Techstars findings about Knoxville innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem revealed in town hall event

(Originally posted on Teknovation.biz)

By Tom Ballard

The final report, including gaps and recommendations that were identified in the recently completed Techstars assessment of the Knoxville area innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, is now pubic, and the hard work is just beginning to ensure the region capitalizes on the effort.

As TVA Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jeff Lyash told the slightly more than 100 attendees at yesterday morning’s virtual town hall, “It’s our job to take this Techstars assessment and operationalize it.” The full report can be downloaded at this link. If you were not able to view the town hall, you can watch it here (page down to “Report Out” section).

In a rapid-fire overview of the report, Rhett Morris, a Consultant who talked with many in the community on one or more occasions, outlined the regional strengths that the Techstars assessment identified and the gaps that need to be addressed.

“I heard that this was a unique moment for the Knoxville community,” Morris said, adding that he concluded the community was performing “far below its actual potential.” Those comments echoed opening remarks by Jeff Smith, Deputy Director for Operations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who said it this way: “The region punches below its weight in innovation.”

For those who are intimately involved in the local innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, none of the findings that Morris outlined should be surprising nor should the proposed recommendations. They are as follows:

  • Strengths – the vibrant research community, regional quality of life, low cost of living, deep technology talent, and existing support organizations for start-ups.
  • Gaps – perception of the region, locally and more broadly; funding for start-ups, frequently referred to as access to capital; insufficient support in ways such as mentoring; easier access to the bigger public and private enterprises; lower levels of participation by minorities; and absence of defined goals with appropriate metrics and regular reporting.

After Morris’ presentation, representatives of the Innov865 Alliance discussed how the Alliance, as a group, and also as individual members will take leadership responsibility for addressing the gaps and specific ways in which that will occur.

  • Grady Vanderhoofven, President and CEO of Three Roots Capital, said his firm will lead “a shared initiative to address capital” that includes: (1) expanding on efforts such as the TennesSeed Fund launched in 2019; and (2) working closely with the Knoxville Chamber on the latter’s access to capital initiative that is a component of its broader “Path to Prosperity” plan.
  • Jim Biggs, Executive Director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), spotlighted activities that cover several of the gaps through: (1) its “Made for Knoxville” initiative; (2) a collaboration with the City of Knoxville to launch a Mayor’s Entrepreneurship Council patterned after the well-established Mayor’s Maker Council; (3) the recently revamped and renamed “Inflection Point” initiative; and (4) new efforts focused on underrepresented populations like the upcoming “100Knoxville Launch Event.”
  • I had the privilege of addressing three topics – perception, access and measurement. The points that I made included: (1) the Alliance will create and coordinate an ongoing, integrated public relations and marketing campaign to showcase our regional successes, both historical and current, as well as assets that will focus locally, regionally and nationally; (2) PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz, has added an additional writer with part of her role being to help expand on what we are already doing to tell the community story; (3) Alliance members will continue their individual regional promotional efforts in various ways such as KEC’s “Made for Knoxville” initiative and the “Startup Knox” podcast series that will feature Randy Boyd as of today; (4) the Alliance will take leadership for developing a set of metrics to show our progress and produce a report card that will be routinely updated and spotlighted in teknovation.biz; and (5) the Alliance will work to identify and/or recruit “Navigators” to help facilitate access to and connectivity between entrepreneurs and the region’s assets – from big enterprises like ORNL, TVA and University of Tennessee (UT) to private companies like PYA and others that can and should help local entrepreneurs.

The 90-minute session also featured the leaders of the three sponsoring organizations – UT President Randy Boyd; Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); and Lyash – along with their key representatives on the Techstars Steering Committee – Joe Hoagland, TVA’s Vice President of Enterprise Relations and Innovation; Stacey Patterson, UT’s Vice President for Research, Economic Development and Outreach; and ORNL’s Smith.

Boyd, Lyash and Zacharia separately noted the significance of the region’s largest employers coming together to collaborate on the Techstars effort and the potential benefits that will derive from it.

Zacharia talked about likely new federal initiatives in the R&D/innovation space and said that East Tennessee is “positioned perfectly” for significant investment. In the case of Boyd, one of the region’s most recognized and very successful entrepreneurs, the emphasis was on what he called “an historic partnership” and an important message for those who are starting or those who are supporting entrepreneurs who are starting new businesses.

“Entrepreneurship is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “There is a catalytic or compounding effect” that comes from working collaboratively.

Endeavor Summit 2017

Endeavor 2017 empowers Knoxville’s young professionals to engage with their community and take ownership of their professional growth. Compelling keynote speakers and dynamic discussions inspire the next generation of leaders to launch their own ideas, evolve their personal brands, and invest in regional progress.

This one-day experience is produced by the Knoxville Chamber.

