By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Those who know me well appreciate the fact that I rarely quote poetry. In fact, it’s much more likely that I will quote the lyrics of a 50s, 60s or 70s song.
Yet, as I began thinking about a way to capture my thoughts related to a significant transition in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, I could not help but recall a famous phrase from a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer.
“All good things must come to an end,” the well-known writer penned in the mid-1380s in relation to a great love story. As I think about that phrase, it is in the context of Technology 2020, a more than 22-year old organization with which I have been associated through my three professional careers.
When the Oak Ridge-based non-profit was founded in 1994, it was truly a pioneer, blazing a path that few had followed nationally and none locally. It was an era when telecommunications and the Internet were blossoming, videoconferencing was in its infancy, and innovators were exploring the best strategies to grow information technology businesses.
Tech 2020 was right in the middle of all of these efforts. One of its better known and longer lasting telecommunications initiatives was the Digital Crossing, the region’s first data center. Tech 2020 was truly an innovator and trailblazer.
When the University of Tennessee (UT) and Battelle Memorial Institute joined forces in 1999 to successfully bid on and win the management contract for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tech 2020 was assigned a significant role – helping grow the local start-up ecosystem based on technologies invented at the lab. The focus of those efforts was a program named the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth. It evolved over the period to also support UT and the UT Research Foundation.
During its years of working with technology-based start-ups, Tech 2020 was involved with dozens of new companies like Pro2Serve, NucSafe, Protomet, Imtek, Protein Discovery, Aldus, Nanotek, and Netlearning. One cannot dispute the fact that the local ecosystem is more vibrant today because of these early efforts of Tech 2020.
The first decade of the millennium saw major new efforts to improve access to capital. Tech 2020 partnered with Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation to establish the Southern Appalachian Fund (SAF) in October 2003. Three years later, the SAF team created Meritus Ventures. Tech 2020 was also instrumental in establishing the Lighthouse Fund, the region’s first locally-based angel fund. And, Pathway Lending was launched out of Tech 2020 as Southeastern Community Capital.
Since the start of the current decade, the local ecosystem has changed for the better, ushering in new organizations like the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UT. Nothing breeds success like success, so it is only natural to see these new organizations, each with a targeted focus, grow stronger.
Just like a new start-up company, the founder is not always the leader who can take the organization to the next level. That’s the way that I view the winding down of Tech 2020. It laid the foundation, established a foothold, and championed the cause. It’s now time for others to take the region to the next level.
From mid-January through last week, I’ve been privileged to serve with seven of my dedicated colleagues on the Tech 2020 Executive Committee. We met weekly to oversee the wind down of the organization. Some efforts were ended, but many, like access to capital, have been transitioned to others to carry forward. The work of the Executive Committee and the full Board of Directors ended last week, but the Tech 2020 legacy will be continued even though the organization as we’ve known it for 22 years will not.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists today in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region is vastly different and more robust than the one that those of us on the inaugural Board of Directors at Tech 2020 found in 1994. For that fact, anyone who cares about entrepreneurship should be eternally grateful.
If you do a Google search on Chaucer’s quote from the 1380s, there is one hit that offers an expanded phrase that seems so appropriate and applicable to the wind down of Tech 2020. It reads as follows: “All GOOD things must come to an end to make way for BETTER things to happen because the BEST is yet to come.”
That’s not only my hope, but my belief.