By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The word that comes to mind is bravo!
That’s the way I would describe my feelings after a capacity crowd of supporters filled Knoxville’s Scruff City Hall on Market Square Sunday evening as six teams of entrepreneurs concluded their 48-hour marathon that began Friday night at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC).
The weekend event was the second annual version of the revamped “What’s the Big Idea,” an entrepreneurial activity initially created by the Development Corporation of Knox County. Other sponsors are the Knoxville Chamber, KEC and, for the first time ever, Pershing Yoakley & Associates (PYA), the power behind teknovation.biz.
As much as anything, this year’s event was testimony to how far Knoxville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has come in the last three or four years. The breadth and sophistication of the ideas pitched, the progress that the teams had made before and during the weekend marathon, and the expertise of the entrepreneurs underscored this observation.
Let’s start with the diversity of entrepreneurs. Most held full-time jobs – Electrical and Software Engineers, Board-certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), System Integration Engineer, Marketing Analyst, and Publishers – but they saw a need and an opportunity for the idea they were advancing. There were even two full-time doctoral students from the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education at the University of Tennessee.
You get the picture, I hope. These were not individuals who had nothing better to do with their time. They were entrepreneurs who were passionate about the need that they were seeking to address. They are already successful, but they want to do even more in the future.
Nothing better underscored that fact than the final presenter of the evening – Elizabeth Ginder. She is a BCBA who specializes in working with children from two years old through early adulthood who have intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as severe, challenging behaviors.
Ginder is obviously passionate about her work, and you could see it so clearly on her face and in her voice as she pitched her company – ABA Pocket Interventions – by describing a conversation she had just an hour earlier with the single parent of a child with autism. She was trying to get ready for the event, but she took the call anyway, because she knew it was a client who needed her at that very moment.
“My passion is for kids with special needs,” Ginder told the crowd as she described her idea – a tool for other BCBAs that will make them much more efficient in the way they support their clients.
As far as the ideas pitched, they covered the waterfront, all reflective of the robust but diverse Knoxville ecosystem. The winner was Farm Spotter, a mobile web portal that eliminates the middleman by connecting local farmers directly to local restaurants and markets. Doug McDaniel, Chief Technology Officer, said the start-up already has several local customers including Scruff City Hall, Tomato Head, Bistro by the Bijou, Knox Mason, and Three Rivers Market.
At the other end of the spectrum was Grow Bioplastics that is focused on replacing oil-based plastics in farming and gardening with home-grown biodegradable materials made from lignin. Tony Bova, a Bredesen Center student from Ohio, presented the company along with Jeff Beegle, a fellow Bredesen Center student.
What’s so significant about graduate students being involved?
Many readers may not recall or maybe never heard that one of the goals of the Bredesen Center program was to use entrepreneurship as a way to have “stickiness” for some of the nation’s best students who come here for their doctorates. Will they stay or will they leave after graduation? The hope is the former for entrepreneurially-minded individuals like Bova and Beegle.
The other ideas pitched were OverShield’s wearable watch-like device that is targeted at individuals in assisted living centers who are susceptible to falls; Prosewire, which connects writers and publishers; and Switch Stream, which aggregates photos and videos that people take from various angles as they attend concerts and other types of events.
During the break while the judges deliberated, we talked to a number of attendees who agreed the 2016 “What’s the Big Idea” was more competitive than before. That’s not a knock on past participants, but rather testimony to the community’s rapidly evolving ecosystem, its support organizations, and others who come together on a regular basis to build on past successes.
While the word “bravo” might seem inadequate, it is actually a fairly universal word in many languages. More important is the fact that it says so much about why the region is doing better. We are connecting, collaborating, and celebrating.