COMMENTARY: Building the entrepreneurial ecosystem is like 3D printing

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem 2By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Whether you are actively involved in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge entrepreneurial ecosystem or just an observer and hopefully champion, you have to agree that the past couple of weeks have been filled with very positive news. In fact, the only somewhat downer piece of news had a real positive upside.

You might think about these recent events and announcements as the equivalent of 3D-printing our entrepreneurial ecosystem. Why do I use that metaphor? I’ll explain at the end, but let’s first review the developments over the past 14 days or so.

  • After three successful “Start-up Day Knoxville” events, the organizing committee launched a new brand and an expanded schedule. “Innov865” is the new brand that will concentrate on a week of activities, but support other events throughout the year. As part of “Innov865 Week” that will occur September 19-23, Paul Singh is bringing his “North American Tech Tour” to town. Going from about a half-day event to a full week of events is pretty significant.
  • The “Innov865” announcement was made at the end of the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Foundation’s “Tennessee Venture Challenge” (TVC) that featured six start-ups connected in some way to UT. The winner was Peroxygen Systems, and the $20,000 first prize will go a long way in helping advance the company founded by a Post-Doctoral Researcher at UT. We heard numerous comments during the pitch event about the quality of the start-ups that competed in this year’s TVC. Those views underscore the maturation of our ecosystem.
  • Grow Bioplastics continued to capture headlines. The company, founded by doctoral students in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, won UT’s “Spring 2016 Vol Court Pitch Competition,” just days after being selected as a finalist in next week’s “Charlotte Venture Challenge.” They join another local start-up – Innovasan – as the only two representatives from Tennessee in the 27-company field of start-ups competing in Charlotte. And, just for good measure, it’s the first time that our region has placed two companies in the event.
  • Speaking of Grow Bioplastics, it is competing this week in the very prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition. This is probably the first time a local company was accepted for that event.
  • And, speaking of “Vol Court,” the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which coordinates the twice-a-year, multi-session program, garnered the largest participation level in its history. Fifteen individuals or teams pitched their ideas to the judges. Not only was the number of teams impressive, but so, too, were their ideas they pitched and the number of minority teams involved.
  • Under the auspices of the East Tennessee Economic Council, about 50 individuals attended at invitation only event last Tuesday at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that was focused on building a strong cyber security research, education and industry consortium. Part of the strategy includes a belief that local start-up companies can and will be created around the technologies developed by the researchers. Co-sponsors of the event were ORNL, UT and Cisco Systems.
  • Life Science Tennessee brought its “Ask the Experts” series to the region with a workshop on intellectual property. The event was hosted by South College, the private university that is making its pharmacy labs available for life science start-ups.
  • Finally, even as it winds down many of its operations, the Board of Directors of Tech 2020 has approved a plan that will allow its historic and very important access to capital role to continue. One of the region’s earliest entrepreneurial support organizations will be leaving an important legacy for the future with this decision.

Attracting and retaining creative entrepreneurial types is an equally important element of a vibrant ecosystem, and Knoxville’s five-year old “Big Ears Festival” ironically occurred during this two-week period. The creation of Ashley Capps contributes significantly to the attractiveness of the community to creatives, and it is helping brand Knoxville across the country as evidenced by this column in The Hollywood Reporter.

I was asked at a Thursday night event the reasons that I thought this significant evolution and maturation of the local ecosystem had occurred over the past four or five years. As I have reflected on the question since Laurens Tullock asked it, I think I now have an easy-to-understand answer. The reason is equivalent to 3D printing.

As you add layers on top of layers of material through the 3D printing process, a structure begins to form and, over time, it takes shape with a strong, established foundation. This is the change that has occurred locally over the past few years. Many individuals and organizations have added layers to the foundation, creating a structure and awareness that something significant and sustainable is happening.

We haven’t arrived; more and more layers must be “printed,” but the announcements and events that have occurred over the past few weeks have added important layers to the evolving structure. It’s exciting and rewarding to see hard work paying-off.

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