In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Toby Teeter, director of The Collaborative, the University of Arkansas innovation catalyst in Bentonville.
Listen as Toby Teeter shares how a coding project he started in law school became a publicly traded company, information on The Collaborative’s robust entrepreneurial ecosystem, and how the future of flight, outdoor tech, and biodesign is happening right here in NWA.
0:00:04.5 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to BeEPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.
0:00:22.7 Matt Waller: I have with me today Toby Teeter, who's the director of the Collaborative in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is a part of the University of Arkansas. And we're gonna talk to him about that. He's also founder and co-owner of Omni Brands and Urban Cycling Apparel e-commerce company. We'll talk about that. He has a tremendous background in a number of ways, he has a undergraduate degree in business from Missouri State, a law degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an MBA from the University of Missouri. Toby, thank you so much for joining me, I appreciate it.
0:01:02.6 Toby Teeter: Thanks for having me, Matt.
0:01:04.5 Matt Waller: Toby, you have a really interesting background, but I would like, if you wouldn't mind... Let's start with the Collaborative. I started out by saying you're the director of the Collaborative. Many people don't know what that is, would you mind to explaining that?
0:01:18.4 Toby Teeter: So the Collaborative is a new innovation center in Bentonville. It's part of the IQR... The I3R. Long story short is, there's a spoken hub model being overlaid on the University of Arkansas to transform it into kind of an innovation ecosystem catalyst. It's a really, really exciting time to be part of the University of Arkansas. And what's happening with this investment from the Walton Family is to really transform the University of Arkansas into a true applied research university, partnering with industry and really the future of Northwest Arkansas and the state of Arkansas as far as the types of innovations and industries that we want to attract to Arkansas, and it's already happening. We saw the canoe announcement a couple of weeks ago.
0:02:04.7 Toby Teeter: That is part of our renewed interest in partnering with industry to support both research and development of product. Here in Bentonville, the R piece is kind of a bundle of niches. We're focused on outdoor recreation, air mobility, whole health, the future of retail, omnichannel e-commerce, and we're doing everything from supporting entrepreneurs... There are both incubation of product and start-ups in those segments, as well as attracting industry to Northwest Arkansas in those segments, and really moving University of Arkansas forward and beefing up our research capabilities to support those industries.
0:02:44.0 Matt Waller: Toby, you have a broad background that supports what you're trying to do here, and what you're trying to do is... It's a challenging goal, but you have such a unique and diverse background, you have both an MBA and a law degree, and you've had a lot of experience as an entrepreneur and in working. Prior to this, you worked for the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce as president and CEO, so all those different experiences really come together well, for what you're doing here with the Collaborative in the University of Arkansas. I wanna talk about some of that, but I'd like to talk about Omni Brands.
0:03:25.8 Toby Teeter: Sure, so about seven years ago, a business partner of mine named Eric, down in Florida, we started hustling on Amazon Initially, we started selling textbooks, real estate textbooks. Every state has real estate exams. We had a distribution contract with the two major players in that space, that worked out really, really well. We started that in 2013-2014, and then what happened was we started just creating product, we started analyzing Amazon data and realized where there's demand for certain types of products that were under-supplied. We created ballet bars, we created mixed martial art equipment, and we started creating cycling apparel, and we essentially just created brands and launched about 1200 SKUs over the course of the last seven or eight years.
0:04:15.7 Toby Teeter: One of those that really stuck and really worked out really well was Urban Cycling Apparel. Primarily, we sold it just on Amazon and over the last few years we really diversified that brand, and Urban Cycling Apparel is now sold across many channels online, as well as our own website, urbancycling.com. We make and design and sell both performance and lifestyle apparel for road, gravel, mountain bike and commuters. We also created a second line Kona Tri Apparel, as well as most recently Ozark Cycling Apparel, which is obviously kind of branded all things Northwest Arkansas, and we also dabbled with some other areas including some bicycle components and a new bike project.
0:05:01.4 Matt Waller: Some other entrepreneur experience you have... You are the president and founder of Litmus Media, ValidClick Inc, and Second Light LLC. That was back late 90s, mid-2000s. Tell me a little bit about that.
