By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
It was a rainy, dreary Thursday evening outside The Standard at the Smith House in Downtown Nashville, but the upbeat, energetic mood inside was far different as nine teams, their supporters, the Directors of the regional accelerators, and others gathered for the finale for “The TENN” master accelerator program.
The nine teams that comprised this year’s cohort had spent almost six months together, traveling 5,500 miles across the state as well as to California and New York to visit with investors and prospective customers. Thursday night was the culmination of all that they had learned in the jam-packed months and a celebration of their successes.
As an emeritus member of Launch Tennessee’s Board of Directors, I’ve had several opportunities to interact with many of these entrepreneurs. Two of the companies – Closeup.fm and Fiveworx – are Knoxville-based start-ups about which we have posted several articles on teknovation.biz. We met Feetz at last year’s “GIGTANK Demo Day” and the other six at several venues including a January stop when they visited PYA Analytics.
Having seen each of the nine pitch in January, I could witness firsthand the progress they had made and the impact of “The TENN” experience.
Jason Denenberg, Launch Tennessee’s Director of Entrepreneurship and Coordinator of “The TENN,” said people, product, and pipeline are the key elements in judging the progress that was being made and the traction that was achieved.
As reported on Friday, the top honor, appropriately named the “Traction Award,” went to Chattanooga-based Feetz, the company co-founded by Lucy Beard to revolutionize the way shoes are made. Her start-up has made significant progress on all fronts – team building, product development, and customer and capital pipeline advancement. The most notable of her many successes might be securing a seed round of $1.25 million led by Khosla Ventures.
Feetz, however, was not alone in reporting solid progress. Closeup.fm, which is focused on connecting talent with music lovers in a way that brings cash flow to the former, reported significant milestone accomplishments including a new version of its app and 700 subscribers.
“We’re hot on the trail of a solid lead investor,” Co-Founder Nathan Fray added.
Fiveworx Co-Founder Patrick Hunt noted his start-up, focused on accelerating energy efficiency actions by consumers, established four goals and has completed three and part of the fourth. During “The TENN,” he said Fiveworx “added a tremendous amount of functionality to our platform” as well as further building out its core team.
We clearly saw an amazing level of camaraderie among the entrepreneurs as they cheered each other during the series of five-minute presentations. I suspect many friendships were made that will last for a long time. Two of “The TENN” companies even entered into a business relationship with one being a service provider for the other.
This was the second year for “The TENN” master accelerator program, and it was the second year in a row that an East Tennessee team captured the top honor. Knoxville’s Vendor Registry won last year, and the start-up’s Co-Founders – Brian Strong and Chris Van Beke – were on hand Thursday night to cheer on this year’s participants.
So, as the entrepreneurs begin their first full week after such a concentrated experience, they might be feeling a little like Denenberg who had the quote of the evening. “It’s going to feel like an empty nest tomorrow,” he said. Isn’t that what happens when you give flight to good ideas and people?