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January 17, 2018 | Tom Ballard

2018 OUTLOOK PART 4: Robustness of entrepreneurial ecosystem by city

2018 Outlook 3We continue our series where Angel and Venture Capitalists in East Tennessee share their thoughts about the past year and their thoughts on the year ahead.

Part #4: Related to yesterday’s question is the nature of entrepreneurship across the state. How would you assess the level of robustness in each of the major cities as well as Northeast Tennessee?

  • Kristina Montague, Managing Partner, The JumpFund: Our pipeline is strong throughout the Southeast, and we only focus on women-led ventures. For the past consecutive three years, a woman-led company has won “36/86,” LaunchTN’s tech entrepreneur and investor conference. Memphis has been a great source for medical device companies and diverse teams. Knoxville and Nashville are working to grow their support for women-led companies, while Chattanooga (our own backyard) has a strong focus on diversity and has been actively growing new tech companies through Lamp Post Group and the Company Lab (CO.LAB), leveraging our city’s gigabit infrastructure.
  • John Morris, Fund Manager, The Lighthouse Fund: It’s hard to compare or rank how robust cities are. Each has different strengths. The risk profile is different. The economic engines are different. What drives innovation is a person that is willing to take risks and persevere, not simply invent. For that reason, each major city, as well as Northeast Tennessee, is following its own path.
  • Grady Vanderhoofven, President and Chief Executive Officer, Three Roots Capital, and Managing Partner, Meritus Capital Management: On any scale that we might use to measure “level of robustness of entrepreneurship,” I believe Nashville would rank above the other major cities in Tennessee. I believe there are several drivers of that reality, but that’s a different question. I believe Northeast Tennessee currently would rank below the other major cities in Tennessee. We are big believers in the potential in Northeast Tennessee, and we are investing time in nurturing relationships and developing deal flow in Northeast Tennessee, and we will be deploying capital there. Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis would fall in between Nashville at the top and Northeast Tennessee at the bottom, and people could debate the relative positioning of those three cities.
  • Ken Woody, President of Innova Memphis: Memphis is doing a great job of working well together across the segments of social, minority founders, tech, logistics, MedTech and Ag. Nashville continues to be a key leader in healthcare IT and services. Chattanooga has done a good job of expanding on their GigSpeed initiatives and some online commerce. Knoxville is more diverse with the AR/VR work, healthcare and varied new ideas.
  • Eric Dobson, Chief Executive Officer, Angel Capital Group: I visit periodically with accelerators and talk to investors across the state. Memphis has robust deal flow coming out of their program. Chattanooga has robust deal flow coming out of Lamp Post and the CO.LAB. Knoxville had its strongest showing at “Startup Week/Demo Day” of its history with its Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. I am not informed about Northeast Tennessee, but I am not aware of strong deal flow there. From my perspective, deal flow is not the issue. I am seeing investable companies all over the place. Strangely, they are not making it into our diligence process despite our invitations to do so. I don’t know if that is representative of a lack of interest on their part or if we have erected some hurdle that is preventing them from applying. Our door is always open (virtually), and we welcome applications for funding through our website. But, to be honest we spent most of 2017 investing in second and third rounds of our own portfolio. I am looking forward to seeing more new companies entering the mix in 2018.
  • Tony Lettich, Managing Director, The Angel Roundtable: Entrepreneurship in Nashville and Chattanooga appears to be thriving. The entrepreneurial reputations of these communities are growing outside the state and region and activity is robust. From the vantage point of the eastern side of the state, the Memphis ecosystem appears strong with a strong foundation having been laid in place. Most encouraging is the acceleration of the Knoxville ecosystem. While small in comparison to Nashville, the Knoxville ecosystem is accelerating. Elsewhere in Northeast Tennessee, the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Tri-Cities is improving with the addition of Startup Tri-cities, the Sync Space co-working space in Kingsport, and increasing efforts at East Tennessee State University. However, the ecosystem in the Tri-Cities remains in the nascent stage comparatively.

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