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February 22, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Entrepreneur Center Outlook | KEC

The team is taking time to “rethink what does a continuum of programming look like? Does it involve a 13-week accelerator or something else?”

It has been 10 years since Jim Biggs assumed the role of Executive Director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) in January 2014.

As he reflected on the organization’s growth over that decade and plans for 2024, he told us that the KEC team is taking time to “rethink what does a continuum of programming look like? Does it involve a 13-week accelerator or something else?”

We walked away from the interview with the distinct impression that 2024 will involve some new initiatives, modifications to some existing programs, and a continuation of several programs that have been successful in the past. We also learned of people taking on new roles. That includes Courtney Hendricks who has assumed the role of KEC’s Chief Operating Officer after serving for two years as the Center’s Director of Maker Initiatives. Her successor with the Maker programming is Anne Templeton who has run her own marketing and events company in Knoxville for more than a decade. (Read KEC announcement – KEC Announcement – for more details.)

A critical part of Biggs’ rethinking involves finding the right formula for engaging start-ups and the business community. In his view, KEC must catalyze an initiative that becomes organic, one where existing area businesses realize there is value to them by becoming more engaged in the start-up community.

The programming focus – some old and some new – was most recently reflected in two announcements. The annual “What’s the Big Idea?” pitch competition returns virtually unchanged in early March, while the 100Knoxville initiative has added a prerequisite five-week course titled “Idea to Reality,” and a more advanced follow-on class called “Shift Outside of Hustle.” Biggs refers to it as Business 101 and 201, which are the names those programs will operate under outside of the 100Knoxville context.

“We divided the 10-week 100Knoxville program into two components,” he explained. To be accepted for the 201-level program, 100Knoxville aspirants must either successfully complete Business 101 or demonstrate their readiness for the more advanced course which will be offered twice a year. Both of those classes will also be a prerequisite for applicants to the flagship 5X5X5 programs that will run in the fall, and that remain unchanged from previous iterations.

Consistent with asking about the best way to serve the needs of an evolving set of entrepreneurs, plans for a longtime KEC program offered in the summer are still evolving. Launched years ago as “MediaWorks” and “CodeWorks,” the now renamed “The Works” is a 12-week start-up accelerator for scalable companies focused on software, hardware, and lifestyle content developers to find the right product-market fit. Biggs says that KEC “has always tweaked the model” and will do so again in 2024 to ensure it is as impactful as possible as the organization’s customers evolve.

A companion program named “Inflection Point” is designed to help four to six growth-stage tech companies accelerate their revenue growth. Over 13 weeks, the program includes an intensive planning process, monthly and quarterly sessions with mentors and subject matter experts, and an updated “Local Executive Access Program” (LEAP).

Biggs says the “Maker stuff is cranking away,” serving that important sector of the start-up community as is KEC’s partnership with Memphis-based AgLaunch to jointly run the AgTech Mentor Network for Launch Tennessee and also the annual “AgLaunch Bootcamp” in the summer. There’s also the one-day “Brandcamp” each summer.

In terms of access to the all-important investment capital that fuels growth, Biggs says he is still seeking the right person to serve as a Capital Connector at KEC. That role would act as a sort of “air traffic control” for the capital community, ensuring that the right type of capital is available to the right entrepreneurs at the right time.

Finally, KEC has been working to develop a three-year strategic plan to guide it’s work for the next few years. That plan will be available in the coming month. “Our focus is on capital, capabilities, and connections,” he says.

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