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July 30, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Tennessee start-ups benefit from two mentor networks

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a five-part series focused on various aspects of Tennessee’s statewide mentor network that currently supports start-ups in two key sectors – life sciences and energy.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

In early 2013, a delegation from the Nashville Health Care Council and Life Science Tennessee spent several days in San Diego examining how the city had stimulated high tech growth through the convergence of its healthcare and biotechnology sectors. I was privileged to be a part of that group and summarized the visit in this two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2).

Fast forward five years, and a key element of the Southern California city’s success is now being implemented in Tennessee through collaborations between Launch Tennessee (LaunchTN), the statewide public-private partnership focused on making Tennessee the most start-friendly state in the country, and two other sector-specific associations – Life Science Tennessee (LST) and the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC) respectively.

Those alliances are part of Tennessee’s secret sauce, as entrepreneurs like to say.

“We do ecosystem-wide collaboration better than any other state,” Lindsey Cox, LaunchTN’s Director of Operations and Government Affairs, says. She oversees the mentor network initiative that her organization primarily supports through grants to the other two associations.

“The key success factor is coordination between LaunchTN, which helps fund programs and industry association partners that can stand them up,” Cox says, noting that her organization continues to evaluate other sectors that are critical to Tennessee’s economy.

So, you might ask, “What was it that captured the attention of the Tennessee delegation when it visited San Diego?”

As described in the second article referenced above, it was something named CONNECT, then a 25-year old program that was designed as a way to grow a regional economy in decline and as a tool to replicate the culture of innovation that existed in Silicon Valley nearly 500 miles north of San Diego.

The success of CONNECT – 3,000 new technology companies created at least in part through its efforts – stimulated some of the attendees to seek to find a way to bring CONNECT’s flagship component to Tennessee. Called Springboard, it is a structured, self-paced business accelerator designed to assist science and technology companies with marketing, financial and strategic business advice from a mentor team.

A little more than two years after the delegation returned from San Diego, LaunchTN and LST adopted the Springboard model of connecting seasoned mentors to promising start-ups in the life science space and rolled-out the “Life Science Network.” We described it in this article. In 2017, LaunchTN partnered with TAEBC to start the “Energy Mentor Network.”

“The structured process coupled with schedule flexibility for the entrepreneur and a strong cadre of mentors are critical success factors,” Cox says, citing the difference that exists between Springboard and the traditional programming offered by the regional entrepreneur centers that LaunchTN helps support financially.

For the most part, the centers operate accelerator programs with a cohort of entrepreneurs who move on a defined schedule over a 10- to 13-week schedule. In the case of Springboard, there is a multi-step process, but each start-up moves from one stage to another at its pace. Those stages are pre-intake, intake and evaluation, marketing, finance, final coaching and pitch deck clean-up, and final panel presentation before graduation.

“We like the scheduling flexibility that ‘Springboard’ offers participants compared to more traditional cohort-based accelerators,” Cox says. “We’ve seen models successfully pivot like Project Music at Nashville Entrepreneur Center. You need to customize the offering and focus on the founder.”

LST has recruited about 60 mentors, while TAEBC has 30. Several like Jim Monsor and Ira Weiss work with start-ups in both sectors.

NEXT: A look at the “Life Science Network.”

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