By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The 12-week program for high bandwidth start-ups that culminated in a one-day celebration and pitch event is run by Chattanooga’s CO.LAB, one of Launch Tennessee’s nine regional accelerators.
As the organization’s Director of Entrepreneurship, Denenberg’s key roles include coordinating the efforts of these geographically dispersed regional programs as well as “The TENN,” the master accelerator open only to graduates of the regional programs.
“There’s such an excitement about working with early stage entrepreneurs,” he says, adding that he really enjoys “making connections to get them (entrepreneurs) to the next stage.”
There are five regional accelerators that cover the eastern half of Tennessee. They are AccelNOW in Northeast Tennessee, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, CO.LAB, The Biz Foundry on the Cumberland Plateau, and the Southern Middle Tennessee Entrepreneur Centers.
For the past three years, many of them have operated an annual 10- to 14-week “boot camp” to immerse entrepreneurs in a process to better assure long-term success. In the eastern half of the state, they go by various names – “GIGTANK” in Chattanooga, “MediaWorks” in Knoxville, and “autoXLR8R” in the Spring Hill area.
“We allow each region to set expectations for itself,” Denenberg says, acknowledging that the regional accelerator concept has evolved since he joined Launch Tennessee. The funding model has also changed, recognizing that some regions do not have the resources and entrepreneurial base to run an annual or semi-annual 10- to 14-week program.
“We must match-up resources with reality,” he explains. Regional accelerators that might not be able to run a full, multi-week program are incentivized to refer their start-ups to another accelerator program.
Launch Tennessee used the regional accelerators as a base on which it built “The TENN” master accelerator that was started in 2013. The program is limited to 10 start-ups. They must be graduates of one of the regional accelerators and agree to participate in an even more aggressive five-month activity that concludes this year on March 26.
“‘The TENN’ is an extension of the great work the regional accelerator programs have been doing,” Denenberg said. Knoxville’s Vendor Registry and Survature placed first and third respectively in “The TENN” finale in 2013. Three East Tennessee companies – Closeup.fm and Fiveworx, both from Knoxville, and Chattanooga’s Feetz – are three of this year’s participants.
“This year’s class has shown significant growth and gained tremendous traction for their businesses,” Denenberg observed. “This is a clear result of the maturation and strengthening of the statewide accelerator network and the higher caliber of graduates coming through their programs.”