Morris calls 2012 transitional year for Tech 20/20, proud of success

Today marks the beginning of John Morris’ second year as President and Chief Executive Officer of Tech 20/20.

As a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee, I have obviously had a “bird’s eye view” of the organization over the last 12 months. Nevertheless, I thought it was important to get Morris’ perspective on his first year leading the region’s oldest venture development organization, the term and brand that he embraced when he assumed the top leadership role on February 1, 2012.

“It was a transition year,” Morris says. “We were transforming Tech 20/20 that has been here to serve the community into an organization that is actively engaged in building the community.”

In his view, the not so subtle shift from “serving” to “actively helping build” is what a venture development organization should do.

“Venture development is targeted at the growth of companies,” whether new start-ups or established firms, Morris explained.

In our interview, Morris emphasized that Tech 20/20 is not moving away from two of its historical pillars – the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth and access to capital, but it is focusing on established companies as well.

This broadening of Tech 20/20’s long-standing focus provided the philosophical shift necessary for the organization to play the coordinating role in the $2.4 million, federally-funded Advanced Manufacturing and Prototyping Center of East Tennessee (AMP!) that was announced in late 2012.

AMP! is a consortium that also includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Pellissippi State Community College, and the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Center for Industrial Services. This team won the largest of 10 national grants made as part of a multi-agency federal initiative to create public-private partnerships focused on helping revitalize American manufacturing.

Morris described two activities that Tech 20/20 will manage for AMP! in addition to overall coordination.

“We will establish R-AMP!, a group of manufacturers in the 20-county AMP! region who are interested in adopting advanced manufacturing processes and technologies,” he said.

Tech 20/20 has also embraced the FIRST Robotics initiative, helping with the late March competition in Knoxville, as well as planning to create a TN FIRST organization as the future home for the robotics competition that involves high school students.

Another initiative that Tech 20/20 launched in 2012 involves well-known local entrepreneur Vig Sherrill, who is a new addition to the organization’s team.

“Vig is looking at individual technologies that are not businesses yet, doing diligence around the IP (intellectual property) that exists, and determining how we turn it into a company,” he explained. This effort underscores Morris’ philosophy of not just serving, but also building.

Tech 20/20’s CEO describes Sherrill’s charge as “looking for the pearl in the oyster” and explains that the focus is on opportunities where no entrepreneur is currently involved and the inventor does not want to start a company.

While the activity will obviously draw on IP at ORNL and UT, Morris says that it is not limited to those institutions.

“AMP! and the work of Vig Sherrill are two initiatives that signal where we are going,” Morris explained, adding that Tech 20/20 has three pillars – its historical entrepreneurial work best represented by its Center for Entrepreneurial Growth, advanced manufacturing and access to capital.

On the latter, he shares many of the concerns about seed and early stage capital that was voiced in the recent three-part teknovation.biz series of interviews with six area investors who shared their thoughts on the outlook for 2013.

“What happens after TNInvestco,” Morris asks. “We need and have needed an angel fund here for a long time.” He wants Tech 20/20 to “fill a gap locally” beyond two existing efforts – the East Tennessee Capital Network that Geoff Robson leads and the Angel Capital Group that is represented by Eric Dobson.

One year into his role, Morris has a clear idea of how he wants to shape Tech 20/20.

“This place and the way I want to see it run is as a public-private partnership,” he says.

Morris cited a challenge Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss football coach, used with his team before its recent bowl game. According to Morris, “Freeze told his team that they weren’t there to create success for themselves but for the guy next to them. If they did, they would win the game.” Ole Miss beat Pittsburg 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

“If we can help them (the region’s ventures) succeed, we will win the day,” Morris says about Tech 20/20.

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