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September 04, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Anderson Center is a key player in helping hone student entrepreneurship

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a series focused on key opportunities for University of Tennessee, Knoxville students to hone their entrepreneurial ideas.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Knoxville campus is a key player in the institution’s activities to help students hone their entrepreneurial aspirations.

Those initiatives range from helping facilitate the undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship that now involves seven colleges (see our recent article on the growth of this program) to three competitions where students vie for funding to further advance anything from a fledgling idea to an actual start-up.

Many of our readers are aware of the twice-a-year “Vol Court Speaker Series & Pitch Competition,” based on past coverage of the events. Less familiar, however, are two complementary initiatives that might be equated to the progression that students make from their first year in college to graduation or even post-graduate studies.

They are the “Graves Business Plan Competition,” named for the long-time Director of Operations at the Anderson Center, and the “Boyd Venture Challenge,” endowed by a gift from Knoxville Entrepreneur Randy Boyd.

Collectively, the three have specific targets, but Carrie Baker McCamey, ACEI’s Director of Communications, says that “you don’t have to do these in any order. You can enter these programs in any order. We do recommend ‘Vol Court’ as a natural starting point.”

During an interview with Graves and McCamey, they highlighted the focus of each program.

“Joy Fisher came-up with the idea of ‘Vol Court’ when she was at the UT Research Foundation,” Graves said. He and Glen Swift helped her implement the concept that had a strong educational base.

“‘Vol Court’ allows people to express a business idea early in the development process,” Graves explained. “This is a great opportunity for an aspiring entrepreneur to stand before judges, express an idea, and see if it has traction to move forward.”

It runs six weeks each semester and features speakers during the weekly early evening sessions ahead of the pitch competition in week six. There’s been significant growth in participation in the past few years with about two dozen ideas pitched during the most recent competition. The Spring Semester winners were Flo+Co., floral coffee shop; Motoplow, an agricultural application; and Generative Genetics, an axolotl breeder.

Participants have a chance to win up to $1,500, office space in the UT Research Foundation Business Incubator, and various professional services provided by sponsors like PYA, the power behind

Graves equated participation in “Vol Court” to “putting a toe in the water.”

Unlike the other two competitions, it is open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, alumni, and people from the Knoxville community.

“The best of that group often moves forward,” Graves says. That path involves the other two competitions.

The next logical step for undergraduate students is the “Graves Business Plan Competition” which is targeted exclusively to undergraduate students.

“You don’t have to have a fully-developed business plan, but you do need to have an identified opportunity or problem and a viable solution,” Graves says of the competition launched more than a decade ago after a student pitched the idea of a program similar to one that was offered at the University of Georgia.

The “Graves Competition” is offered once a year with a total of $10,000 available to the top three student entrepreneurs in two business categories – high growth and lifestyle. The 2018 winners were Generative Genetics (first place, high growth); Coonhound, LLC (first place, lifestyle), a concierge camping service; Cumberland Games Company (second place, high growth), a board game company; Flo+Co. (second place, lifestyle), Patriot Threads (third place, high growth), an apparel company; and Stoked Info (third place, lifestyle) a media company.

“These participants have advanced beyond the ‘Vol Court’ stage,” McCamey explained. “They are involved more in customer discovery, research, and first sales.”

The “Boyd Competition” is open to both undergraduate and graduate students, but those selected are much farther along on their entrepreneurial journey.

“They are a papered company,” Graves says in relation to being formally incorporated. “They have some revenue or are close. Their ask is designed to accomplish one or more specific milestones designed to move them forward.”

The “Boyd Competition” is offered twice a year with up to $25,000 available each time. The Spring Semester awardees were Generative Genetics and Flo+Co.

Recently, the Anderson Center renovated space in the UT Research Foundation’s Business Incubator for an accelerator program for students.

NEXT: The new ACEI Accelerator and its first Entrepreneur-in-Residence.

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