0:05:20.5 Toby Teeter: So in the late 90s, I was in law school, so I was stuck in law school, the dot com was happening, Everyone my age was raising money and making a bunch of money, and I was slaving away at University of Missouri going to law school, and towards the end of law school, I wasn't sure I wanted to be a lawyer. I really didn't like the Billable hour, I just didn't like how it didn't scale, the idea of kinda slaving away at a law firm for seven or eight years before becoming a partner, I just didn't know if I was wanting to sign up for that lifestyle. So while in law school, I started teaching myself code and I started dabbling in earlier early stages of affiliate marketing where I would create just all these one-page websites, where I was doing book reviews and I was linking into Amazon and getting these little checks from Amazon, it was actually... It got to where I was making 5, 6, 700 bucks a month. It was paying the rent.
0:06:17.4 Toby Teeter: But it was always kind of a side hustle. But then I created a network of online city guides, kind of a precursor to Craigslist that kind of got a lot of organic traffic. This is the early days of search where you can actually just create content on websites. It would get spidered and you could easily create a website that got tens of thousands of views per month, but no one knew really how to monetize those eyeballs. The magic that happened is I developed a relationship with a company called Overture. Overture was acquired by Yahoo in about 2000 for I think like a billion dollars, but Overture was the beginning of paid search, pay-per-click advertising on search engines. And I talked... This development group at Overture to allow me to take their advertising inventory and display those search results contextually in the content of my network of online city guides. It worked out really, really well. Overnight, I went from making 50 bucks in ad revenue a day to 500 bucks to 5000 bucks a day. So all of a the sudden I had a business and I started hiring a team, and we grew with Google. This is a precursor to Adwords and Adsense where we took Google's advertisers and displayed them as well on our network of city guides.
0:07:38.1 Toby Teeter: And then the next step was getting in the contractual relationship with Google and Yahoo to allow me to take their advertisers, their pay-per-click advertisers and put those advertisements on sites I did not own. And that was the beginning of Validclick. It was a publishing network. We got the contractual rights to hundreds of websites where we were the exclusive provider of Yahoo and Google advertisers. We accrued about 30 million in revenue, and we in 2006, we merged with a couple of sister companies, if you will, and went public in April of 2006. Nowadays you we call them a SPAC, but back then it was a reverse merger, and it was a bunch of investment bankers from Chicago rolling up a bunch of small, profitable online marketing companies. At the time, our company folded up into a public traded company called Think Partnership. Today, it's called Inuvo and it actually happens to be headquartered in Little Rock now. We moved our headquarters from Kansas City then to Clearwater, Florida, then to New York City. And then the State of Arkansas actually paid the company 3 million dollars to relocate and anchor a tech park in Little Rock. Small world that the company I created all in my bedroom in 1999 is now a publicly traded company and based in Little Rock.
0:08:58.7 Matt Waller: Wow, that's... What a story.
0:09:01.1 Toby Teeter: Yeah.
0:09:01.2 Matt Waller: Amazing. So Toby, you're now dealing with some really cutting edge things in your work with the Collaborative, in my opinion, things like air mobility and whole health, bio design. These are things that are truly cutting edge, I would say. And I see clearly how it all ties into IQR. You're physically located in Bentonville and for those who are listening who may not know, Fayetteville and Bentonville are part of what we call Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Area. But there's a lot of growth of early stage companies in Bentonville, and of course the Fortune One company is up there, and a lot of consumer packaged goods companies, and now the Whole Health Institutes up there. Let's take any one of those. How does your position up there help advance what you're trying to do with the University of Arkansas?
0:10:04.1 Toby Teeter: Sure. We need to look no further than our funders. Our project is funded by the Walton family, and to be blunt, they wanna make Bentonville a special place and Northwest Arkansas as well. And they really wanna make this an innovation cluster. They see what happens in the Research Triangle, MIT, Stanford, and they wanna replicate the best of the best here in Northwest Arkansas. When you see innovation clusters, they're always anchored by the university, the local university. Northwest Arkansas is a unique place where the creators are being aggregated, where people are coming from all over the United States, moving here by the day. A lot of them have done amazing things. They've created technology companies, and this has become a talent magnet.
