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April 14, 2014 | Tom Ballard

Michael Neel sees games development as helping achieve his goals

Knoxville Technology Cooperative(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on Knoxville entrepreneur and game maven Michael Neel.)

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

For local technology guru Michael Neel, CodeStock and the Technology Cooperative seem like family. They are, after all, two activities where he has invested considerable time and energy.

CodeStock is a two-day technology and information gathering of working professionals – web developers, information technology professionals, and entrepreneurs – who share their knowledge and experience. The 2014 event is set for July 11 and 12.

“We started at Pellissippi State Community College, but outgrew the space after two years,” Neel says, so he moved it to the University of Tennessee Conference Center.

“Everyone is on the same floor,” he explains, “Between educational sessions, they have to mingle.”

This networking is a key feature of CodeStock. Other aspects are the compressed schedule, the fact that sessions are led by practitioners, and a cap on attendance – 500 individuals.

In spite of his passion for the annual event, Neel says he stepped down as the CodeStock leader after the 2012 program.

“I could not do both on a part-time basis,” he explained in citing the time demands of the Technology Cooperative and CodeStock. It was also about personal priorities.

Once we heard Neel’s story, it was clear why he made the time investment choice that he did.

The father of three daughters – 13, 10 and three – explains the older sisters have been exposed to computers since their early years. It was directly tied to Neel’s passion for getting them involved in technology, coupled with an observation he made.

“Girls coming out of elementary school are very much into math and science,” he says, adding that this fact changes by the time they leave middle school. Neel wanted to change that picture for his daughters and others in middle and high school.

As he considered the best way to make a difference, Neel also asked a simple question: “What about other kids who don’t have a parent like me?”

His answer led to the formation of the Technology Cooperative with two friends – Eric Johnson, a colleague at Jewelry Television, and Byron Williamson with Cruze Computers.

“The Tech Co-op is about how we provide access to technology for students in schools that are less affluent,” he told us. The business model is somewhat unique.

The organization, which operates as a not-for-profit, was formerly located on Jackson Avenue across from Remedy Coffee. Neel told us that it recently moved a few blocks down Central to 13 Emory Place.

“The new space is about the same size, but we have street access and can solve ‘the door problem’ (getting people access to the space),” he said. “There is plenty of free, close parking, something the other space didn’t have. I also think the layout of the space with its giant front window is better, too.”

The Technology Cooperative provides collaborative workspace for members willing to donate their time to provide free technical learning activities, consultation, and mentoring for middle and high school students.

Neel says professionals and students gather regularly to exchange ideas. Programs are offered at night and on weekends. There’s also a lab for students who do not have access to computers.

“Eric is the leadership visionary,” Neel says.

His latest passion – Knox Game Design – draws on his personal interest in developing games suitable for any platform – from mobile devices to the Xbox – as well as another way to capture and maintain the interest of young people.

“If we can get a kid to ship something before the end of high school, we think we have given the kid his or her swagger,” Neel believes.

There are two other motivations for Neel in the game development – personal and financial.

“I’m purely in love with game design,” he says on the personal front, noting he regularly plays games with his daughters.

On the financial side, Neel says, “I dream of a day where we have published some games that have become so successful that we can do more (at the Technology Cooperative).”

He did not plan to return to Knoxville after graduation from Farragut High School, but the community is fortunate that he returned with this passion to enrich the lives of young people.

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