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.

Bunker Brews – Knoxville

The next Bunker Brews – Knoxville meet-up is set for 4:30 to 6:30p.m. Thursday, February 22 at Maple Hall, 414 South Gay Street, Knoxville.

This is the latest event in the overall effort to organize a Knoxville Chapter of the non-profit organization that is focused on helping veterans interested in being entrepreneurs.

You can read Teknovation.biz’s most recent article about the effort here that also includes a registration link.

ORNL unveils five entrepreneurs, four companies in inaugural “Innovation Crossroads” cohort

(NOTE: This article was originally published on Teknovation.biz)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) set a goal of finding up to five of the nation’s top young energy innovators and, by all accounts, it appears the recruiting team has achieved its goal with the inaugural cohort for the “Innovation Crossroads.”

ORNL leaders publicly unveiled the four start-ups at an event yesterday in Oak Ridge attended by the innovators, researchers with whom they will be working, and two top administrators from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

“If you look five, 10, 15 or 20 years ahead, where is the innovation going to come from to continue our nation’s economic growth,” Mark Johnson, Director of DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, asked. His answer was “programs like this.” Joining Johnson from DOE headquarters was Johanna Wolfson, Director of the Technology-to-Market Program.

In a conversation ahead of the event, Johnson described “Innovation Crossroads” and two similar programs at other DOE labs as a post-doc program. After all, the five innovators have either earned their Ph.Ds. or are in the process of completing them.

For ORNL, yesterday’s announcement was the culmination of a process that began more than six months ago with a solicitation of applications. Day-to-day responsibility for “Innovation Crossroads” is being handled by Tom Rogers, ORNL’s Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development, and Beth Conerty, Program Lead for Entrepreneurial Support and Development.

As described in this September 20 article from teknovation.biz, the program is part of a DOE effort to help accelerate clean energy technologies in an era of substantially limited venture capital. The ORNL initiative is the third in DOE’s Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program (LEEP). The pilot, named “Cyclotron Road,” was tested at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a second program, named “Chain Reaction Innovations,” started last year at Argonne National Laboratory.

A quick review of the resumes of the five entrepreneurs shows impressive pedigrees. Two either have or will soon earn their doctorates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where one was Co-Director of the prestigious “MIT Clean Energy Prize,” the largest such student-led competition in the country. Another student is working on her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University while also serving as a National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellow. Yet another, ironically from Knoxville, just finished his doctorate at Cornell University. The final selectee is a local entrepreneur – Ming Qi – who has his own start-up named Peroxygen Systems and has already achieved significant recognition, winning a seed grant under DOE’s ARPA-E program and being selected to work with DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the Departments’ “Small Business Vouchers” program.

Those credentials remind me of a frequent ad on the Golf Channel with a tagline of “These guys are really good.”

ORNL began accepting applications in mid-November and culled the initial round of more than 50 applicants to 16 semi-finalists who were brought to Oak Ridge for interviews. Nine finalists were selected for more interviews before yesterday’s announcement of the four start-ups that were eventually chosen.

The five Entrepreneurs – one team has two Co-Founders – arrived a few weeks ago to start the two-year experience. It includes a stipend that will help cover living expenses and healthcare, collaboration space at ORNL, up to $350,000 in R&D support from ORNL through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), business model development assistance, help with marketing strategies, mentorship, and introductions to other successful energy entrepreneurs as well as potential industry partners.

Local organizations are supporting the effort including PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz. In PYA’s case, the firm will be helping these bright engineers with business structure and accounting advice. Also, through the relatively new Launch Tennessee Networks initiative, “Innovation Crossroads” participants will be able to access the Energy Mentor Network operated by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council.

Click here to read the official ORNL news release.

Local Motors’ Olli to make its debut in September during Innov865 Week

April’s Innov865 Happy Hour sponsored by Three Roots Capital welcomed a special announcement from Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, telling a hefty crowd at Scruffy City Hall that Local Motors’ self-driving electric vehicle Olli will soon be making its debut this September during Innov865 Week.

Olli was created at Local Motors’s micro factory in Hardin Valley using 3D printing technology.

Add that to the many reasons you should attend the Innov865 Alliance’s Signature Week celebrating entrepreneurship and the Knoxville startup community.

This comes after a series of technology announcements in East Tennessee. In Market Square earlier Thursday, Olli was unveiled for the public to get an up-close look at the innovation happening in Knoxville.

Knoxville Mayor Rogero announcing self-driving vehicle Olli will soon be taking over City streets.

It’s important to mention, Visit Knoxville is going to roll an Olli out on a test basis this fall at some events in places like World’s Fair Park and Chilhowee Park and Exposition Center.

The longer-term goal is to have Olli running on city streets, by the end of next year, for Visit Knoxville events and giving tours of the city following pre-programmed maps.

There was also a separate announcement on Tuesday from Knoxville entrepreneur Bill Malkes, founder of GRIDSMART.

The company has donated some of its new STREETSMART Wi-Fi data cameras for the City of Knoxville to pilot at some of the busiest intersections along Kingston Pike, specifically the intersection of Kingston Pike and Northshore Drive.

These cameras collect real-time traffic information on traffic flow and congestion, which City engineers can use to get better information about how and when traffic backs up on that corridor.

This will help the City make better adjustments to signal timing and eventually to respond immediately to changing conditions so that they can reduce congestion, reduce vehicle emissions, and get everybody where they’re going faster.

These two technologies combined could eventually become a fully connected smart transportation system, where you have vehicles like Local Motors’ Olli sending and receiving information to infrastructure like GRIDSMART’s cameras, allowing everything to move much more efficiently.

With both of these announcements and the work going on at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and across the Innovation Valley, Knoxville is well positioned to be on the forefront of smart transportation technology.

(L to R) Grady Vanderhoofven of Three Roots Capital, Bill Malkes of GRIDSMART, and Tom Ballard of PYA & Teknovation.biz

During the April Innov865 Happy Hour sponsored by Three Roots Capital, there was also a featured fireside chat with GRIDSMART Founder Bill Malkes and Three Roots Capital CEO & Meritus Capital Management Managing Partner Grady Vanderhoofven. The two, along with moderator Tom Ballard of PYA and Teknovation.biz, discussed the founding and growth of GRIDSMART and the role the company is playing in the intelligent transportation industry.

Bill and Grady talked about how the company was founded, raised capital, staffed the business, developed its product, established and expanded production in East Tennessee, and what the future holds for GRIDSMART.