0:10:55.0 Toby Teeter: The next piece, the next layer, now that we have Arts & Culture draws connectivity, Health and Wellness that tracks the talent, is to create an innovation system like no other. The opportunity to be a catalyst, and our funders, the Walton Family, are really, really focused on a whole health as well as urban air mobility, both the movement of product and people by electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, literally flying cars. We're in the early stages of some opportunities where we can move some of that industry to Northwest Arkansas. We're also wanting to create the opportunities for entrepreneurs, the creators, the innovators in these segments to move to Northwest Arkansas and succeed and test their products here.
0:11:41.0 Toby Teeter: And that's where we positioned ourselves as the University of Arkansas to be a catalyst for these innovations, and really we're thinking about the diversification of our ecosystem here. For decades, we've been centered around the big three, Walmart, JB Hunt and Tyson. But now there's a huge opportunity to broaden it and really participate, fully participate in all these job codes that are 21st century growth, things that haven't traditionally happened in Northwest Arkansas. We can support things like the future of flight, really sophisticated application development, particularly in outdoor recreation, as well as bio-scientists, bio-design, medical equipment and the like. It's really exciting times. But that's really, really the focus is to really put Bentonville the brand, and connect that with innovation and entrepreneurship. And the University of Arkansas has stood at the Collaborative here in Bentonville to support those efforts.
0:12:41.2 Matt Waller: Toby, I know we have this new program called the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program or we like to call it GORP. [chuckle] Somebody's gotta come over for the better acronym. But could you tell us a little bit about GORP and what's going on with it?
0:12:58.6 Toby Teeter: So, here at the collaborative in Bentonville, we have the greenhouse. It's really a room where we set it up as a business incubator so it's the greenhouse business incubator. The first vertical that we're gonna tackle is outdoor recreation. We just hired a director, Phil Shellhammer, who is the director of the GORP program. That is set up to be two things, one is a deep incubation of outdoor rec startups, both applications, products, and the startups themselves. The segment is "Idea to Launch", it's a cohort model. It's a 12-week program, twice a year, where we recruit outdoor rec startups from across the United States to actually come to Bentonville. And we basically surround these entrepreneurs with resources including all things here at the University of Arkansas. Data sciences, computer sciences, physical engineering, the business college, small business development center as well, as well as the industry.
0:14:01.0 Toby Teeter: And we say outdoor recreation, we're talking about cycling, we're talking about hiking, over-landing, camping, hunting and fishing, paddleboard sports, anything water, and we're connecting them with industry. We're connecting them with distribution, we're connecting them with, actually, influencers. We have a host of hundreds now of people that can influence these industries. We have current former pros in the cycling world that can really test and promote a new brand here from Northwest Arkansas. So, we've actually mapped out that whole ecosystem of outdoor recreation industry and we're connecting these cohorts of start-ups right here in Bentonville. The first cohort will start in January. Any day now, the application window is gonna open and that will run through most of December where the first cohort can apply, get accepted, and join, and then we'll have it. The second cohort in late 2022.
0:15:00.2 Toby Teeter: But beyond the outdoor recreation segment, the same greenhouse concept is going to launch in a different segment. The next one is bio-design. Essentially, we're talking about biomedical devices and equipment and that is gonna be another opportunity where a cohort model will form. It'll be a cross-disciplinary cohort where it's modeled after a system that was devised by Stanford where we take a cross disciplinary approach of physicians, data scientists, physical engineers, and they team up to actually create an innovation in some subset of medicine. This is gonna be a partnership across a couple of health institutions including UAMS and Arkansas Children's Hospital and this will be also centered here in Bentonville at the Greenhouse.
0:15:55.7 Matt Waller: That is so exciting. And again I can see how your entrepreneurial background and your experience in outdoor recreation products certainly prepares you well for this kind of activity. That's very exciting. Would you mind talking a little bit about... Give some examples of how the university is engaged in collaborating on bio-design.
0:16:20.8 Toby Teeter: So, there's a really interesting ecosystem that has formed across the State of Arkansas. There is a Health Tech Cluster based in Little Rock for instance where all 10 major health systems across the state participate by allowing clinical trials to happen across the state by innovations around the world. We're kind of piggybacking and partnering with Haltech, Arkansas on a similar system within U of A where we're partnering with specifically two institutions in Northwest Arkansas. And this first cohort is gonna be centered upon neurosciences within pediatrics so it's a specialty within a specialty.