Two compelling keynote speakers headline the morning and afternoon sessions at Endeavor 2017: Hallerin Hilton Hill, talk radio host on Newstalk 98.7 WOKI and television talk show host of Anything is Possible on WBIR-TV; and Chris “Bash” Bashinelli, host of Bridge the Gapfeatured on PBS and the National Geographic Channel.

To learn more and register for the Endeavor Summit, visit www.EndeavorSummit.com

Endeavor Summit 2017 will be your chance to get a preview of Innov865 Week 2017

More than 600 young professionals will be coming to Knoxville on September 15 for Endeavor Summit 2017 where attendees will also get a sneak peak into what Innov865 Week 2017 has to offer.

The one-day experience will take over three major venues along Depot Avenue in the Old City. Produced by the Knoxville Chamber and planned by a team of young professional volunteers, Endeavor is designed to empower our region’s emerging leaders to evolve their personal brand and elevate the community through collective development opportunities.

The Innov865 Alliance will have a booth set up at the Summit, where attendees can learn more about Innov865 Week 2017 events celebrating Knoxville’s entrepreneurial community and sign up for the feature event Startup Day 2017.

Two compelling keynote speakers will headline the morning and afternoon sessions: Hallerin Hilton Hill, talk radio host on Newstalk 98.7 WOKI and television talk show host of Anything is Possible on WBIR-TV; and Chris “Bash” Bashinelli, host of Bridge the Gap featured on PBS and the National Geographic Channel.

Breakout session topics focus on Launching Something New, Growing What You Got, and Why Knoxville is No. 1. Attendees can choose from the multiple breakout session options, allowing for the creation of a custom schedule tailored to their individual goals. The day wraps up with networking happy hour featuring local music, craft brews, and food.

Each attendee also has the chance to participate in activities designed to inspire growth, engagement, and excitement. These include contributing to an on-site, service-to-go project; observing the work of a local muralist; connecting with over 600 peers and community leaders; utilizing a hacker lounge; and exploring non-profit and sponsor exhibits. Lunch features local restaurants and food trucks for an outdoor picnic, and DJs amplify the experience with music and entertainment.

Individual tickets and special group rates are now available. Registration includes access to all keynote and breakout sessions, activities, breakfast, lunch, networking opportunities, and the Endeavor Happy Hour.

Knoxville welcomes Innovation Crossroads’ innovators to East Tennessee

The Knoxville Chamber was a packed house Tuesday when the Innovation Crossroad’s innovators pitched their startup before Knoxville’s entrepreneurial community during an Innov865 Happy Hour.

Dozens came out to see the cleantech companies present their next-generation ideas solving global energy challenges.

Innovation Crossroads is a program based at ORNL that matches aspiring energy entrepreneurs with the experts, mentors, and networks in technology-related fields to take their world-changing ideas from R&D to the marketplace.

Several entrepreneurs were selected to transform their ideas into clean energy companies with financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Innovators receive a fellowship that covers living costs, benefits and a travel stipend for up to two years, plus up to $350,000 to use on collaborative research and development at ORNL.

The crowd heard from Mitchell Ishmael of Active Energy Systems first. Ishmael is utilizing a saltwater material to store electricity as thermal energy. The method provides a much cheaper alternative to providing onsite backup power for customers than standby generators or batteries. It is expected to encourage the installation of more distributed, renewable power generation.

Ishmael explained how energy storage is still high cost and low efficiency and the resources available to him in East Tennessee could help change that.

“Innovation Crossroads is providing us all a leg up already,” said Ishmael.

Anna Douglas of SkyNano Technologies presented her pitch next. Douglas’ technology utilizes carbon dioxide as feedstock to significantly lower the production cost of carbon nanotubes. The process provides a use for captured greenhouse gases while benefiting clean energy technologies and advanced manufacturing.

“SkyNano Technologies has made immense progress with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and my company has benefited from the lab’s community connections,” said Douglas.

Finally, the crowd heard from Matthew Ellis and Samuel Shaner of Yellowstone Energy. The two are developing an advanced nuclear reactor with the potential for faster installation while optimizing safety in order to provide a clean source of baseload electricity. The design uses an already licensed uranium fuel with an ambient pressure, high temperature coolant.

“Yellowstone Energy’s solution delivers lower cost, advanced nuclear sooner,” said Ellis.

Tom Rogers, Innov865 Alliance member and Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development at ORNL, stressed to the audience afterwards that applications are still open for Startup Day 2017 pitch competition.

Interested East Tennessee startups have until July 10, 2017 to apply to pitch their business on the U.S. Cellular Stage at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville. New this year, the Startup Day pitch competition will feature two prize categories: judges’ choice and crowd favorite. Competitors will have an opportunity to win up to $15,000.