(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series spotlighting 2020 plans for some of the entrepreneur centers in Tennessee that receive funding from Launch Tennessee. Today’s focus is on the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
When we sat down with Jim Biggs just a few days before Christmas to talk about 2020, the Executive Director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) reminded us that his team was at the halfway point in its fiscal year.
“Programmatically, you’re not going to see a lot of change in the next six to 12 months,” he said on the cusp of beginning his sixth year leading the non-profit organization. “We will be doing ‘What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Launch’ in February, ‘The Works’ accelerator program, and ‘AgLaunch Bootcamp’ in the summer, ‘BrandCamp’ on a trimester basis, CO.STARTERS and Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship classes on an ongoing basis, most if not all of which you’ve seen previously.”
What follows in the future, however, could change somewhat.
“We are engaged with our Board in answering the question of what our vision is for the next five years, starting July 1,” Biggs explained. “We used the values we’ve long espoused on our website as the framework to guide those discussions.”
During the exploratory process, he said KEC formulated a slightly updated mission statement “to make Knoxville the most founder-friendly city.”
Yet, as he and others reflected on those words and the meaning behind them, they had two revelations. “This is what everybody else does,” Biggs said of the overall mission. That resulted in a simple but fundamental question: “What might we do that would be unique to KEC?”
The second revelation centered on the important attributes that exemplify a place where entrepreneurs thrive. In other words, “What does it look like when an entrepreneurial community is successful?”
Biggs says they have identified five characteristics of successful start-up communities: a higher than normal density of start-ups, accessibility to resources including capital and mentors, diversity in the types of entrepreneurs, connectedness among entrepreneurs, and sustainability of programs and companies.
“The goals are the moving part,” Biggs says in terms of how KEC will be successful in achieving its updated mission and addressing these key characteristics. Those details will be better defined in the months ahead.
“As one example, we would like to see overall business starts and especially those by minority and women founders double over the next five years,” he said. “We would also like to help a broader spectrum of entrepreneurs have access a stack of $50 million of capital available over a real continuum, from lending to angel, seed and venture.”
Also, on his possible wish list is an evergreen fund for the Knoxville maker community through The Maker City project, which is a nationally recognized program launched under the leadership of former Mayor Madeline Rogero.
“We need to find creative ways to help entrepreneurs who are not part of the capital community today,” Biggs says.
Other potentials initiatives range from talent development to dedicated downtown space for entrepreneurs, something that has been on his wish list for several years.
“We need to reduce barriers to entry, working with the city to make starting a business faster and easier,” Biggs says, adding as one possibility, “Could we create a rental incentive in a particular district to make it easier to get going?”
As he and the KEC team explore various options, Biggs wants to make sure that the plans are complementary to those of Launch Tennessee, which recently unveiled a new strategic vision of its own, and also the Innov865 Alliance, the ad hoc framework that was created to bring the various organizations under one umbrella. Members, who support entrepreneurial activities in a variety of ways, include KEC; three University of Tennessee (UT) organizations – Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, UT Research Foundation and UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm; Launch Tennessee; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz; Three Roots Capital; TVA; and Bunker Labs Knoxville.
“I want to be sure we create a vision for KEC that rests in the vision of the Alliance, but also has a component that fills gaps where the Alliance doesn’t operate,” he explains.