Knoxville businessman Michael Carroll literally radiates enthusiasm and passion when he talks about the latest undertaking for his team and him – leading the new Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), a public-private undertaking that includes financial support from the City of Knoxville and several family foundations.
Located at 17 Market Square below the Knoxville Chamber on Market Square, KEC is designed to be “inspirational space” for entrepreneurs, Carroll says, adding that it is a “sanctuary for their business dreams and a safe place for their ideas.” It will also be home to the state’s 16-county regional business accelerator funded in part by LaunchTN.
“We’re not trying to be exactly like any existing accelerator,” he says, adding that the Center is also not designed to be a traditional business incubator. Carroll cites those already operated by Tech 20/20 and the University of Tennessee (UT) as filling that important need.
Since his team was first approached months ago to lead the effort, Carroll says they have been fine-tuning the concept by combining the most successful practices around the world while making sure they are relevant and appropriate to Knoxville’s unique needs. The Center was officially unveiled at Friday’s ribbon cutting ceremony. The idea is simple but unique.
Entrepreneurs use the Center as a place where they can check-in, brainstorm, network with others, hold meetings, and attend special events and programs. Their businesses may actually be housed elsewhere with their “workplace partner,” a company that is ideally in a similar industry to the start-up and agrees to not only provide space for the entrepreneur, but also mentoring employees and senior executives.
Scripps Networks Interactive is the first workplace partner.
“There are obviously benefits from this arrangement for both the entrepreneur and business host,” Carroll says. “In the case of the latter, it brings new thoughts and energy in an area relevant to their existing business line.”
Acknowledging that “it’s original thinking in the traditional accelerator world,” Carroll says they know first-hand that it works. After all, it’s how they have grown their portfolio of companies, bringing aspiring entrepreneurs into a nourishing environment and providing solid mentoring, resources and encouragement.
Carroll has studied accelerators and identified a key characteristic that differentiates successful ones from others. He says those that succeed “decide which industry focuses make the most sense for their community,” a concept that is usually described as settling on a cluster.
Focus does not mean excluding other industries, Carroll explains. All entrepreneurs with solid teams and/or ideas will be supported, which includes directing them to the best resource. Focus just means having a target or, as he likes to describe it, a priority for each “season.”
KEC’s “first season” will center around disruptive opportunities in media distribution industry, drawing on Knoxville’s rich heritage of homegrown companies like Scripps Interactive Networks, Rivr Media and Jupiter Entertainment along with the city’s mix of creative artists, musicians and sculptors.
“These artists are some of the smartest, most creative, hardest working people in our community,” Carroll says. “We need to empower them with technology and business basics as soon as possible. We’ve been holding ‘blue sky’ sessions (with them) where we are exploring the liabilities and vulnerabilities of various media platforms” in an effort to discover totally new platforms that we can’t even imagine today.”
The Center’s “second season” will focus on renewable energy with a twist. Where current initiatives usually have a goal of adding energy generated from renewables to the grid, Carroll sees an opportunity to focus on solar, geothermal, wind and other renewable technologies “that are disruptive because they empower households and individuals, not the grid.”
As he explores focus areas for subsequent seasons, Carroll is also considering the best strategies to ensure the momentum gained during an initial season is not lost. It’s a balancing act, but one that Carroll believes must be addressed for long-term success.
Most accelerators have a “Demo Day” at the end of each concentrated accelerator effort, frequently described as a “business boot camp.” Carroll’s plans for the KEC include a “Demo Day” but, not surprisingly, with a twist.
“They will be on Friday nights and mostly entertainment with a great speaker,” he says. The traditional business pitches could also be different, perhaps developed by film makers. The inaugural “Demo Day” is set for August 16.
Finally, KEC plans a monthly “First Friday” event that will be a late afternoon workshop, seminar, lecture or other type of program at the KEC. These monthly events start May 3 and are designed in part to draw people to the Center on Market Square. They conclude with a mixer and send people on their way to retail, restaurant and First Friday entertainment activities.
As he reflects on the journey that they have started, Carroll says that Knoxville’s economic heritage is both a curse and a blessing.
“We have an incredible support structure, but a shortage of entrepreneurs,” he notes. The support structure includes organizations like Tech 20/20, UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the UT Research Foundation. As far as the shortage of entrepreneurs, Carroll believes it is caused in part by a regional economy that has relied more on government-funded positions than many other cities in the state.
“We have to create a culture that encourages and embraces the start-up process, including the bloody noses and scars that come with it,” Carroll says. He and his staff know the environment well, having started more than 25 companies. Their experience and passion should serve the region well.