(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a three-part series describing plans for Entrepreneur Centers in the eastern part of Tennessee.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We’re always sort of in start-up phase,” Jeff Brown, the gregarious President and Executive Director of The Biz Foundry in Cookeville, says in describing the organization’s plans for 2019.
In fact, he explains that those plans include continuation and enhancement of programs launched in the past plus a few new initiatives in the next 12 months.
“There are several big things that are changing,” Brown says, with the biggest being the launch of activities around the recently announced grant under the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER (“Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization”) initiative.
As described in this recent teknovation.biz article, the $1.5 million in funding from the federal agency is part of a broader rural economic development initiative involving the Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC), Lincoln Labs at MIT, The Biz Foundry, and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. VEC will install the latest smart meters in about 500 homes and businesses in several rural communities in its service region. Then, the two entrepreneur centers will offer programming for entrepreneurs in the region including helping those who might want to develop technologies that can be take advantage of a smart grid and apps that can benefit from the data collected. Finally, Lincoln Labs will build a grid simulator where entrepreneurs can test devices and apps without being on the grid.
“The contracts have been signed, and we (KEC and The Biz Foundry) have agreed on the programs we will offer in 2019,” Brown said. “They will probably begin in March or April in the very northern top of Hamilton County into Bradley County.”
For The Biz Foundry, the project is a natural extension of the traditional services that it offers.
“We do rural outreach,” Brown explains.
With that in mind, the Cookeville-based organization is working with neighboring cities to hopefully expand its physical presence in 2019. Those plans are still being finalized, but Brown is optimistic that it will occur this year.
The Biz Foundry team is also keeping its eyes on the pending finalization of rules related to the federal Opportunity Zones. The program, authorized under the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” passed by Congress in late 2017, is designed as a tax incentive for investors to re-invest their unrealized capital gains into Opportunity Funds that are focused on designated underserved geographic areas. The investments can be made in real estate and in operating funds for start-ups.
“You need a working group for each region,” Brown explains. “I think we are going to head it up for our region. We’re talking to a couple of funds interested in the Upper Cumberland region. We would be their local point of contact.”
Is there interest in the Opportunity Zone program in the region? Brown points to the fact that more than 75 people showed-up for an early December briefing hosted by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
Other plans for 2019 include a closer relationship with Tennessee Tech University and further expansion of the four-week “My Big Idea” program focused on middle and high school students interested in entrepreneurship.
“The program has just exploded,” Brown says. “We had more than 500 kids this fall from 22 schools involved.”
Another new initiative is something called the “Made Here Market” pop-up event set for April that will showcase locally made products from the region that businesses have been launched around. “It is a natural progression of the very successful Etsy workshops that we have done with KEC,” Brown said.
Finally, The Biz Foundry has reworked its membership packages for 2019 to allow more flexibility for entrepreneurs who use its Cookeville co-working space. “We understand that being a business owner requires adaptability, resourcefulness, and unusual work hours, so our membership packages should, too,” Brown says.
The new rates range from the drop-in category that is $39 a month to what is called “all in” at just $99 a month. The biggest difference between those two and a middle of the road option at $79 a month is the co-working space hours per week. They range from two hours per week for the $39 option to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at $79 a month and 24/7 for the upper end package.