Now is our time to celebrate Knoxville’s entrepreneurial community

(Originally posted on Made for Knoxville)

By Jim Biggs, Executive Director, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and Cortney Piper, Innov865 Alliance

It is an exciting time to be part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Knoxville. 

In this city, we’re more than willing to get excited about the latest Vols win or claim Dolly Parton as our region’s patron saint, but we have not always been as proactive about telling the world about what makes our city such a great place to live, work and play.

Our community has been so busy rolling up its sleeves, testing technology in the lab, strategizing in the boardroom and mentoring the next generation of innovators that we have forgotten to let people in on our best-kept secret: Knoxville’s entrepreneurial scene is thriving. We think it’s about time the rest of the country knows that too. From a nationally recognized business accelerator coming to town to concentrated efforts to promote our city’s entrepreneurs, we have some fantastic developments to share.

“Put simply: Knoxville is made for entrepreneurs. We know what we’re doing and want more people and businesses to recognize that too.”

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center serves as our city’s “front door for entrepreneurs.” Our mission is to build a community where entrepreneurs have access to the capital, customers and talent they need to be successful. We are a member of the Innov865 Alliance, a group of companies and stakeholders dedicated to advocating for Knoxville’s startups and entrepreneurs, ensuring our ecosystem is strong, vibrant and coordinated. The Alliance’s vision is to be a “nationally recognized” hub of innovation and entrepreneurship by leveraging our region’s world-class research, creative and technological capabilities to build the most connected and diverse startup community in Tennessee.

Our work is in line with the City of Knoxville’s latest commitments to bolster its entrepreneurial community. Mayor Indya Kincannon’s proposed 2021-22 city budget emphasizes investments in five priority areas, one of which is “thriving businesses and good jobs.” In this category, the proposed budget would provide over $1 million to support the City’s economic development partners, $90,000 in new funding to support business development in the Latino community, and $150,000 in new funding for KEC, including support for the 100Knoxville project to grow Black-owned businesses.

KEC and the Alliance’s efforts to grow and support our entrepreneurial community also wouldn’t be possible without the brilliant minds and extensive resources of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the University of Tennessee. These three entities recently came together to support the launch of a Knoxville Techstars accelerator in 2022. Over the next three years, the Techstars accelerator will engage 10 startups a year, attracting new entrepreneurs from around the world to start and grow their businesses right here.

Before launching the accelerator, Techstars released an assessment of Knoxville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, highlighting both what makes our community so great and areas where we can continue to grow. Techstars identified five primary benefits of our region: large research institutions, excellent quality of life, relatively low cost of living, deep pool of technical talent and exciting support organizations for startups. We couldn’t agree more.

The report also identified six “gaps” where our community can continue to grow. Those gaps include funding, support for growth-stage companies, participation, access, measurement and perception.

Perception, or the fact that many people in our state and city don’t know how well our companies are performing, was number one. Even though we’ve had many successful ventures over the years — Arkis Biosciences, Genera, EDP Biotech, Cirrus Insight, and Gridsmart, to name a few — this report made us realize how we need to do a better job sharing our triumphs within the community and on a larger scale.

We believe Knoxville is a wonderful place to start and grow a business. Our nationally recognized institutions, organizations, and resources are incredible assets for anyone looking to make it as an entrepreneur. Yet, simply having access to TVA or business support from KEC isn’t enough to make Knoxville great. The secret to Knoxville’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem is connection. Our organizations, groups, and experts continually collaborate and connect to ensure that we’re offering the best resources, opportunities, and expertise. Unlike larger cities, Knoxville entrepreneurs have ready access to this interconnected network of change-makers and leaders in their respective fields.

Put simply: Knoxville is made for entrepreneurs. We know what we’re doing and want more people and businesses to recognize that too. We have the talent, labs, resources and know-how to transform our community and the world around us. This city is made for makers, dreamers, leaders, inventors, investors and visionaries. Now is our time to highlight the great work innovators in our city are doing every single day, which is why we’re launching the Made for Knoxville campaign.

Made for Knoxville will elevate awareness of Knoxville’s diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem, and inspire action. The goal is to connect and empower the diverse entrepreneurial community in the Knoxville region — ranging from “solo-preneurs,” makers, growth-stage tech companies, investors and established institutions.

Over the next few months , KEC will release dozens of inspiring, incredible stories about the hardworking men and women who make our entrepreneurial scene so vibrant. From hard-tech researchers to artisans, we are letting the world know that Knoxville is truly “made” for entrepreneurs. Come join us.

