Serial Entrepreneur, Co-Founder to Headline Keynote Events at Heartland Challenge

Chris Thompson, left, and Mitch Brooks will anchor the two keynote ceremonies at the 2024 Heartland Challenge.
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Chris Thompson, left, and Mitch Brooks will anchor the two keynote ceremonies at the 2024 Heartland Challenge.

A serial entrepreneur who relocated his company from California to Northwest Arkansas and the co-founder of a venture capital firm that invests in underrepresented geographies will highlight two keynote events at the fifth annual Heartland Challenge, a global student startup competition hosted in Northwest Arkansas. 

Chris Thompson, the founder and CEO of Sober Sidekick, will anchor the kickoff event on Friday, April 12, inside the Great Hall at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. 

The architect behind the world's largest digital recovery platform, Thompson revolutionized the recovery landscape by merging deep entrepreneurial prowess with a passion for transformative social impact.  

His Sober Sidekick app gamifies peer-to-peer support to form meaningful connections around issues that people are afraid to discuss on every other social platform.  

Thompson said moving the company to Northwest Arkansas was a "major breakthrough," as the user base tripled to 400,000 and he was able to hire "exceptional talent." 

"I strongly believe that Northwest Arkansas is becoming an emerging hub for healthcare innovation," Thompson said. "I'm very excited to connect with talented innovators from across the world and invite them to join us here." 

Mitch Brooks, co-founder and managing partner at High Street Equity Partners, will be the keynote speaker for the awards banquet on April 13 at the Ledger. 

Based in Washington, D.C., High Street invests in early-stage, high-growth technology companies in underrepresented geographies. Brooks said the company believes exceptional talent and revolutionary ideas know no borders. 

"Cultivating innovation is not just about investing capital; it's about nurturing potential, empowering visionaries and forging partnerships that propel technology companies to new heights," Brooks said. 

"At High Street Equity Partners, we believe in the transformative power of entrepreneurship, and events like the Heartland Challenge exemplify the spirit of collaboration and innovation that drives our mission forward." 

Designed to simulate the process of raising venture capital for a high-growth enterprise, the Heartland Challenge has awarded nearly $500,000 in prize money since it was first held virtually in spring 2020. 
 
Medical device companies and software startups dominate the field in this year's competition, which features 12 teams representing nine universities. A record 126 teams submitted applications for this year's event. 
 
The overall winner will collect $50,000. The second-place team will receive $25,000; third place, $10,000; and fourth place, $5,000. First and second place winners in the elevator pitch competition — decided by an audience vote — win $3,000 and $2,000, respectively.   

"The Heartland Challenge exemplifies the spirit of resilience and innovation that defines the entrepreneurial landscape in Northwest Arkansas," said Brent Williams, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business.  

"It's inspiring to see emerging startups and seasoned investors come together to exchange ideas, form new partnerships and drive positive outcomes."

The Startup Expo, returning for its third year, will feature a public showcase of the competitors. The free event will be held at the Ledger and includes appetizers and drinks, concluding with an audience vote for their favorite startup, with the winner receiving $5,000. The final round, featuring the top four teams, is also open to the public.

Past Heartland Challenge winners include technology startups focused on storing digital data, the music industry and improving cancer detection, as well as a recycling-based building materials company.

The competition is hosted again this year by the Walton College and overseen by the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, with generous primary support from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

Sponsors for this year include title sponsor the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, premier sponsor New Road Capital Partners and event and prize sponsors Visit Bentonville, Symbiosis, Cortado Ventures, Delta Solar, Cadron Capital, Arkansas Capital, Natural Capital, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the Walton College's Master of Science in Finance Program. 

Keynote speakers  

  • Mitch Brooks, co-founder & managing partner, High Street Equity Partners  

  • Chris Thompson, founder & CEO, Sober Sidekick 

Finalist judges  

  • Clete Brewer, managing partner, NewRoad Capital Partners 

  • Rosa Hathaway, head of non-local investments, Atento Capital 

  • M.K. Marsden, co-founder, Revscale 

  • Tracy Poole, managing partner, 46 Venture Capital 

  • Bobby W. Sandage Jr., managing director, Lightchain Capital and Paula and Rodger Riney Foundation 

  • Chidozie Ugwumba, managing partner, SymBiosis Capital Management 

Semifinalist Judges 

  • Jeff Amerine, founder & managing director, Startup Junkie Consulting & Cadron Capital 

  • Canem Arkan, managing director, Endeavor Heartland & 412 Angels 

  • Ramsay Ball, manager, Cannon Capital 

  • Michael Basch, founder & general partner, Atento Capital 

  • Albert Behr, CEO, Behr & Associates, Inc. 

  • Tracy Black, partner, NewRoad Capital Partners 

  • Jordan Carlisle, COO, Sober Sidekick 

  • Robyn Goforth, chief scientific officer, Biologics MD 

  • Eric Howerton, head of Walmart Innovations, Flywheel 

  • Douglas Hutchings, CEO, Delta Solar 

  • Spencer Jones, CEO, Lapovations 

  • Garrott McClintock, COO, AcreTrader 

  • Drew McKinnon, president-midland regions, Main Street Health 

  • Heather R. Nelson, founder + principal | co-founder + partner, Global Headwaters, LLC | Seal Solar 

  • Michael Paladino, co-founder and chairman, RevUnit 

  • Anoop Prasana, head of corporate affairs engineering, Walmart Global Technology 

  • April Seggebruch, managing partner, Good Gravy Group 

  • Joshua Stanley, studio director/CEO, Fieldbook Venture Studio | Cartwheel Studio 

  • Jeff Stinson, founder, HealthTech AR 

  • Permjot Valia, co-founder, Nava Develop, Inc. 

  • Lawrence Watkins, head of Tulsa investments, Atento Capital 

  • Stan Zylowski, co-founder and chairman, Movista 

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