By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates. P.C.
It’s another academic year at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville (UTK) campus, and the team at the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) is preparing for an exciting year with plans underway on several new and existing fronts.
We sat down recently with Lynn Youngs, ACEI Executive Director, who has been in his current role for two and one-half years. During the conversation, he also noted that the 2013-14 academic year marks his 20th anniversary as a lecturer in the College of Business Administration, during which time he estimates that more than 300 students have taken his graduate entrepreneurship course, several of whom subsequently started businesses.
“We consider education to be more than the classroom,” Youngs said, citing a number of activities that have been spotlighted over the past 19 months on teknovation.biz. They include the “Vol Court” business competition, Boyd Venture Fund, and “Empowered Teen Entrepreneurial Camp.”
Youngs glows when he talks about ACEI’s efforts, as well as his own, to support entrepreneurship among current and former students, both those in the College of Business Administration as well as students in other UTK colleges.
“Underlying our efforts is a commitment to fertilize the entrepreneurial mindset in the university,” he says, adding that ACEI has a three-fold mission. It includes producing talent, helping ensure a “positive landing zone” so companies will be started and remain in the region, and conducting meaningful research.
Youngs notes that the undergraduate entrepreneurship program “has grown more than 10-fold since 2007,” and he’s confident that it will continue to grow within the college and across the campus. “Our initiatives are strongly supported by our new Dean,” he said, citing Stephen Mangum who came from The Ohio State University with a strong track record in supporting entrepreneurship.
One of the new initiatives that Youngs finds most exciting is the development of a plan to create an entrepreneurial minor for undergraduates. His team is working with colleagues in other colleges on the strategy, recognizing that it must have broad-based buy-in.
“It is for the benefit of the (entire) university,” Youngs says in describing the concept about an interdisciplinary approach.
Another priority in the upcoming year involves a closer strategic relationship with the UT Research Foundation (UTRF). Commercialization is clearly an activity that is high on Youngs’ priority list, so developing joint activities with UTRF makes sense.
To illustrate his point about successful start-ups, Youngs cited the importance of focusing on “talent-in-development” and “freshly-minted talent.” The former refers to students still in college, while the latter stresses the importance of not losing track of recent graduates.
In Youngs’ case, he is personally mentoring two companies – one including a UTK faculty member, as well as former students, and another started by a former student. They are Survature, previously profiled on teknovation.biz at https://www.teknovation.biz/2013/06/02/8475/, and iSpotlight, founded by UTK alumnus Ryan Kelly.
“We take a rifle approach to helping start-ups with UT links,” Youngs said. “When UT technology is involved, it’s a big bonus.”
As he looks at the local community, Youngs is proud of the role that ACEI played in standing-up the East Tennessee regional accelerator and hosting it for the first year. That role was shifted to the new Knoxville Entrepreneur Center for 2013.
“We brought a lot of energy and focus to the local ecosystem in 2012,” Youngs says, adding that accelerators need to be private sector led. “We need to do what we do best, being a feeder to that system through talent development and mentoring.”
For Youngs, leading an entity like ACEI is a natural. He is a product of an entrepreneurially-minded father and a mother who spent a career in education.
“It’s in my blood,” he says.
Youngs draws several parallels between ACEI and the early-stage companies it supports, noting that the Center is 100 percent privately funded. “Our supporters are investing both in new talent and the companies they grow,” he says. Many of those supporters are successful entrepreneurs themselves, and Youngs clearly is appreciative of their shared vision.
Like many of the students and the start-ups they help, Youngs notes, “We have to be both strategic and tactical.” And he references a little-used term to describe that characteristic – “nimbility.”
“While we’re focused on making a positive long-term impact on individuals and the region, we have a constantly changing pool of raw material with which to work,” he says.
It’s clear that he practices what he preaches – and vice-versa.