(EDITOR’S NOTE: For nearly four years, we have been profiling young, aspiring entrepreneurs as well as those who are into their second, third or even seventh undertaking. So, we decided to ask a few of those entrepreneurs to share their thoughts with us as we begin a brand new year.)
Bob Wilson has been a mainstay in the Knoxville and Oak Ridge entrepreneurial ecosystem for a number of years including running the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth at Tech 2020. Today, he is President of a new start-up – RDI, LLC – that we first profiled in a September 2015 post on teknovation.biz. Being both an entrepreneur and a helper of entrepreneurs provides a unique perspective for Wilson’s insights.
- How would you describe the local entrepreneurial ecosystem as we enter 2016? The local entrepreneurial ecosystem is good overall and getting better in many aspects that have been lacking in the past. There seems to be better coordination of activities between different entrepreneurial support groups (KEC, Chamber, Tech 2020, UT, ORNL), but there is still confusion on who is driving specific activities (funding, pitches, unique business segments, technology) as it pertains to who does a deeper dive in terms of on-going support activities for the entrepreneurial companies. It would be better if there was one gate (entry point) and then based on the needs of the start-up, they could be directed to the right group to support their unique needs (media, consumer, funding, technology development, licensing, etc.). I’m not sure which group is best suited for this, but it appears that KEC is a good front door based on its recent successes with different types of activities. If it would then move the companies through a process that connects them with the right resources (angel, Tech2020, UT, ORNL, SBDC, Score, etc.), it would be clear how a company enters and engages with the local ecosystem. Note: There seems to be less territorial issues than when I was involved 6+years ago, but it still exists. I just think now it needs to be more coordinated around the needs and skill sets of the different groups.
- How has the ecosystem changed in the last few years? The changes are in the focus areas. The local agencies have done a good job of determining the local assets (media, music, social, Internet, coding services, automotive, 3D printing, etc.) and focused events and activities around promoting those local pockets of expertise or groups of companies developing products or services to support those markets. That is when you start getting visibility and traction in terms of success stories. Examples are special events (special days, pitch competitions, training, or networking events) around coding, media, music, etc.
- If you could wave a magic wand and get your wish as to one or two changes that would make it easier for local entrepreneurs to succeed, what would those be? Change #1: More promotion of success stories by ecosystem groups and local media (still lacking). Your teknovation articles are good. Seems like the only real time that local media gets involved is for special events or KEC promoted days. Promotion is still lacking for entrepreneurial companies. Example: Great success story on Vig (Sherrill of General Graphene) – $6.7 million round. They made the announcement on Start-up Pitch Day and that was the paper’s lead story. The start-up pitch companies got little to no press. We should spread some of the visibility around to drive more entrepreneurial activity. Change #2: More engagement with local successful entrepreneurs – have periodic opportunities for entrepreneurs to engage with them without strings attached, not for investment only, so they can see what is happening, provide some sage advice, get involved in other ways besides investment, make introductions to folks in their network, etc. Example: “Here are my issues or challenges” meetings, maybe as “Lunch-and-Learn” sessions.
- Most individuals make a special wish as they ring in a New Year. What wishes do you have for your company in 2016? My wishes for the company in 2016 – make a significant impact on changing how things are done in one of our markets (bridges, baby, or machinery). Build a sustainable and valuable company while employing good people doing enjoyable work. Build a success story for the local community.