Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
May 20, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Exciting “goings on” in Johnson City, Somerset

We consider the entire East Tennessee corridor – from Chattanooga to Northeast Tennessee and as far west as the Cumberland Plateau – to be the prime coverage area for We also look for activities underway in the surrounding states of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, and Virginia.

So, it was exciting to spend a day last week in Johnson City meeting with a number of people in sessions arranged by Gary Mabrey, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. Gary and I are former colleagues at the University of Tennessee and long-time friends.

We will continue exploring the “extended” region in the week ahead as we travel to Somerset, KY for the annual Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit.

Johnson City Update:

The day started on an interesting note when I stopped at a local Starbucks about 8:15 a.m. for coffee before heading to the Chamber. I ran into Dwaine Raper with the University of Tennessee’s Center for Industrial Services who tweeted my presence in the city before I even arrived at the Chamber!

It had been several years since I had spent much time in Johnson City, so it was good to get an update on activities in this fast growing community. As a result of the discussions, there will be several Northeast Tennessee-focused follow-up articles appearing in

One of those upcoming articles is going to focus on Jose and Shannon Castillo. In fact, it might morph into several articles, since this dynamic Johnson City duo is so engaged in the entrepreneurial culture of the community. Shannon met with us at the Chamber offices in Johnson City; Jose joined us by the magic of the iPhone from New York City.

This power couple created something called “Spark Plaza,” a co-working space above a former Johnson City department store, where nine full-time and 10 part-time people can collaborate. The Castillos are also heavily involved in what will be the fourth annual “Will It Float” business pitch competition that is set for November in the region as well as the regional accelerator called “AccelNow.” In addition to many other activities, Jose is playing a key role in a motivational business conference next month in Greeneville called “ReadySetBoost.”

Another stop on the Johnson City trip was the Innovation Lab at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) where we met with Dean Linda Garceau of the ETSU College of Business and Technology and David Lawrence, now permanent Director of “AccelNow.” Northeast Tennessee’s regional accelerator was profiled in an earlier story on when David was Acting Director. Congratulations to him on his new status.

Dean Garceau is credited with being the champion for the regional accelerator being housed at ETSU, and a brief discussion with her certainly underscored the fact that she is passionate about entrepreneurs and the role her college can play in accelerating entrepreneurship in the region. She talked about a new strategic plan that is being developed for the college and her strong commitment to “connect business and technology services (of the college) with local businesses to solve problems.” She also talked about plans to have one floor of an ETSU dormitory available in 2013 to house students who aspire to be entrepreneurs, something open to students from any academic discipline. Lawrence said that “AccelNow” will be hosting a 48-hour “Start-up Weekend” for students, faculty and community citizens in September. We will have more information about the event closer to the date.

I also had the chance to reconnect with David Temple, President of Saratoga Technologies, Inc., whom I first met four years ago. The 11-year old, Johnson City-based technology company has grown from a staff that you could count on the fingers of one hand to 65 today and a service area that covers parts of five states. We will be profiling Saratoga’s growth in an upcoming article.

Over lunch, we continued discussions with Illif McMahan, Jr., Regional Director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, as both he and I learned more about the demographics of Johnson City and the role of the relatively new Washington County Economic Development Council (WCEDC). Many thanks to Robert Reynolds, the Council’s CEO, and Mitch Miller, WCEDC’s Executive Vice President, for the information presented.

The Johnson City trip ended with a one-on-one discussion with Shannon McCool of RxBio, whose efforts were profiled on the day that I made the Johnson City trip. I’m always inspired by entrepreneurs like Shannon who are so passionate about their work and who want to see their home communities benefit economically.

Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit:

The annual Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit launches Wednesday in Somerset. The official opening is at 3 p.m. although a pre-summit “Y-12 Uranium Processing Facility Procurement Seminar” runs from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Sessions focus on “Promoting America’s Energy Security,” “Preparing Our Future Workforce,” and “Connecting the Valley for New Jobs Creation.”

Congressman Hal Rogers of Kentucky’s Fifth Congressional District and Chair of the House Appropriations Committee is host for the 2012 event.

The full agenda is available at

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