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COMMENTARY: “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” brings global visibility to region 40 years after 1982 World’s Fair

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Almost 13 months to the day after revealing the results of a study of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem conducted by Techstars, the Boulder-based organization announced yesterday the first cohort of the new “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator.”

The 10 start-ups (see separate teknovation.biz article here), including two from other countries, are coming to the region as a result of financial underwriting by the community’s three largest employers – Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the University of Tennessee. Those are the same organizations that sponsored the Techstars assessment that identified some great strengths as well as deficiencies:

  • Strengths – the vibrant research community, regional quality of life, low cost of living, deep technology talent, and existing support organizations for start-ups.
  • Gaps – perception of the region, locally and more broadly; funding for start-ups, frequently referred to as access to capital; insufficient support in ways such as mentoring; easier access to the bigger public and private enterprises; lower levels of participation by minorities; and absence of defined goals with appropriate metrics and regular reporting.

We have noted on several occasions that we were struck by comments that TVA Chief Executive Officer Jeff Lyash made during the virtual meeting where the report was unveiled. “It’s our job to take this Techstars assessment and operationalize it,” he said. Five months later, the “long rumored” commitment of the “Big 3” to a Techstars accelerator was announced, followed by the naming of Tricia Martinez as Managing Director in early June, and the official opening of recruitment in mid-July.

Now, as the initial start-ups in a three-year, three-cohort commitment have been named, things move to a new level as they arrive in the community over the next two weeks in advance of the official launch on February 21. “Demo Day” for the three-month program is May 26.

In terms of addressing issues like the perception of the region, the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” is a really big deal. The Knoxville-Oak Ridge region is playing in the major leagues now, building on successes in the past decade that will now be in the spotlight more than ever.

Ironically, it was 40 years ago this year that a similar national and international spotlight was last cast on Knoxville as the city prepared for the 1982 World’s Fair that opened May 1. The new Techstars accelerator will again shine a bright light on the region as Knoxville, arguably the smallest city among the Techstars network of accelerators around the world, hosts one of Techstars’ premier programs.

In what company is the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region? How about Amsterdam, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Bangalore, Berlin, Birmingham, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Denver, Des Moines, Dublin, Indianapolis, Kansas City, London, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Montreal, New York, Oslo, Paris, Portland (ME), Riyadh, Singapore, Seattle, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, Toronto, and Washington (DC)? All are listed as hosting accelerators in 2022.

“Demo Day” on May 26 comes less than a week after the May 20 official commemoration event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1982 World’s Fair. Let’s hope that Knoxville leverages the Techstars opportunity and visibility in ways that the community failed to either understand or achieve 40 years ago.

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