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The UofA funds the future of outdoor recreation with GORP

Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Arkansas
The Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program hosts its third cohort of businesses.

For the past three years, the University of Arkansas' Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship has turned wild, entrepreneurial dreams into realities through the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program, also known as GORP.

GORP is a startup incubator specifically designed to support businesses looking to break into the outdoor recreation industry.

The program came about in the summer of 2021 after the UofA received a grant from the Walton Charitable Support Foundation to stimulate the outdoor industry in the region.

Along with GORP, the university used funding to create new curricular programs focusing on outdoor education and a Masters of Science and Product Innovations degree.

Phil Shellhammer is the Senior Director of Business Incubation for the Greenhouse program, and he said program managers wrote GORP's grant very generally.

"We want to help create innovative products and services within the outdoor rec industry, supporting entrepreneurs from idea to launch," Shellhammer said. "That was the initial grant wording. That's the mission we've said we're trying to do."

Shellhammer said GORP aims to help people from the start and build their businesses into profitable ventures.

"Agnostic to what type of industry you're in or agnostic to, whether it's a services business or a product business, or a digital solution, or hospitality or whatever the case is we wanted to help as many businesses that touch outdoor recreation as possible," he said.

The program offers support in two ways: "à la carte" and full-on incubation. With à la carte support, entrepreneurs have access to workshops, networking events and consultation with program staff during office hours. Alternatively, startup managers can apply to be a part of GORP's semesterly cohort.

We want to help create innovative products and services within the outdoor rec industry, supporting entrepreneurs from idea to launch.
Phil Shellhammer

During the 12-week incubation period, cohort members meet regularly and receive personal mentorship from industry leaders. Businesses in the cohort also receive $15,000 of non-dilutive seed funding.

"That basically means it's free money," Shellhammer said. "We don't take any ownership of the company. We don't require it's spent on certain in certain ways, we just provide it as a way that we know this $15,000 will help you build your business as you work through our programs."

With eight companies and 18 different founders, the fall 2023 GORP cohort is the largest yet.

Typically, outdoor rec businesses are geared toward activities like cycling, rock climbing, and hiking. Shellhammer says a new partnership with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has allowed the program to expand support toward businesses geared toward hunting and fishing.

"So this cohort, large, right, lots of people, lots of companies, that's great," Shellhammer said. "But what really, really unique founders and business models we've got, you know, very we'll call them seasoned professionals who have been working in in their professional industry for a while. So, they bring all that amazing professional experience. But they're building something new and unique that hasn't been seen in the market before."

A new Bentonville-based cycling app, RiderUp, is an example of such a business that is creating from the ground up.

Co-founder and avid mountain biker Steve Outain said he, along with his partners, wanted to create an app that bridged a gap in technology between cycling and social media. Imagine the combination of digital messaging, Facebook events, and instant location-sharing.

“Similar to Waze," Outain said. "So you can kind of see in real time where people are, you can see if there's a trail closed. So if a user finds a tree down or a trail closed, they can put it on the map, and then other users can see that so there's a crowdsourcing component to it."

RiderUp is currently in late-stage development. A startup incubator is especially helpful for a small team like Outain's because it creates structure for his company to build off of.

"We basically just bootstrapped the development, the MVP, or the minimum viable product," Outain said. "So, what you're looking at is the three of us kind of ponied up and we spent the last- we've been developing- we've been at this for about 14 months. I think it was July of last year when we first sat down and said, 'Hey, let's do this thing.'"

He said their inclusion in the GORP cohort and the funding the program provides allow his team to finance marketing endeavors and perform maintenance on their program.

Smaller companies like RiderUp receive guidance from established companies like Cave Springs' Outdoor Educational Services. OES is a company dedicated to removing barriers from the outdoors.

"Actually, those who are not necessarily into the outdoors are our prime target, if you will."

That's Sean Cline, the co-founder of OES.

"And the reason I say that is we provide an environment that teaches them some of the basics around for example, backpacking, or kayaking in some of the great rivers that we have around around the area, again, doing it in a safe way. We have the gear so we provide them with the gear we provide them with the the basics around and the foundational fundamentals of doing some of the things the activities, and then we take them out and we put them in the water, we put them on the trail, and we go with them."

We provide an environment that teaches them some of the basics around for example, backpacking, or kayaking in some of the great rivers that we have around around the area, again, doing it in a safe way.
Sean Cline, OES Co-Founder

Cline said they've been around since March, and he's using the funding as a capital investment to expand what kind of expeditions they can lead people through.

"In our opinion, it's designed to help us put the equipment in our case, our equipment, our gear, things like that, that we can put in place to again be more safe to do more things," he said. "So one of the things that we're going to invest in with with part of the money is packrafts."

Packrafts are small, inflatable rafts that can be packed down to a portable size. They're designed to be used in almost every body of water, from lazy Buffalo currents to whitewater Cossatot River rapids.

"So we can not only sponsor a team for Expedition Ozark and be able to supply them with those packrafts," Cline said. "But also there's opportunities for us to use them in our day-to-day business and rent them out. So it can not only be you know, an activity, but frankly, it'll create hopefully some some revenue for us as well."

This semester's cohort will have a chance to show off their products at the GORP demo night on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The event gives the public a chance to visit with founders and learn more about the companies and the products they're producing.

For more information about the program and all companies in the cohort, visit GORP's website.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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