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June 24, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Mayor Kincannon interrupts family vacation for virtual event focused on innovation and entrepreneurship

Interrupting a family vacation, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon shared her passion and priorities for the city and its start-ups during a one-hour virtual event yesterday that was attended by about 80 individuals.

“One of my goals as Mayor is to support the entrepreneurial community,” she said early in her comments while also acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit about three months into her first year in office, had disrupted some of those priorities.

“I do want to move forward with an innovation district of some sort,” the Mayor (pictured at right) said later in response to a question, putting an exclamation point on the concept of innovative thinking by adding, “I, as Mayor, need to be entrepreneurial, too.” She also emphasized the importance of collaboration and creative collisions that would occur in such a place.

Those who tuned-in for the conversation delivered via Lunchpool came from the local region as well as Cincinnati, Nashville, Northeast Tennessee and possibly other communities. The event was organized by the Innov865 Alliance that represents the region’s start-up support organizations and works to cast the spotlight on the region defined by the 865 area code.

During her opening comments before Q&A, Mayor Kincannon reminded attendees of that old adage about necessity being the mother of invention as she called-out a number of local entrepreneurs and their efforts in responding to, pivoting as a result of, or simply persevering in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. They included Alex Abell, Co-Founder of Lunchpool, who pivoted from lunchtime meet-ups to virtual events; Anna Douglas, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of SkyNano LLC, whose recent fundraising success was featured in yesterday’s edition of; Mike Benn, Founder of Songboarding, who developed a song to remind people to wash their hands frequently; and two local labs – EDP Biotech and Integrity – that responded to widespread testing needs.

“Some of the things we considered wants have become needs,” the Mayor said, specifically citing access to universal broadband that was brought into the spotlight when schools closed quickly and needed to turn to online instruction. Unfortunately, the lack of laptops for everyone and broadband made that impossible. As such, it should not come as a surprise that increasing the number of homes with internet access is one of her priorities.

Like most public officials with whom we have interacted over the years, Mayor Kincannon’s philosophy about the role of government seems well-defined. “It’s not best for government to pick winners and losers,” she said about direct investing in start-ups. “I don’t want to become a bank.”

Instead, she talked about investment in infrastructure and programs. “I want to remove barriers and give them (start-ups) the support they need,” the Mayor said as she cited a program for Knoxville similar to The 800 Initiative in Memphis that is focused on the growth of minority businesses.

“Another item near and dear to my heart is open data,” she said, citing the Knoxville City Hackathon conducted in March 2019. At the same time, the Mayor also noted the importance of protecting city data, citing the recent attack on the city’s computer system.

The Q&A session was moderated by Cortney Piper of Piper Communications (top right in picture at left) and included Carter Hall, an Assistant to the Mayor for Policy and Strategic Projects (top left in photograph). The latter provided considerable input on a question about how the city would measure the return on its investments in entrepreneurship.

Tops on Hall’s list was jobs. “We, as a city, want to help companies to grow,” he said. Other key metrics include number of new start-ups, longevity of those new ventures, diversity of the Founders, and access to capital.

One question from an attendee and the response surprised us. It concerned possibly shifting funds from tourism to more support for the entrepreneurial community. Hall quickly said that he thought there was a strong interplay between the two, citing as one example Austin, known for its thriving start-up scene, that has fostered a major destination event known as “South by Southwest.” About 417,000 people attended the two-week series of programs in 2019, clearly underscoring the way that tourism and entrepreneurship can be mutually supportive of each other.

Hall’s point was reemphasized later by Mayor Kincannon who talked about Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, the city’s thriving downtown restaurant and club scene, and music opportunities ranging from the Symphony to the annual “Big Ears Festival.” Noting that these “are seen as a magnet,” she coined a new term that we had not previously heard, describing Knoxville as the “Boulder of Appalachia.”

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