Teknovation.biz’s “Investor Outlook” series interviews local investors, highlights value of Tennessee’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

A recent multi-part “Investor Outlook” series from Teknovation.biz featured panel interviews with local investors, where they assess the “then” and “now” of a variety of topics, including the overall quality of startups and the availability of early stage capital.

According to Tom Ballard, PYA’s Chief Alliance Officer and Editor of Teknovation.biz, “We’ve just entered a new decade with arguably some of the most sustained economic growth and lowest unemployment rates in our nation’s history. An important part of that growth has come from new startups, and the state of Tennessee has clearly been part of that entrepreneurial wave over the last 10 years.”

Panelists include: Eric Dobson, Chief Executive Officer of Angel Capital Group; Tony Lettich, Managing Director of The Angel Roundtable; Charlie Brock, Partner of Chattanooga Renaissance Fund; Brandon Bruce, Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Greater Sum Ventures; Ken Woody, President and Partner of Innova Memphis; Kristina Montague, Managing Partner of The JumpFund; John Morris and Geoff Robson, Fund Managers at The Lighthouse Fund; John Bruck, Knoxville-based Member, and Scott Jacobs, Executive Director, of Queen City Angels (QCA); and Grady Vanderhoofven, Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Three Roots Capital. 

Read each part in the series here:

As the Innov865 Alliance develops, supports, and promotes the Knoxville region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, we champion Knoxville as a great place for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses and increase access to capital. The work of investors featured in this series reaffirms this mission.

Innov865 Investor Series, Powered by Three Roots Capital

When: Thursday, August 22, 2019

Beginning at 5PM ET


Where: The Square Room inside Café 4

4 Market Square

Knoxville, TN 37902


RSVP Here!

Join us at The Square Room inside Café 4 for an engaging discussion with former COO Brandon Bruce of Cirrus Insight and former President and CEO Terry Edwards of PerfectServe as they discuss the growth and evolution of their companies and how that helped guide them to successful exits.

Happy hour and networking opportunities to follow.

What’s it like to move to Knoxville?

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(Originally published on Knoxville Business Journal)

Dave Miller, his wife Sarah and their nine-month-old son Roman spent their first month and a half in Knoxville living in the basement of their new house.

The family moved here in 2017 after Miller accepted his position as East Tennessee region president of First Tennessee.

“(Roman) learned to walk while we were living in our basement,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”

While relocating doesn’t always involve living beneath ground level, it “turns the family’s life upside down” in one way or another, clinical social worker Barbara Stephens said.

Thousands of people are moving to Knoxville each year. The number of people who moved to Knox County from another Tennessee county increased from nearly 12,000 in 2013 to approximately 17,000 in 2016. Nearly 11,000 people moved to Knoxville from out of state in 2013, which increased to 12,633 in 2016. Those that moved from abroad increased from 877 in 2013 to more than 2,200 in 2016.

For a couple’s or a family’s life to flip right side up as quickly as possible, human interaction is key, Stephens said.

Meeting the neighbors

Dave Miller had visited Knoxville a few times before the family moved from Memphis. But a visit doesn’t give any indication of what rebuilding a support network will be like.

Establishing initial connections can be the toughest part of a move, Stephens said.

“It was concerning for me,” Sarah Miller said. “How am I going to find a Mother’s Day Out and this and that and events for the kids? And it has been a lot easier than I ever imagined.”

The Millers had a network of folks at First Tennessee, with the added bonus of welcoming neighbors.

“There’s great data available online, but by far, most of what we found was via other references,” Dave Miller said. “If you meet one or two key people who are good at connecting you with others, it’s off to the races.”

The couple estimated that they met more neighbors within the first 30 days in their West Knoxville neighborhood than the two years they spent in their previous neighborhood.

But what if the neighbors aren’t eager to meet? For Stephens, who moved to Knoxville from Cincinnati eight years ago, that was the case.

“We lived there for two weeks and hadn’t said hello to one neighbor,” she said.

So she made the first move. It’s not enough to wait around for others to knock on the door, she said. She baked all her neighbors muffins and made connections, some of which turned into lasting friendships.

Utilizing existing hobbies

After connecting with the neighbors, Stephens dipped into her own hobbies. She took piano lessons, joined a gym and found a church to build her network.

Tricia and Brandon Bruce moved to Maryville in 2007 from Washington D.C. when Tricia accepted a position as a professor of sociology at Maryville College. The couple made the move from Maryville to Knoxville in 2015.

Tricia connected with her colleagues, while Brandon became part of Maryville and Knoxville cycling communities.

“If you want to get involved, you can get involved pretty fast,” Brandon Bruce said. “You can meet a lot of people by expressing interest in certain things.”

Brandon worked as a consultant for a year and worked at Maryville College in fundraising for three years before he decided he was in the right place to start a company.

Finding business support

Brandon started Cirrus Insight software technology company in 2011 with co-founder Ryan Huff. The company was ranked No. 41 on the Inc. 500 list in 2016 and has grown from zero to $12 million in annual revenue.

“Knoxville has benefited enormously from our partnership in the sense that they recruited me to come here, and now he has built all of this,” Tricia said.

Cirrus started around the same time the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center began. Brandon worked with KEC’s team, Tech 2020 in Oak Ridge (now shut down), Innov865 Alliance, E-tech in Oak Ridge to gain support for his venture.

Read the full story here.

Area Students Break Coding World Record

Students from Knox County Schools, Oak Ridge City Schools and area private schools joined together on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, breaking the world record for number of students learning how to code at the same time.

The idea to attempt a Guinness World Record was the brainchild of Brandon Bruce, co-founder and chief operating officer of Cirrus Insight, and Caleb Fristoe, project manager of CodeTN—a Great Schools Partnership initiative that organizes coding clubs, camps and competitions at area schools. The effort is heavily supported by Knox County Schools and its Educational Technology and Information Technology departments.

