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October 08, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Marcum and Sisk reflect on a “first of its kind” accelerator

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series based on a recent interview with Dan Marcum and Jack Sisk.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates. P.C.

They tried something that no one had ever attempted before – an automotive and mobility-related business accelerator.

The initiative that went by the name of autoXLR8R recently graduated its inaugural class of companies, and the organizers are already at work on plans for 2014.

We had the opportunity recently to debrief with two of the key organizers – Dan Marcum and Jack Sisk. The former is a long-time industry executive who is now a venture capitalist (NEST-TN) and leader of the Southern Middle Tennessee Entrepreneur Centers (SMTEC). The latter is a well-seasoned automotive industry veteran of General Motors and its Saturn subsidiary.

“It has come across to the public very well,” Marcum said in reference to the visibility that the autoXLR8R received. He gave a great deal of the credit to Nashville-based Hall Strategies.

The most recent national post was a half-page article in USA Today (

Marcum was also very upbeat about the companies that participated in the 13-week program.

“Nine (of the accelerator’s companies) are high quality and stand a really good chance of getting funding,” he predicted. “Four of the nine were selected to participate in The TENN,” a reference to LaunchTN’s recent event to identify Tennessee’s most promising 10 start-up companies that have graduated from the state’s accelerators.

From the outset, the autoXLR8R was positioned as a regional initiative linking with programs at Southeastern universities and corporations. The planners recruited start-up teams from other states and even took the teams on regional tours.

“The tech tour exceeded our expectations,” Sisk said. The series, which included a week-long event, involved stops at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research, Eastman Chemical Company, Mercedes-Benz US International, University of Alabama, and even Chattanooga’s CO.LAB.

“This is a unique industry,” Sisk said of the automotive sector, both original equipment manufacturers and their suppliers.

This year’s cohort was the second accelerator that SMTEC has run. “An industry focus helps,” Marcum says of this year’s group compared to 2012.

Marcum is also proud of the fact that nine of the companies in the NEST-TN TNInvestco portfolio have secured at least $2 million each in revenue and “two are doing more than $25 million each.”

As far as the autoXLR8R, Marcum and Sisk do not plan to rest on their laurels. They clearly visualize changes even as they are still seeking answers to some serious questions that range from how the content is packaged to how an accelerator is customized to the needs of each start-up.

“Some get it in six weeks, but others take 13 weeks or longer,” Marcum says. “Maybe we need to modularize the content.”

“A cookie cutter approach in 13 weeks is not necessarily enough time for the automotive industry,” Sisk adds.

We’ll explore these and other topics in the second article in this two-part series.