0:17:06.0 Toby Teeter: But there is a cluster of problems to solve and we again take a cross-disciplinary approach where they're gonna come in and understand... Basically, we're taking non-pediatric neurologists and from those points of view kind of sometimes when you're in the forest, you can always see the trees and we take a step back, you can actually see problems and solutions. And so the University of Arkansas is working on a model in bio-design where processes and actual medical devices will be improved from a cross-disciplinary approach and that's what we're gonna work on starting in mid to late 2022 here in Bentonville.
0:17:50.9 Matt Waller: And how about with air mobility?
0:17:54.6 Toby Teeter: So, there's a special interest here in Bentonville about air mobility. There is a semi-secret conference that happens every other year here in Bentonville called UP. It's where the future of flight is discussed among a very small group of invite-only participants. The next one actually is April of 2022, and again, industry comes here, discuss the future of flight. And all eyes are on eVTOL, it's electric vertical take-off and landing technology. We're literally talking about flying cars and this is not 10 or 20 years from now. This is one or two years from now. It's kind of a race where a couple of dozen companies from around the world are developing technologies that will move one, two, three, four people, up to 2 or 300 miles...
0:18:42.7 Toby Teeter: Initially by pilot, but ultimately it'll be autonomous, and it'll be an app-driven where you can be picked up in your yard and taken 60, 70, 80 miles. These kind of things are happening and are already in test, and similarly... And product, the movement of product. And particularly Walmart has an interest in home deliveries. Their initial test started last week. Of course, there's Zipline up in Pea Ridge, and now there's DroneUp in Farmington.
0:19:13.5 Toby Teeter: One example of how the University of Arkansas is working with these companies is DroneUp operations down in Farmington, their needs are several-fold. One is workforce development. They're starting in one Walmart parking lot and they're going to hire hundreds of people in 2022 and build out teams that will manage this last mile delivery of Walmart product by drone. They need to develop curriculum to train, so they're working with Global Campus and Walton College Executive Ed. They need research and development, they need technicians to track and actually prove out new concepts.
0:19:51.6 Toby Teeter: So, we're looking at opportunities in and around Northwest Arkansas to build out facilities and equipment and then actually take faculty, both in the physical engineering and actually across several colleges at the University of Arkansas to really enhance and center air mobility as an industry in Northwest Arkansas. So again, we're talking about the movement of both people and products by vertical take-off and landing of electric vehicles, and there is a number of faculty and researchers at the University of Arkansas that are already working on these problems, and now we're looking at some opportunities where additional investment from private industry, and potentially even a federal grant, that will really accelerate University of Arkansas as a catalyst in air mobility.
0:20:36.8 Matt Waller: All of this is so exciting. That's a lot to keep on your plate, Toby. I guess you're used to that, given your history. So, Toby, these are big ideas, very big ideas, but the grant is only four years, and all of these things are just projects. So where does this go?
0:21:00.7 Toby Teeter: So, the collaborative as at Bentonville Innovation Center is a temporary project. So, as you said, there's about four years left in this grant, and essentially what we're doing is we're setting up a series of projects that kind of waterfall over the next few years into 2025, but in reality, this cluster of innovation and data-driven projects across these innovation clusters are all leading towards a more permanent facility. We are looking at some major centers of innovation, innovation campuses across the world, and really the big challenge is what would the crystal bridges of technology and innovation look like in Northwest Arkansas?
0:21:43.5 Toby Teeter: What is the compilation of offices, business incubation, labs, garage space, if you will, what would those needs, and what would be the centers of innovation? Where can Northwest Arkansas lead the world in? And so that is kind of the next up is there's a long-term facility plan that will begin in the coming year, and parallel to standing up all these temporary projects for the next few years is this long-term facility plan, and there's a bigger vision for what could happen here in Bentonville, and we're hoping the University of Arkansas flag will be flying on this new facility.
0:22:23.0 Matt Waller: Well, Toby, this has been terrific. Thank you for all you're doing to advance not only the university, but the state through what you're doing, and again, I think your unique background and education have prepared you well for this kind of an endeavor, but it's been great talking to you. Thanks so much.
0:22:42.3 Toby Teeter: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.
0:22:45.1 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The BeEPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching, BeEPIC podcast. One word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.