NE Accelerator Director sees real opportunity to impact region

The Acting Director of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Entrepreneurial Accelerator relishes the opportunity to be in his own start-up mode while also executing on a plan to help start-ups in the eight-county region.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, David Lawrence talked enthusiastically about the plans for the accelerator, one of nine funded in part by a $250,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Northeast Tennessee component goes by the name of AccelNow.

Lawrence is a retired Eastman executive who later ran East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Innovation Lab before retiring for a second time several years ago. He found that retirement was not for him, at least right now, and he jumped at the chance to help launch AccelNow.

“I’m passionate about this stuff,” he said. “This could be the catalyst for regional collaboration that I have never seen.”

AccelNow is led by ETSU, but Lawrence is quick to point out that “it is not just ETSU.” Like the other eight accelerators, it is a partnership involving key players from the region. In AccelNow’s case, the participating organization or “sponsors” include Mountain States Health Alliance, two local utilities (Bristol Tennessee Essential Services and Johnson City Power Board), Eastman Credit Union, three regional business leaders (Pal Barger, Alex Borla and Scott Niswonger), and two ETSU entities – College of Business and Technology and Office of Research and Sponsored Programs Administration.

“We must have regional support, and we must deliver regional results,” Lawrence said. Funding is roughly 50-50 between public and private sources currently, but he is optimistic that the program will be fully sustainable within three years.

AccelNow expects to help local entrepreneurs start at least six companies by the end of the calendar year. To do so, the program will apply a set of assessment tools to entrepreneurs who are interested in starting a business and contact AccelNow. The assessment tools, many adopted from The Entrepreneur Center in Nashville, will help AccelNow know the areas where the entrepreneurs can best be served.

Lawrence said that four local higher education institutions – ETSU, Milligan College, Northeast State Technical Community College, and Tusculum College – have agreed to provide much of the training needed. They will be joined by three other organizations – Tennessee Small Business Development Center, Kingsport Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and Oak Ridge-based Tech 20/20.

The first training program – “Ruby on Rails” – was scheduled for March 31, but had to be postponed due to the instructor’s illness. This workshop on how to build a web page will be rescheduled soon. AccelNow plans a start-up weekend this summer. All-day “Entrepreneur Boot Camps” are planned for April 14, 21 and 28.

“We’re using everything we can” to serve the regional entrepreneurs, Lawrence said. AccelNow has licensed Tech 20/20’s “ThrottleUp” concept which leads to a pitch competition called “Will This Float?” that is planned for May. And, ETSU will offer a course in the summer session on “Ice House Entrepreneurship.”

AccelNow also has access to four facilities geared at least in part to entrepreneurs. They are ETSU’s Innovation Lab which has offices, classrooms and conference rooms; ETSU’s Valleybrook site, a former Eastman facility that has offices and wet labs; a 900-square foot office in Greenville donated by Niswonger; and Borla Commerce Park, originally built as a Texas Instruments plant that also provides office space.

One of the goals of the regional accelerators is to build on the region’s strengths. In AccelNow’s case, Lawrence sees these as chemical and biological; healthcare and more specifically, the intersection of healthcare and information technology; and advanced manufacturing technology. After attending a Life Science Tennessee regional meeting in Oak Ridge in late March where representatives of four of the state’s TNInvestcos presented, he’s added medical devices to the list.

Lawrence admits that some of the entrepreneurs will be further along than others when they first engage with AccelNow. For those who have a solid idea and at least a good start on a business plan, AccelNow will connect them to seasoned mentors. AccelNow had a dozen mentors who had signed-up when the interview was conducted.

“We want to move them (the entrepreneurs) to starting a business and securing funding,” he said.

Lawrence also praised the inaugural AccelNow board that represents all of the key stakeholders.

There is clearly much to be done, but you can see the excitement and passion that Lawrence has for the accelerator and the impact that it can have on the region.

Entrepreneurs in the eight-county region can contact Lawrence at lawrencd@etsu.edu or at 423/292-3460.

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