Mayor Kincannon shares priorities, goals supporting Knoxville’s entrepreneurial community

City of Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon participated in an Innov865 Webinar, where she presented her priorities and vision for supporting Knoxville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Mayor Kincannon was out on a family vacation as she joined us remotely to share her goals under her administration. During the webinar, the mayor gave a shoutout to our entrepreneurs pivoting in these uncertain times to meet the needs of our community and beyond.

  • EDP Biotech, a Startup Day 2019 alum, was focusing its lab work on cancer screenings but has since become one of a few entities on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website now recognized as a commercial testing lab and manufacturer of COVID-19 serology (antibody) tests.
  • Integrity Labs gained a nod from the mayor as they are also assisting in COVID-19 testing, as well as the many distilleries that began producing hand sanitizer in light of the shortages and donated a lot of it to our public safety and first responders.
  • Songboarding, a recent winner of Innov865 Alliance member Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s What’s the Big Idea? competition was also mentioned by our mayor. The startup produces workplace safety training songs, and as public health is top of mind in light of COVID-19, co-founder Mike Benn created a song to encourage people to wash their hands and follow CDC guidelines.

Mayor Kincannon also stressed the importance of working with community partners and the Chamber of Commerce to make sure opportunities and resources are equitable to all.

“One of my goals as Mayor is to support the entrepreneurial community and make sure that those opportunities to invest and to grow your business and to plant your idea and turn your idea into a workable strategy is something that is available to everybody,” said Mayor Kincannon.

The mayor highlighted that in order to solidify Knoxville’s innovation ecosystem, there needs to be better connectivity. On top of having the infrastructure that supports collaboration, entrepreneurs need to be in close proximity with each other to catalyze more innovation. That’s certainly a challenge right now, in light of COVID-19, but the mayor said she wants the city and the mayor’s office to be a part of that strategic planning moving forward. The mayor reiterated one of her goals during her term is to launch and move forward on an innovation district or an opportunity district.

Mayor Kincannon shared how she’s had several conversations with Knoxville’s entrepreneurs to help understand what their needs are and how the City can help. Anna Douglas of SkyNano, a 2017 Startup Day winner, explained to the mayor the technology needs for wet labs and access to resources that new businesses need for facilitating and incubating.

Douglas is a familiar name in Knoxville as she’s a graduate of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Innovation Crossroads program, and just won two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grants that total $2.7 million, including cost share for one, and has two other smaller projects lined-up for the start-up founded in January 2017 and focused on manufacturing of low-cost, high-value carbon materials from carbon dioxide.

Mayor Kincannon also expressed interest in Knoxville mimicking Memphis’ 800 Initiative, which is dedicated to helping grow minority business through the deliberate investment of assistance, capital, corporate engagement, and other resources.

“Memphis is a much bigger city but ours might be the Knoxville 100. The idea is to not reinvent the wheel but to give access to minority owned businesses to the resources that already exist to support small and growing businesses,” said Mayor Kincannon. “The goal is very attainable and measurable, and it’s to give people access to services, remove the barriers for mentoring, and access to capital.” 

EDP Biotech taking reservations for COVID-19 antibody testing

EDP Biotech has been busy since the company took the stage at Startup Day 2019, by now offering COVID-19 antibody testing.

You likely remember Eric Mayer, as he is the CEO of EDP Biotech, a medical device company whose mission is the development and commercialization of in-vitro diagnostic tests that detect disease early. EDP’s platform technology utilizes machine learning and multiplexing to simultaneously measure numerous proteins from a single blood draw.

EDP was planning on launching its first multi-marker blood test from the platform, ColoPlex™, used in the early detection of colorectal cancer and presenting some new data at upcoming conferences when the coronavirus hit.

Facing uncertainty and the added stress of finding out some of his own family members were diagnosed with the coronavirus, Mayer dedicated himself to learning as much as possible. In conversations with doctors across the state, he recognized the need for widespread antibody testing.

EDP’s facility and lab was recently added as one of a few entities on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website as a commercial testing lab and manufacturer of COVID-19 serology (antibody) tests.

With this announcement, EDP has started developing the tools needed to build, scale and validate tests here in Tennessee. The company is also hiring medical technicians to be able to deliver testing services to Tennessee as the economy reopens.

EDP has begun performing a modest 100 antibody tests a day for researchers, with the hopes of potentially performing three to four thousand tests a day for patients across Tennessee pending further regulatory approvals.

The company has since opened its CLIA laboratory, and they can now begin taking reservations for COVID-19 antibody testing. You can browse through their website for antibody test facts and other important details.

Once the test has received its final FDA authorization, EDP will contact you directly with next steps to finish your test order and receive your at-home finger stick blood collection kit in the mail.