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PART 1: Heath Guinn says “wind is at our back” after “two years pushing the rope”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This the first article in a four-part series spotlighting the plans for entrepreneur centers serving the eastern half of Tennessee.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“I’ve spent two years pushing the rope, but now the wind is at our back,” says Heath Guinn, President of Sync Space Entrepreneur Center in Kingsport. It is part of the Launch Tennessee statewide network with a focus on three major cities – Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport – and eight Northeast Tennessee counties.

As regular readers of teknovation.biz know, Sync Space has been on a proverbial roll, launching new programs and partnering with others to support the regional ecosystem. That collaborative approach is something that Guinn emphasizes regularly.

“We have to be the hub and spoke of entrepreneurial resources and connectivity,” he emphasizes in describing Sync Space’s mission. “We aim to pull everyone together, and a big win is how many people we engage.”

His philosophy was clearly evident in the recent announcement about the expansion of Innovation Village in Kingsport to include a 9,000 square foot space named the Center for Digital Innovation (see recent teknovation.biz article here). Create Appalachia, the region’s leading organization promoting the traditional and digital artists of Appalachia, is leading the initiative, not Sync Space, but Guinn says it is an example of how organizations can come together to address a critical need. In this case, those entities include Sync Space, East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Research Corporation, Kingsport’s Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Northeast State Community College, and the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing.

Heath Guinn

“We’re now exploring something very similar in Johnson City,” Guinn says.

In the past 12 months, Sync Space has announced a number of new initiatives as it partners with others in the region. They include: (1) announcing in February 2021 that the City of Johnson City had formed a partnership with the Sync Space and FoundersForge, located in Johnson City, to bring more entrepreneurial programming to the Washington County community; (2) spotlighting the region when the 21st annual “Golden Trailer Awards” show was broadcast from Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville in July (see teknovation.biz article here); (3) joining with the ETSU Research Corporation and TSG Innovation Group to launch a campaign called “Aim High in the Appalachian Highlands” that is focused on branding Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia as the “Nation’s Epicenter for Rural Entrepreneurship” (see teknovation.biz article here); and (4) announcing a partnership with the City of Bristol in October to expand Sync Space programming there (see teknovation.biz article here).

“It’s a matter of putting people together,” Guinn says of these and other efforts like one where he is helping address a significant problem for youth. It involves what he describes as “adverse childhood events,” usually at home, that are subsequently noticed at K-12 schools, third party counselors, and the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

“Those young people frequently reappear in a different county or school, and the officials there are not aware of the previous events,” Guinn says. A local entrepreneur has developed “a simple tool to do a complex thing” by making that information more widely available.

“We’re working to secure funding to do a pilot to showcase the software that is a phone app converted to a desktop portal,” he says.

In terms of his priorities for 2022, Guinn outlined five during our recent interview, starting with programming and Syn Space’s signature accelerator. “It is focused on start-ups that can match-up with a corporate partner in our region,” he explains. “It is a larger economic development initiative that has a recruitment and retention flair. It’s matchmaking.”

To fully support entrepreneurs, Guinn wants to also expand the network of players, both locally and beyond, and also enhance corporate relationships. “We need more private sector partners,” he says. “Entrepreneurship, workforce, and education (provide) the overlap in how we put corporate partnerships together.”

Guinn also has placed a priority in 2022 on raising capital, both for Sync Space and local start-ups. “We have not tapped the private sector thus far,” he says of the entrepreneur center. On the broader question of capital for start-ups, he is pitching the concept of a central Appalachia fund.

“We believe it’s not our communities competing with each other, but it is “us” versus Charlotte and Richmond,” Guinn says of the access to capital issue.

Finally, on the earlier reference to expanding the network, he’s exploring at least two possibilities. One involves the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and it’s “Project Music and Entertainment” accelerator. Guinn notes that the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in 1998 recognizing Bristol, TN as the “Birthplace of County Music,” so a tie-in makes sense.

The other initiative in healthcare is being led by Jeff Brown at The Biz Foundry in Cookeville. We’ll provide more details in that future article in this series, but Guinn says that both ETSU and Ballad Health are interested.

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