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August 28, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Sky City Entrepreneur Center announces “Liftoff Pitch Competition”

Five start-ups will have a chance to compete for up to $200,000 in investment through the inaugural “Liftoff Pitch Competition” organized by the Blount County-based organization.

There are really big plans coming together for the largest pitch event from a total prize perspective in the history of East Tennessee and possibly the Volunteer State.

Five start-ups will have a chance to compete for up to $200,000 in investment in the inaugural “Liftoff Pitch Competition” being organized by the Sky City Entrepreneur Center in Maryville. The event, planned for November 8 at The Clayton Center for the Arts at Maryville College, comes months after the non-profit’s highly successful “Launchpad Pitch Event” that drew a crowd of more than 100 people.

Applications for the new competition open on Tuesday, September 5. Each of the five finalists will have a chance to walk away with a check because the investors will serve as the judges, making their decisions in a “Shark Tank”-style format.

Without a doubt, it will be the largest event that the Sky City Entrepreneur Center has ever attempted, but it mirrors the goals of the organization’s President (Marcus Blair, Founder and Solutions Architect for Omega Digital Solutions) and Vice President (Suzy Garner Booker, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Maryville College). They assumed the top volunteer positions at the beginning of 2023.

“Our goal is to promote entrepreneurship in Blount County,” Blair explains, adding that four Blount County residents have each pledged up to $50,000 that will be invested in start-ups that are either located in the county or willing to relocate. He’s also well on his way to getting similar financial commitments for a follow-on competition in 2024.

“This will become our tentpole event each year,” he says. “These people (selected) will have a higher bar than those who competed in the ‘Launchpad’ competition. And it is important that the audience can see themselves on that stage.”

The “Liftoff Pitch Competition” is one more tool among a number of initiatives that the community is using to attract and retain the all-important 25 to 54-year-old age group that includes those wanting to start and grow businesses. Bringing housing to downtown Maryville and the types of retail businesses that will attract that demographic is another component of the multi-faceted strategy.

The Sky City Entrepreneur Center opened its co-working facility in October 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world. After shutting down for most of 2020, the facility reopened in March 2021 and began offering programs like CO.STARTERS that helps aspiring entrepreneurs determine if their business idea has merit and monthly events like “Side Hustle Happy Hour,” “Women in Entrepreneurship Meet-ups,” and “Lunch and Learns.”

Blair says that Sky City plans to have its own entrepreneurial curriculum launching in 2024 and will add an education component to the “Side Hustle Happy Hour” event.

“We want to create a feeder system for entrepreneurship,” he explains. “Our goal is to get people doing cool things and others off the sidelines to invest in them. There are people waiting for the right time to start, and there’s money waiting for the right opportunity. Our goal is to provide them both the outlet they are seeking.”

Noting that many people travel through the community to access the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he says that fact has created more interest in the county and foot traffic for Sky City.

“The size of our community is advantageous to what we want to achieve,” Blair explains. There’s also great support for Sky City’s efforts from the community at large, the Blount County government, and the cities of Alcoa and Maryville.

While the application process will permit any type of business to apply, he says that those in services, hospitality, and construction would be top targets. They can serve either the business-to-business or business-to-consumer segments.

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