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June 06, 2024 | Tom Ballard

COMMENTARY: Will the region leverage the three cohorts of Techstars?

Three-year commitment ended with Thursday's "Demo Day." What comes next and how do we build on the visibility that has come from Techstars?

I recall a conversation that I had with an out-of-state representative of Techstars during the VIP reception ahead of the 2019 “Start-up Day” in Knoxville. If my memory is correct, it was at Emilia, the Italian restaurant on Market Square, and the individual was from New York City.

He asked me, “What does the region think about Techstars opening an accelerator here?” Remember that this was 21 months before the accelerator was formally announced. My candid response was, “They don’t know it is going to happen.” He seemed genuinely surprised.

Now, not quite five years after that September 23, 2019, conversation, the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” most likely has graduated its last cohort. The “Big 3” – Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the University of Tennessee System (UT) – committed the millions of dollars required to host three cohorts, and that commitment ended with Thursday night’s proverbial “Demo Day” at Regas Square.

The decision to support an accelerator came after Techstars had completed an assessment of the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. Funded by the “Big 3” and officially launched on June 5, 2020, the top executives noted that the area “must compete nationally and internationally for the industries, jobs, and workforce that will allow the region to thrive.”

Almost seven months to the day later on January 6, 2021, the results of that study were released. Then, on June 3, 2021 – another almost five months after the study’s findings were unveiled, the announcement was made that the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” would launch its first cohort on February 21, 2022, in Knoxville. The city is the smallest location for any Techstars program.

A lot has changed.

  • Thomas Zacharia, ORNL Director at the time and arguably the greatest champion for the relationship with Techstars, retired.
  • The accelerator was viewed by many as an economic development play. While two of the 10 companies in Cohort 1 established some local relationships, only one of the 10 in Cohort 2 spent much time in Knoxville. Cohort 3 had local leadership in the person of Brandon Bruce, Managing Director, and that has made a huge difference. As he noted at last Friday’s meeting of the East Tennessee Economic Council and again Thursday night, several of the 10 in Cohort 3 have plans to stay or open a satellite operation.
  • Techstars itself has undergone change, shutting down several high-profile accelerators, moving its headquarters from Boulder to New York City, and most recently changing Chief Executive Officers.

So, has the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” made a difference in the community? As I suggested in this February 7, 2022 commentary in, the visibility for the city is significant.

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)?

Today, the smallest city in which Techstars has operated an accelerator boasts a much more vibrant start-up community and two additional accelerators – the longer running “Innovation Crossroads” program at ORNL and the newer “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” at the UT Research Park, joining the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s “The Works” that has been around in some version for about a decade. Knoxville is also much better known than the community was in 2020 when the assessment was begun.

The key questions for me are simple: what comes next and how do we build on the visibility that has come from Techstars? Shame on us if we fail to capitalize.

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