By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Leading AccelNow was not on John Campbell’s radar when he retired in June 2014 as Kingsport’s City Manager. Yet, he’s coming-up on his third anniversary as the organization’s third permanent Executive Director.
“Miles called and asked me to take a look,” Campbell says in reference to Miles Burdine, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. The latter organization’s foundation had recently accepted responsibility for the region’s entrepreneurial support provider that had previously been under East Tennessee State University (ETSU).
“They had recruited for an Executive Director, but could not meet the salary expectations of the person they wanted,” Campbell said, adding, “I became the retired executive model.”
In many respects, it was a natural for the outgoing, well-connected University of Tennessee graduate. He spent a number of years in Johnson City, including 17 as City Manager, then served as top executive at the Sullivan County economic development partnership known as NETWORKS, and had just finished an eight-year run as Kingsport’s City Manager.
Economic development was an integral part of all those roles, and it was that experience that convinced him of the importance of an organization focused on entrepreneurs.
“I knew this was something that had been missing,” Campbell said. “Economic development professionals spent little time on start-ups due to the time required to recruit new businesses to the region.”
Campbell had seen parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, particularly in the 1990s during the planning process for Johnson City’s Med-Tech Corridor. A key component was an incubator that would help grow start-ups from a research park.
“I knew about the incubator process from the study of incubators in the late 1990’s,” Campbell said, adding that he also served on the board of directors of the Holston Business Development Center (the incubator developed by Kingsport and Hawkins County) while City Manager of Kingsport. “I did not know the full scope of what was going on or could be going on to help businesses”.
Now, nearly three years into his tenure at AccelNow, the ex-City Manager has a much better understanding of the needs of entrepreneurs, the vibrancy of the Northeast Tennessee start-up ecosystem, and the ways an organization with a limited budget can help.
One might describe AccelNow’s mission as one of connecting, facilitating, and promoting. Campbell and Ashley Cox, a local entrepreneur who is a part-timer on AccelNow’s staff, have directly connected us with a number of start-ups that have or will be the subject of upcoming teknovation.biz articles. Campbell sat in on those interviews, and we observed first-hand his understanding of the needs of the different entrepreneurs.
“We are different up here from the greater number of apps developers you find in the more urban areas and the easily scalable companies,” he says. Those differences are both an asset – there is a broad base of well-trained technical people, thanks to employers like Eastman Chemical – and a liability due to the challenge of finding capital for the start-ups because they are not as scalable or have the same high growth potential since they frequently require more capital to reach their potential.
As such, Campbell says the AccelNow work plan is a little different from more urban accelerator programs. He cites a partnership with ETSU, HBDC and the Niswonger Foundation to host code camps and CAD camps to create more coding talent; collaboration with the Field School to promote agricultural activities; and AccelNow’s sponsorship of seven CO.STARTERS classes as examples of ways that it supports the ecosystem.
“We’ve had pretty good success with that program,” he says of CO.STARTERS with at least five more planned.
Like other entrepreneurial support organizations, AccelNow’s biggest challenge is a financial one, ironically not that different from the start-ups it is trying to serve. Much of its funding comes from economic development organizations in Sullivan and Washington Counties, although Campbell is pitching for private support at civic club meetings.
“We’re slowly but surely building the ecosystem,” he says. One recent example is the opening of Sync.Space in Kingsport. It is the region’s second co-working location, and Campbell would like to see similar facilities in Bristol, Greeneville, Erwin, and Elizabethton.
“A good venture fund would find we have much technical, inventive talent in the region and many with experience manufacturing,” Campbell says.