods Claudia Coplein, DO; Vice President of Clinical Strategy and Population Health at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield Joanna Thomas, MD; and Senior Director of Benefits and Wellness at J.B. Hunt Rick George.

During the health and wellness breakout sessions, EY presented the Innovator of the Year Award in Health and Wellness to Chris Thompson, Jake Foerster and Chris Aburime for their work on Sober Sidekick, an app and social network that helps people maintain their sobriety through community.

Health and wellness breakout sessions covered topics like women’s health, health care and cybersecurity, economic strategies in health care and innovations in digital health care. Jennifer Thomas, managing director at Plug and Play Tech Center, discussed developments in home care. Robert S. Williams, MD, chief medical officer at Arkansas Children’s Northwest, and Amber Neil, BSN, RN, clinical innovation manager for HealthTech Arkansas, discussed “hospital engagement in health care innovation.” Executives from Walmart Health and Wellness discussed the importance of technology in creating a “connected care continuum.” Attendees also heard from companies like Delphix, Deloitte, UAMS, Washington Regional Medical Center and FemHealth Founders.

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The keynotes and breakout sessions in the cybersecurity track ranged from social media safety concerns to hiring talented cyber professionals. Janelle Waack, intellectual property attorney and member at the firm Bass, Berry & Sims, addressed the legal aspects of cybersecurity. Executives from Edafio Technology Partners led a ransomware workshop called “30 Minutes of Terror.” From prevention to intervention and recovery, representatives from the likes of Dell Technologies, Walmart’s cyber security incident management team and Tulsa Innovation Labs tackled leading concerns in the ever-evolving world of cybersecurity.

PwC awarded another of the Emerging Innovator of the Year Awards. The cybersecurity award went to Lee Watson, CEO and founder at Forge Institute, an organization developed to design and enable private-public collaborations supporting economic and national security initiatives. 

In addition to featuring in one of the cybersecurity breakout sessions, Conor Godfrey, cyber and data lead at Tulsa Innovation Labs, gave a keynote address earlier in the day about economic development and the future he sees for the entire region.

“The NWA Tech Summit continues to demonstrate how the 412-Corridor connecting Tulsa, Oklahoma and the Quad Cities in NWA is poised to lead America’s future mobility industry, as well as make critical contributions in cybersecurity, digital health, and the development of Web3 technologies,” Godfrey commented. “The quality and quantity of technology leaders gathering at the NWA Tech Summit year after year is a testament to the region’s fundamentals and to the massive potential for growth and dynamism in the years ahead.”

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Innovation and economic development were the words of the day for those in the entrepreneurship track, with keynotes from Tulsa Innovation Labs, Red Hat and Microsoft for Startups. Taking place in between breakout sessions, the NWA Tech Summit Pitch Competition rewarded a few talented entrepreneurs across supply chain, health and wellness and sustainability.

NWA Pitch Competition winners NeuraStasis (left), Diatech Diabetes (middle), CatalyzeH2O (right) and judges.

NeuraStasis took home the $10,000 first-place prize. The company, co-founded by Kirt Gill, MD, and Joe Upchurch, is developing “a novel, noninvasive electrical stimulation device to preserve the brain during an ischemic stroke.” The device would help limit the amount of brain damage caused by a stroke in order to prevent long-term disability in survivors.

“It was an honor to be recognized among many other great companies participating in the NWA pitch competition,” Gill said. “What I loved about the conference was the opportunity to connect with other entrepreneurs in all spheres of technology. It was my first time in Bentonville, and I can see why it’s a growing tech hub in the region.”

Diatech Diabetes, led by CEO John Wilcox, won the second-place prize of $2,500. SmartFusion, the company’s infusion monitoring software platform for people who use insulin pumps, will analyze data from insulin pump systems in order to better detect device malfunction and prevent injury and death caused by infusion failure.

In third place with a $1,000 prize was CatalyzeH2O. Vice President Aaron Ivy described the company’s product, Ozark, as “an advanced filterless electrochemical dual-stage water purification system.” The company is working to improve current water filtration methods in order to make them more sustainable, safer for the environment and cost-effective for businesses.

A few of the breakout sessions dealt with entrepreneurial challenges like funding and growth. John Gaebe, vice president of Software Engineering and AcreTrader, spoke about scaling a startup, while CTO Kanat Bekt and COO Christine Tan of SupplyPike recounted their own experiences growing the company from 10 people to over 100. Doug Hutchings, entrepreneur in residence at Innovate Arkansas, gave advice on securing resources and capital alongside Spencer Jones, director of R&D at Lapovations, and Sterling Smith, NWA managing director at Atento Capital and founder of Black Freelancer.

