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February 08, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Entrepreneur Center Outlook | The Biz Foundry

The nonprofit has leased a building directly across the street from its primary facility in Cookeville to meet new demand for co-working space.

Jeff Brown is probably the longest serving leader of a Launch Tennessee-supported entrepreneur center in the state, having taken the reins of The Biz Foundry in Cookeville in April 2013.

From that vantage point, the organization’s gregarious President has seen the strong growth of entrepreneurs in the Upper Cumberland region as well as across the state for more than a decade.

“What do the entrepreneur centers need? Expanded capacity,” Brown says. “We’re meeting here with four to six new entrepreneurs a week in addition to serving our existing clients.”

That workload has caused The Biz Foundry to lease a building directly across the street from its primary facility at 114 North Cedar Avenue. It was on the last day of November 2017 when the group moved into that building and expanded to additional space in February 2022. The new location, which Brown says is leased, will add six to eight co-working offices that are urgently needed.

The Biz Foundry also opened satellite locations in McMinnville and Sparta in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “McMinnville is starting to come around after COVID, but Sparta is almost too close to Cookeville,” Brown says. “People are accustomed to driving to Cookeville from Sparta.”

Top of mind for The Biz Foundry’s leader has been access to capital along with what he calls capital education.

“First-time entrepreneurs don’t know how to raise capital, debt or equity.” Brown says, adding, “The business financial knowledge of a high school dropout and a Ph.D. in anything other than finance is about the same.”

The Biz Foundry recently hired Kelly Sullivan, a banking veteran and former small business owner, as its Capital Navigator. While she’s leaving to become the Regional Manager for the Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC), Sullivan will continue to support The Biz Foundry clients through a partnership Brown struck with the TSBDC.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he says.

Along with helping entrepreneurs understand funding options, Brown is also proud of a two-year journey for which he was a catalyst that led to the launch of the Upper Cumberland Investment Alliance (UCIA). Chaired by Eugene Bressler, the member-managed angel fund is targeting opportunities within 50 miles of Cookeville. UCIA’s goal is to support the development of sustainable, profitable businesses capable of providing a return to member investors, serve as a catalyst to connect resources across the region, and enhance the wealth creation of the people employed by the companies that receive investment.

“I am so happy at how it is going,” Brown said.

Another “top of mind” project is one that The Biz Foundry and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center launched in conjunction with Volunteer Energy Cooperative a few years ago targeted at start-ups that can benefit from simulations around technologies related to the smart grid. The initiative, now managed by the Tennessee Center for Rural Innovation at Tennessee Tech University (TTU), has grown to encompass four states as the result of a $10 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission under its Appalachian Regional Initiative for Stronger Economies (ARISE) program. The focus of the four-state consortium is helping rural electric utilities and energy start-ups deploy smart grid technologies by providing grid modeling support.

In terms of other programs, Brown plans to continue the “Start Here Pitch Competition,” co-hosted by the Highlands CareerFest, which showcased the fact that “good companies can build and scale here in the Upper Cumberland region.” There will also be three editions of the “Startup Your Startup” program, support for the “Eagle Works” pitch competition at TTU, and some sort of as yet to be determined offering for high-growth start-ups.

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