Jeff Brown says he always wondered “if there was a system that truly helps you start a business that is more than a lifestyle company.” Today, as Director of UC Success Now, he’s helping build the very system that he has championed for 15 years.
UC Success Now is one of the state’s nine regional accelerators, created to help advance high potential technologies from the proverbial bench to the marketplace. It is focused on the 14 counties that comprise the Upper Cumberland Development District, including cities like Crossville and Cookeville.
We interviewed Brown at his office in the Roane State Community College Incubator in Crossville.
The Tennessee Technological University (TTU) graduate is a gregarious, friendly individual who has lived in the very region he is serving for all of his life except a few years. Brown understands commerce, having founded three or four businesses since 1989.
“I sold a few and closed a few,” he says, acknowledging that a few of the business ideas were not viable.
Brown has also been a Cumberland County Commissioner for a decade, so he understands the public policy aspects of growing businesses. He decided to apply for the position when a friend told him that “Roane State is getting a grant for something that you have been preaching for 15 years.”
Roughly a year into his tenure, Brown describes UC Success Now as a start-up. “I’m still working to understand what is here and bind it together,” he acknowledges.
Brown has some concrete views about the region’s assets, opportunities, and challenges. All start with his belief that “we need to bring dollars into the region to call it economic development.”
Cumberland County is known as a major retirement community, and Brown characterizes the retirees as “tremendous talent.” He says “most are not interested in doing an accelerator-type start-up, but are very interested in mentoring a few hours a day.”
To illustrate the value of the retirement communities, Brown cited a person who wanted to start a vinyl manufacturing plant, but lacked the experience of building a facility. He was able to connect the individual with several experienced retirees.
“They spot potential problems that entrepreneurs have not considered,” Brown noted.
He also is exploring how to identify retirees who might be interested in helping start an angel network.
Brown is also a champion of the role that his alma mater can play in the growth of new businesses, citing areas like TTU’s computer science (apps) and agriculture. Alternative energy, biofuels and three agricultural facilities, including several operated by UT, also offer potential opportunities as does compressed natural gas.
He also notes that the Upper Cumberland Region has a history of entrepreneurial success. Cookeville is the home of Averitt Express, some innovative manufacturers, and one of the top engineering schools in the country at TTU.
“How do we build companies around all these resources?” Brown asks.
“There are not two or three verticals that stick-out,” Brown says, adding that LaunchTN’s Charlie Brock has advised them to “find where the talent is and build it out as a vertical.”
Like other regional accelerators, UC Success Now is approaching a key pivot point. On April 1, the program will transition from Roane State’s management to a not-for-profit entity called the Upper Cumberland Entrepreneurial Foundation.
As he begins his second year, Brown sees several challenges that UC Success Now continues to face.
“We have got to educate those in rural areas who don’t fully understand the difference between entrepreneurship and managing a small business; both are important, but very different.” he says. “Entrepreneurship is about creating and building. We need to build our ecosystem and all of the connections that support that creative process.”
In spite of the challenges that he faces, Brown says, “The picture has gelled.” There are also several success stories that he expects to announce in the next few months.