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September 18, 2017 | Tom Ballard

“Future865” explores ideas for the Knoxville entrepreneurial ecosystem

Future865By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Three words – collaboration, transparency, and leadership – seemed to be the recurring themes that presenter after presenter emphasized during yesterday’s “Future865” forum that kicked-off the final five days of “Innov865 Week.”

Whether it was local entrepreneurs like Bill Malkes of GRIDSMART Technologies Inc. and Bruce Ramshaw of CQ Insights or keynote speaker Wendy Lea of Cincinnati’s Cintrifuse, everyone talked in one way or another about the importance of those characteristics in a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. The words they used might have varied, but the message was very similar.

The venue was an auditorium at Jewelry Television’s expanded facility off Peters Road, and the symbolism should not have been lost on the attendees. The company is a Knoxville entrepreneurial success story, employing 1,500 people.

In addition to Lea, Malkes and Ramshaw, other presenters included Beverly Davenport, new University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville Chancellor; Tony Shipley, a UT graduate who is Founder and Chair of Queen City Angels in Cincinnati; Jesse Mayshark, Director of Communications for the City of Knoxville; Al Moffat, Senior Vice President of The Tombras Group; Yassin Terou, Owner of the Falafel House; and Nolan Sherrill, Co-Founder of the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain.

The topics were as diverse as the presenters, but they all had a common purpose – what are the Knoxville region’s assets and how can we be more successful growing a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem? Transparency in what you are doing and results of those efforts was a particular emphasis.

Speaker after speaker cited two key assets – UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory – but also noted the criticality of private sector leadership, both large companies being involved and entrepreneurs providing strong engagement.

Lea, who is coming-up on her third anniversary leading the public-private partnership in Cincinnati, quickly connected with her audience on a Monday morning, using her animated and effervescent style to deliver several important messages.

“You need 800 to 1,000 start-ups to have (the right) density,” she said, acknowledging that the number is slightly north of 400 in Cincinnati, so there is work that still must be done in the Ohio city. What’s the number in Knoxville? Several of us guessed between 100 and 150 at most, so there’s a good deal of work to be done.

When Lea accepted the position in Cincinnati, it became her 34th address, so she’s seen a good deal of the country and what is going on in the tech space, both good and bad. Lea said she was given a McKinsey report when she arrived in 2014 that was developed three years earlier and told to execute against it.

“I knew no one in Cincinnati when I started, other than the person who hired me, and he just left for a position with the Obama Administration” Lea said. “I’m about technology; I needed to wake-up my territory (Cincinnati) relative to technology.”

Yet, rather than charging-out on her own, she determined that she needed to learn about the city and its culture, meet others involved in the entrepreneurial space, and build alliances. As a marketer, Lea said she created the “StartupCincy” brand and got people to come together around it. That included universities, start-ups, big companies, accelerator programs, and investors.

Ironically, Lea worked with Davenport when the latter was Interim President of the University of Cincinnati, so the two had an insightful fireside chat during the forum. Both discussed the challenges of engaging universities more in entrepreneurship, but Davenport stressed that it was a priority for her and identified several ideas she is considering, starting with student engagement.

“You have your own dynamic in your dirt,” Lea said about the Knoxville ecosystem. “I don’t know it, but you need to.” She said that means mapping the community’s resources and aligning them for maximum impact.

Today, Cincinnati is the number one community in Ohio for entrepreneurship, a fact that Lea credits to the collaboration that is now occurring among all of the players. That approach was confirmed by Shipley during his presentation on angel capital, an important factor in a community’s success.

“This is not hard, it’s not like building a rocket ship,” Lea said. “It’s not about raising $50,000 for an event. It’s all about a plan, collaboration, and execution. The money will follow.”

Malkes, who is building his fourth start-up since moving to Knoxville from Ann Arbor, immediately captured the audience’s attention when he said, “I’m going to make you mad. Entrepreneurial communities have to be driven by entrepreneurs.”

Those of us who have known Malkes are aware of his candor, and he did not hold back on Monday, noting his comments were his own and did not reflect the views of GRIDSMART. He talked about the importance of a much more diverse base of entrepreneurs than he has seen in Knoxville and the importance of a community very welcoming to immigrants.

Malkes was slotted late in the program, so it was encouraging to hear him say, “Many of the things I heard today were inspiring.” He talked about intelligent transportation as a technology opportunity for the region, particularly in the development of autonomous vehicles.

Ramshaw took a fast-paced, multi-slide look at healthcare trends. Drawing on his data analytics start-up as well as his role as Chair of Surgery at UT, he described the importance of moving from the old healthcare model – “getting the average treatment for the average patient” – to finding the optimal treatment for every patient.

Knoxville’s new open data initiative was described by Mayshark who said the goal of the program, underwritten by Bloomberg Philanthropies, was make the city’s data a public asset for the citizens.

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