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.

Knoxville’s annual entrepreneurship festival to feature mayoral forum, pitch competition, and the area’s top innovators

Discover the trailblazers and innovators behind Knoxville’s growing startup community during 2019 Innov865 Week, coming up September 23 – 27, 2019. The annual entrepreneurship festival, hosted by the Innov865 Alliance, spotlights Knoxville as a great place to start and grow businesses and connects the entrepreneurs planting roots here with support systems to succeed.

Innov865 Week boasts a range of events for everyone in the community to support local economic development, from investors and regional entrepreneurs to community leaders and students. “Entrepreneurship is essential to the success of our community,” said Tom Rogers, president and CEO of the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm and founding member of the Innov865 Alliance. “When we invest in building a supportive, high-growth ecosystem for aspiring and mature startups to grow their businesses here, everyone in Knoxville benefits.”

This year’s featured guest is Ted Serbinski, the managing director of Techstars Mobility, the first U.S. startup accelerator program focused on next-generation mobility technologies. Techstars is an American seed accelerator with more than 1,900 companies in its portfolio and has invested $6.2 billion in startups since 2006. Serbinski is a founding member and former partner of Detroit Venture Partners, a $55 million seed-stage fund that has invested in more than 25 companies. 

The week’s premier event is Startup Day, Tuesday, September 24, at the Mill & Mine in downtown Knoxville. This year’s festivities are bigger than ever: a mayoral forum moderated by WATE 6 On Your Side is planned, where the two candidates competing in the November general election to become Knoxville’s next mayor will present their vision for entrepreneurship and innovation. Other activities include a fireside chat with Genera, a local startup affiliated with the University of Tennessee Research Foundation that recently secured a $118 million investment for sustainable packaging and fiber products made from grass. 

Startup Day’s main event is the annual “Shark-Tank”-style pitch competition for a chance to win up to $10,000 in cash prizes. This year, six of Knoxville’s most investable startups will pitch their businesses on-stage before a panel of expert judges. In addition to the opportunity to spotlight their startup for investors, entrepreneurs will compete for a “crowd favorite” cash prize presented by SunTrust Bank. The 2019 expert judges panel features Richard Dapaah, venture partner with FundRX and Knoxville Entrepreneur Center executive-in-residence; Sue Malone, president of Strategies for Small Business; and featured guest Ted Serbinski with Techstars.

The competing startups were hand-selected by the Innov865 Alliance for their extraordinary potential and investability. They are:

Active Energy – startup offering ultra-efficient, low-cost thermal energy storage utilizing the world’s first “icephobic coating,” a patent-pending invention that creates a surface impervious to freezing water, thus improving cooling performance by completely eliminating ice build-up.

Cofounder: Mitchell Ishmael

EDP Biotech – medical device diagnostics company with novel platform technology enabling earlier detection of diseases such as colorectal cancer, using machine learning and multiplexing to perform more advanced and efficient blood tests.

CEO: Eric Mayer

Reviewbox – e-commerce software platform that enables brands and manufacturers to track product reviews and sales data across online retail sites like Amazon, providing visibility into every aspect of an e-commerce business and connecting companies directly with their customers.

Founder and CEO: Jim Horey

SmartRIA – software platform with proprietary technology that simplifies compliance for investment advisors, saving firms and hybrid firms time and money in maintaining compliance with federal and state regulations.

CEO: Mac Bartine

TCPoly – 3D printing company developing advanced materials and technology, including the world’s highest thermal conductivity filament (50x higher than traditional plastics). When combined with the design freedom of 3D printing, can be used to make lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and high-performance heat transfer components.

Cofounder and CEO: Matt Smith 

Winter Innovations – medical device company inventing novel orthopedic surgical tools that improve patient outcomes in high-risk procedures, such as the EasyWhipTM specialty needle that improves the stability, speed, and efficiency of graft stitching, a critical component of surgery for torn ligaments and tendons. 

Founder: Lia Winter

Startup Day is free and open to the public; doors will open at 1:30pm. Tickets are available now online.

In addition to Startup Day, Innov865 Week is full of both public and invitation-only festivities including a reception with local startups and venture capitalists; an Investor Series with GRIDSMART founder and CEO Bill Malkes; investor speed pitching; a celebration of Oak Ridge National Lab’s Innovation Crossroads graduates and incoming cohort of new energy startups; and frequent happy hours and networking opportunities. 

To learn more about the week’s events and details, visit www.innov865.com/calendar/2019-09/. This calendar will be updated as events are added throughout the week.