Approximately 67 percent of new jobs in STEM are in computing, which is the largest and fastest growing source of new wages in the U.S., with 500,000 jobs currently available.

“Computer Science will provide the blue-collar work of the future, and by starting today, we can equip our students with the necessary skills to compete for those jobs,” Fristoe said.

During the world record attempt, all students learned how to code using Scratch, a web application developed by MIT.

Innov865 Happy Hour discusses customer development, customer acquisition

Brandon Bruce, Co-founder of Cirrus Insight led an engaging discussion with Jenna Johns, COO of RDI Technologies and Dr. Graham Taylor, President of T&T Scientific talking about customer development and customer acquisition during a recent Innov865 Happy Hour hosted by UTRF.

Both Johns and Taylor are established entrepreneurs in Knoxville. Each of them are Startup Day veterans having pitched before a panel of investor judges and the greater Knoxville entrepreneurial community in years past.

They were nominated for the 2017 Innov865 Traction Award, presented by UT Federal Credit Union. The award is given to a Startup Day alum who has gained the most momentum over the past few years, and Johns won the award back in September.

RDI Technologies has patented a noncontact video camera-based technology platform that allows users to measure motion, vibration, deflection, and displacement not visible to the human eye. Unlike traditional contact monitoring systems, RDI’s technology measures data in real time, turning virtually every pixel in the camera’s view into a sensor capable of measuring vibration or motion with sub pixel accuracy.

Meanwhile T&T Scientific is a company that produces low-cost, single use liposome extrusion devices that simplify the process of preparing liposomes for research laboratories, manufacturing facilities, and clinical settings. Compared to other commercially available extrusion platforms, T&T Scientific’s NanoSizer (formerly LipX) technology is ready to use out of the package and does not require any assembly or cleaning.

During the Innov865 Happy Hour, Bruce asked Johns and Taylor when they received their first customers, how many customers they have to date, and if they experienced any pivots in the customer discovery process.

Johns elaborated that RDI Technologies first clients started coming in in August 2016, and they’ve since grown to 120 customers to date. But during the process, they did have to pivot.

“We started as a service company. We were taking out what we had invented and we were testing it and figuring out how the customer and end-user would want to use it. We got paid for that service, and we did it for about a year,” said Johns. “But every customer we had we heard ‘Well this looks so easy, why can’t I do it myself?’ So, we decided to take some time to work on our patenting strategy and made sure we had everything locked up in development, and we created the product and launched it for our customers and now we don’t do service at all,” said Johns.

Johns said that their product is sent to plants all across the U.S. and internationally, and 120 customers may not seem like a lot but since RDI Technologies’ systems run in the range of $30,000 each, it stands out. Dr. Taylor went next.

“T&T Scientific technically was founded September 1, 2015, so we just hit our two year mark,” said Dr. Taylor. “We consider April 2016 our first launch, and we started with manual, handheld extruders marketing to researchers in government labs, academic labs, and universities,” said Dr. Taylor.

Dr. Taylor elaborated that a perk with his product was that they didn’t have to go through the FDA to begin selling it, and they were able to complete a few preliminary trials and get some feedback to make them better.

“Just this past summer we officially launched our extrusion equipment, they’re automated devices,” said Dr. Taylor. “It’s nice to start with a manual, handheld extruder and when customers are ready we can take it to the next level with an automated machine,” said Dr. Taylor.

Dr. Taylor has already acquired 150 customers for T&T Scientific’s manual extruders and a few customers for the company’s automated devices as well.

Brandon Bruce outlines Knoxville’s claims to #1 spot

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on Teknovation.biz. Brandon Bruce, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Cirrusinsight and Knoxville’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016, presented the following list of Knoxville’s #1s in a speech at the recent Muse Knoxville luncheon. It’s pretty impressive.)

In 1980, The Wall Street Journal called Knoxville “a scruffy little city.” What the writer would see today is a beautiful and thriving Knoxville. We live in a city and region that is truly world class.

For example:

We’re #1 in national parks with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in America.

We’re #1 in lifestyle media with Scripps Networks Interactive, RIVR Media, Jupiter Entertainment, NorthSouth Productions, and more.

We’re #1 in homebuilding with Clayton Homes.

We’re #1 in movie theaters with Regal Entertainment Group.

We’re #1 in travel centers with Pilot Flying J.

We’re in the #1 state for growth and innovation in education with programs like Tennessee Promise.

We’re #1 in recreational boating with over 20 manufacturers including Brunswick and Malibu.

We’re #1 in church management software and online giving with Ministry Brands.

We’re #1 in pursuing novel detection and treatment for cancer with companies including ProNova and Provectus and EDP Biotech.

We’re #1 in 3D printing with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Local Motors, and more.

We’re #1 in outdoor recreation with the Urban Wilderness, Ijams, and hundreds of lakes, rivers, and parks.

We’re #1 in nuclear safety and security with Y-12, Analysis and Measurement Services Corporation, and more.

We’re #1 in jewelry e-commerce with Jewelry Television.

We’re #1 in pet products with Radio Systems Corporation.

We’re #1 in public power with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

We’re #1 in important things that start with the letter B: beans (Bush Brothers), bacon (Benton’s), breweries (more than any other city in Tennessee), and barbecue (too many great places to list).

According to Forbes, we’re the #2 happiest city to work in right now, but based on all of the above, I’d say we make a strong claim to #1.

As we celebrate springtime in Knoxville with the Big Ears Festival, the Dogwood Arts Festival, the International Biscuit Festival, Earthfest, Outdoor KnoxFest, and the Rossini Festival, we can be sure that Knoxville is a pretty great place to live and call home. In fact, we’re #1.