(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth and final article in a multi-part series focused on Launch Tennessee’s accelerator program and the regional accelerators that operate in the eastern half of Tennessee. Today, we examine the plans of The Biz Foundry based in Cookeville.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The Biz Foundry, located adjacent to the Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, is one of the state’s accelerators serving a mostly rural area. Since its founding, the organization has built a strong brand with its TN Code Academy that has grown from a regional effort to one with “100 Girls of Code” chapters popping-up across the country.
We asked Jeff Brown, The Biz Foundry’s Executive Director, to provide insights about the organization and its priorities.
How would you describe the primary focus of your organization and the activities that it undertakes?
We spend a lot of our time focusing on the message of entrepreneurship in a rural area, evangelizing the entrepreneurial message. Most of our region has never been exposed to high growth entrepreneurship. Most efforts have been focused on smaller “retail” type business development. We are on a mission to change that.
Programs like our CoStarters initiatives, 3D print workshops, and coding events help spread the message and gain exposure to entrepreneurial thinking and innovative technologies.
We have also invested heavily in our code education initiatives. We have to address the problem of technical talent in our region if we are going to move the needle in creating technology-based businesses. Our TN Code Academy and “100 Girls of Code” are an effort to get that sector moving.
Has that been the focus since The Biz Foundry’s inception or have there been some changes? If there have been changes, what were they?
We started with the idea of focusing on an even higher level of start-up activity, but our region just does not have the eco-system to support that. We like to think that we have to do the basics before we can play in the big game.
Another real shift is based around the realization that most of our region’s entrepreneurs are not working in the high tech digital space. To quote John Morris, “Most of our entrepreneurs are working on things that make a noise when you drop them.” We are often working with inventors that want to become entrepreneurs.
I also think it is a real challenge to find a focused sector in the more rural areas. We have really worked hard to find a true vertical. Honestly, I am beginning to doubt that such things exist in rural areas. We are just not sure that “rural” isn’t a sector all of its own.
We have to start with what we have and build on it. We have also found that our connectivity can provide local entrepreneurs with help that can be astonishing. As most entrepreneurs know, it is all about the network.
Looking back on 2014, what was the greatest accomplishment of The Biz Foundry? (Describe it.)
Our biggest accomplishment has certainly been the growth of our TN Code Academy initiatives. We had over 400 students go through our one week code camps and well over 300 girls attend our “100 Girls of Code” events.
A lot of people ask how that ties in with entrepreneurship. We expose the students to the entrepreneurial mindset as part of our programs. Not in a formal way, but in the idea of building things that other people want, applying your talent to your passion, and losing the fear of building new things.
What other highlights come to mind during 2014?
Our launch of the Lean LaunchPad in Tennessee Tech’s College of Engineering is a very big accomplishment for us. It was awesome to see the young engineers find their “aha” moment in the entrepreneurial journey.
We have also launched an ongoing effort to run the “Co.Starters” program across our entire 14 counties, and it is starting to gain some real traction.
What are The Biz Foundry goals for 2015 in terms of formal programming and other activities?
We will build a lot on our outreach programs like “Co.Starters” and work to push it out to more areas. We will build that into to a program that follows on with the entrepreneurs that go through those programs.
We are also going to focus on strengthening our mentor network. Mentorship and targeting networking are certainly two of the most helpful services we can provide.
We aim for 2015 to be our huge year of growth for our code education initiatives.