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March 22, 2023 | Tom Ballard

COMMENTARY: Maturity of start-up ecosystem on display earlier this week

That said, the region cannot rest on its laurels; there’s still much work to be done . . . from access to capital to more mentors and first customers.

What a difference a decade or so can make!

Earlier this week, PYA, the power behind, hosted the first-ever pitch competition for the third annual “PYA Ballard Innovation Award.” The two previous editions were judged on the basis of written applications submitted. This time, it was a full-fledged pitch event with five start-ups that either launched in the Knoxville area or had moved here.

As I noted at the beginning of my fireside chat with Deb Crawford, Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Economic Development at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, what a difference we’ve seen in a decade in the maturity of the East Tennessee entrepreneurial community.

When we launched on January 23, 2012, we would not have been able to put together five start-ups of the caliber that competed on March 21. Each of them not only has great potential to succeed, but each also represented the diversity of ideas that have come to characterize the local start-up community and the maturity across the board.

  • Aro, which was launched by two former Atlanta residents, is the first in-home digital wellbeing solution designed for families.
  • Captis Aire, a participant in the “Innovation Crossroads” program and first runner-up, is commercializing a capital and energy efficient emissions control technology that improves the efficiency of wood drying processes and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Carbon Rivers, founded in Knoxville to take advantage of market opportunities in advanced materials that will lead to a more sustainable and more technology driven future, was second runner-up.
  • iO Urology, which captured first place and a $50,000 prize package, is offering the first and only remote patient monitoring system for urologic care at home, thanks to its CarePath®
  • Trillium Renewable Chemicals, a start-up developing a safer, more sustainable alternative to fossil-based acrylonitrile, moved to Knoxville from Alabama and has raised $24.1 million in about two years.

What is just as impressive is the fact that those five finalists bested another 15 start-ups that each brought their own strengths to the table. It was the toughest competition for final slots we’ve ever had which is, once again, evidence of just how much stronger the local and, for that matter, East Tennessee entrepreneurial community has become.

In fact, Jim Biggs, Executive Director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, told us during the reception that followed the event that it was probably the strongest assemblage of start-ups that has ever pitched in Knoxville. We totally agree.

So, while we celebrate the difference that a decade or so can make, we must not assume we have arrived as an entrepreneurial community. We cannot rest on our laurels; there’s still much work to be done . . . from access to capital to more mentors and first customers.

In that vein, I cannot help but remember the title of the 1986 report from the Southern Growth Policies Board’s Commission on the Future of the South. The words still offer so much insight about regional economic development activities nearly 37 years later.

What was the title, you ask? “Halfway Home . . . and a Long Way to Go.” I’d paraphrase it to say we’re “Halfway Home but Still Have a Ways to Go.”

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