By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Knoxvillian Guille Cruze has been an entrepreneur almost his entire professional life, but he really gained some valuable insights into America’s start-up mecca when he worked for Vocera Communications, Inc., after it acquired his Clinical Health Communications, Inc. in 2010.
For the next two years, the Knoxville native commuted regularly between here and Silicon Valley.
“eBay was literally across the street, Apple around the corner, and Google was right up the road,” Cruze said of the Vocera headquarters in San Jose.
For almost the past two years, Cruze has “taken a break” from the daily grind to mentor several local entrepreneurs while exploring his next entrepreneurial undertaking. Most recently, he served as a mentor for three start-ups in the “What’s the Big Idea?!” business plan competition organized by the Knoxville Chamber, Development Corporation of Knox County, and Tech 20/20.
“I was very encouraged with the ideas I saw,” Cruze said of the companies in this year’s competition. “They were very creative people that had ideas I could certainly get excited about.”
His role was to help them with their “pitch” in the competition, offer encouragement, and have what he called “clarity to strategic plan.”
With his time in Silicon Valley and recent mentoring work in Knoxville, it was only natural that we asked for his comparisons of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the two locales.
“You can build dense populations of well-educated people,” Cruze said of places like the Bay Area and Boston, “but creative people are everywhere.”
Based on his experiences, he believes Knoxville is not short on creativity.
“The intellect is as equal in Knoxville as elsewhere,” Cruze says, but quickly adds that other critical factors are at play. In addition to creative ideas, a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem needs financing, management, entrepreneurial talent, and subject matter experts.
“They (Silicon Valley) have all of that ecosystem in a denser population,” he explains. “Knoxville is not short on intellect or ideas, but it is on finding financing and experienced talent.”
What would Cruze suggest as a way to address the region’s challenges and other deficiencies?
“We need to collaborate and cast our net more as a region to attain the same density, or critical mass, as they have,” he suggests. That region would include Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Huntsville in addition to Knoxville.
Building a larger geographic ecosystem would also help address an important constraint that Cruze identified for Knoxville.
“Silicon Valley is an amalgamation of cultures, while our area tends to be more siloed – even clannish,” he noted.
There’s also the reality of a community’s confidence in itself.
“Over the decades, Knoxville certainly has produced a number business successes, it just needs some good, new successes . . . those that hit a long ball for the people in our area,” Cruze notes.
So, what’s next for him? We’ll explore that topic in the final article in the series.