(EDITOR’S NOTE: This the second 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
“If you want to sell me a product, I only care about what the nurses think,” Jeff Brown recalls his father, a longtime purchasing agent at Cookeville Regional Medical Center, telling him. It is a philosophy that has stayed with the President of The Biz Foundry for years and is now driving the rollout of one of his key new initiatives in 2022.
Those who know Brown fairly well will agree that he is inspired by ideas, regardless of their source, but he also is particularly motivated when they come from younger people like those in high school and college. Several years ago, The Biz Foundry launched the four-week “My Big Idea” program focused on middle and high school students interested in entrepreneurship.
“We had to stop it due to concerns about COVID-19,” Brown told us in a recent interview. He hopes that it can be reinstated next school year.
For 2022, one of his major initiatives is leveraging an idea to which he was first exposed at Tennessee Technological University (TTU), thanks to the work of faculty members in two different academic disciplines. One was in Chemical Engineering, the other in Nursing.
“They developed a class in design thinking and put cross-disciplinary teams together,” Brown says. One might say it was an entrepreneurial concept to combine different skillsets where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
He saw firsthand the benefits of that approach in a team that won TTU’s 2020 “Eagle Works Innovation & Entrepreneurship Competition.” Libby Baldwin Duke, then an undergraduate student majoring in biology and now pursuing her M.S. as a Physician Assistant at Lipscomb University, and Daniel Hines, a TTU student and Certified Nursing Assistant, collaborated to develop an endotracheal tube with a suction enabled stylet that was described as “the future of emergency medicine.” They subsequently formed BrantleyMarie Medical Devices Inc., secured a provisional patent, and see their market as being Emergency Medical Services and underserved geographic areas.
“Through talking to them and the faculty members, I learned that lots of nurses have ideas on ways to improve patient care, but they don’t know where to take them,” Brown said. Many of the ideas, whether a medical device or simply a protocol, could not only contribute to better patient care, but also make the lives of nurses much better. COVID-19 has clearly underscored the challenges from both a shortage of nurses and the burnout that is occurring.
As the engaging Brown is prone to do, he began having conversations about the evolving concept with people locally along with colleagues like Jim Biggs at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and Heath Guinn at the Sync Space Entrepreneur Center in Kingsport who have, in turn, talked to their local hospital systems.
The idea is fairly straightforward: combine the coursework the two TTU faculty members developed related to design thinking and add a lean thinking component. Then, sign-up three or four hospital systems for a pilot where their nurses would be able to attend the sessions. He is also exploring working with smaller schools that have nursing programs where their faculty and students could participate.
Brown has set a target date of July to finalize the idea and secure firm commitments with programming starting in 2023. “I have never been involved in anything that has generated so much positive response,” he says.
Meanwhile, The Biz Foundry is doubling its size at its main office in Cookeville, taking on the adjacent space. Brown says that will add eight private offices along with additional conference room and co-working space.
“Another location in Cookeville is a future possibility,” the always upbeat President says.
The Biz Foundry also has additional locations in Sparta – “it’s doing really well,” Brown says – and McMinnville which has been struggling during COVID.
On the programming front beyond the nursing-focused initiative, he says it will pretty much be a continuation of the offerings from 2020, but Brown is also exploring another idea with Biggs and Guinn. “We have a real need for a ‘now what’ program,” he says, describing a more advanced offering for start-ups that are growing and need additional help with scaling correctly.