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July 18, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Nashville Innovation Project inspired by the Brookings Institution work

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series focused on a grassroots effort in Music City called the Nashville Innovation Project.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The opening sentence in a recently released report quickly and clearly establishes both the challenge and the opportunity for Tennessee’s largest and ever-growing city.

“Nashville has experienced tremendous growth over the last decade and continues to attract people from all over the country at an unprecedented rate,” the 19-page document from the Nashville Innovation Project (NIP) states. Just a few sentences later, the report notes that “our success has overshadowed the reality that the ecosystems of our competitive peers Austin and Denver have created over twice as many funded start-ups and have attracted over twice as much venture capital investment per capita.”

Other observations include the fact that $700 million in R&D funding comes into the city, yet few new companies have been created to take advantage of the research results, and there is not “a significant cluster (that has) been built around these institutional assets.”

Nashville is not alone among Tennessee cities or others across the nation in failing to build on strategic assets, but there’s something unique and truly compelling about the NIP initiative. For starters, the recently released report is the result of a nearly two-year grassroots effort by a small, but highly motivated group of citizens concerned about the future of their hometown.

We sat down recently with Brian Phelps, the author of the report and NIP Co-Founder, to learn more about the initiative, the findings, and plans for the future. He’s an urban designer by training and a Senior Associate with Hawkins Partners Inc., a Nashville-based urban design firm.

“I’m an innovation, creative junkie guy,” Phelps told us over coffee at Nashville’s award-winning Crema location just across the street from the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. He became involved in the effort in November 2016, but the seeds had been sown a few years earlier when the Brookings Institution released its 2014 report titled “Rise of the Innovation District.

Rachel Werner, an Application Engineer with Built Technologies Inc., began a series of conversations in the fall of 2015 with individuals and small groups that explored the feasibility of establishing an innovation district.

“The feedback from some in the community was that Nashville has been tremendously successful; we have multiple clusters around the city, and we don’t see a need to establish an innovation district,” Phelps explained. While surprised by the reaction, the small group took a step back and decided to explore the answer to a fundamental question: “What does innovation mean to the city of Nashville?”

That decision led to holding a series of what Phelps described as “pop-up focus groups,” close to a dozen in all. Those findings are the basis of the recently released report that can be found here.

“It (the report) was meant to start the conversation,” Phelps explains, noting that “part of the issue is Nashville has been successful.”

Yet, the NIP team believes that the very factors that spurred Music City’s explosive growth and success over the past two decades could be a challenge over the next 20 years.

NEXT: What are some of the findings and future plans?

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