Another key focus of the entrepreneurship breakout sessions was the support that businesses can find in Northwest Arkansas and the state as a whole. Canem Arkan, managing director of Endeavor Heartland, moderated a discussion between Senior Program Officer at the George Kaiser Family Foundation Ben Stewart, Director of Philanthropy at Lever for Change Karen Minkel and Senior Program Officer at the Walton Family Foundation Yee-Lin Lai, titled “Why the Heartland’s Super Region is the Place to Invest.”

In another session sponsored by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Lineus Medical CEO Vance Clement and NuShores Biosciences CTO Alex Biris, Ph.D., joined Bob Kucheravy, director of the small business and entrepreneurship development division at AEDC, to discuss “how entrepreneurs found success and support in Arkansas.” Speakers also included representatives from companies like Atento Capital, Black Tech Street and Namida Lab.

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Those in the Web 3.0 track enjoyed keynotes and breakout sessions featuring NFTs, blockchain and a whole metaverse of topics in between. Paul Brody, Principal and Global Blockchain Leader at EY, gave a presentation on the “new rules” that come with the rapid evolution of Web 3.0 markets. Jordan Waldenville of Tokenproof and Photure executives Matt Gray and Evan Morris spoke to the benefits of NFTs in different breakout sessions titled “From URL to IRL: Unlocking the Benefits of NFT’s in the Real World” and “Non-financial Utility of NFTs and the Blockchain.”

BILDR CEO Mark Magnuson and developer Drew Thomas joined Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas Zach Steelman, Ph.D., for an interactive BILDR workshop. BILDR is an all-in-one platform for visual web development that allows users to build websites and web applications with or without code.

Dave Zastrow, founder and partner at Kydari Ventures, Joe Payne, CEO and co-founder at Society of the Hourglass, and Jeff Mullins, Ph.D., assistant professor of information systems at the University of Arkansas, spoke about Web 3.0’s impact on the future of gaming and entertainment. Other sessions dove into the regulation of cryptoassets and the benefits of decentralized networks. Speakers from companies like Coinbase, MPAC Crypto, VeriTX and the Fayetteville-based Mycelium Networks were also eager to share their visions for the next generation of the web and its real-life implications.

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The summit’s forward-thinking focus didn’t just apply to the technology itself. The conference also included a collection of sessions aimed at preparing high school students for opportunities in tech. Two of the morning sessions saw Chris Moore, an account manager at Google Cloud, and Gary Dowdy, vice president of engineering and technology at J.B. Hunt, speak to students about college internships at local companies and how to “kickstart” a career in tech. Another of the sessions featured John Mark Russell, an Ignite Technology Instructor at Bentonville Schools, and students enrolled in the Ignite Professional Studies program, on technology skills and certifications.

Ashley Wardlow, interim CEO at the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, welcomed summit attendees.

In the afternoon, Lonnie Emart of the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences and Claudia Scott of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a Q&A session about apprenticeships. Wrapping up the high school programming was a session titled, “Be the Next Generation in Technology,” where representatives of organizations like  J.B. Hunt, Tyson Foods, Google, Edafio Technologies, SupplyPike, DroneUp, the University of Arkansas and Walmart presented various tech-centered career options to students.

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As the demand for technology and tech jobs grows, the summit is a vital opportunity to bolster and highlight Northwest Arkansas’ standing as a force to be reckoned with in the technology sector.

“Northwest Arkansas has become a national hub for technology and innovation, and this event helps showcase the tech that lives and works here,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council.

From companies born and built in Arkansas to groups looking for opportunities to expand, the region is a hotbed for innovation and development and will continue to give the state a strong foothold in the rapidly growing industry.

“The NWA Tech Summit convened like-minded innovators from not only the region, but from around the country,” said Mary Lacity, Ph.D., with the Blockchain Center of Excellence at the University of Arkansas, one of the event’s sponsors. “Thought leaders shared their insights in keynotes and panels; the booth sponsors offered intimate conversations to learn what companies are doing. The cherry on top was the networking opportunities – I’ve added so many people to my network, and the conversations continue. Every out-of-state visitor praised what we are doing here in Northwest Arkansas. We are the new Midwest Silicon Valley.”   

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