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July 19, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Nashville Innovation Project is led by a small, grassroots team

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

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The Nashville Innovation Project (NIP) is all about the city’s future, one that is seemingly outstanding as judged by factors like the influx of new residents and the number of high-rise construction cranes dotting the downtown skyline.

“Even during this period of historic strength, it is crucial to ruminate on the direction and future of our city,” the organization’s inaugural report notes. “We must decide if we are content with being only the best place for back offices of the world’s most innovative companies, or if we are willing to foster the creation of those leading companies ourselves.”

The small, grassroots team behind NIP has mapped the city’s innovation ecosystem and drawn some important conclusions while also posing several critical questions.

“What do the next 20 years look like,” Brian Phelps, NIP’s Co-Founder, asks? “Where’s the puck going and do we ensure the innovation ecosystem is in place to meet the challenges we will face?”

He cites Nashville’s reputation and strength in healthcare, yet wonders what changes in payment models will mean for the city. “It’s a big part of the community’s economic base, core competencies, and identity,” Phelps says of the healthcare sector.

The same could be asked as far as another of Nashville’s leading industries – music. What does the continued evolution of digital technologies and changes in the entertainment sector portend?

There are some strengths that aren’t that well-known. We learned that the city ranks third behind Los Angeles and New York in terms of fashion design per capita. How does Nashville build on that strength from an innovation perspective?

There’s an emerging blockchain community as companies like Hashed Health look to apply blockchain to healthcare. Phelps asks, “How and where does it play in our future; how do we nurture the growth of these potential platform technologies?”

The group’s mapping shows that Nashville’s innovation clusters are geographically spread across the community with the top five being around Vanderbilt, Church Street in downtown, East Nashville, the Gulch, and Rolling Mill Hill. Connecting these complementary resources is something that needs to happen, Phelps says.

So, where do these known facts and unanswered questions lead the NIP team? The result is their mantra for Nashville: a platform for innovation, and the organization makes its case in the 19-page report that looks at five components of a healthy innovation ecosystem. Those elements are:

  • Talent, both tacit knowledge and skills as well as through formal education;
  • Network, the formal and informal web of social ties;
  • Capital, the all-important key to bring innovations to market;
  • Physical infrastructure; and
  • Enabling environment, both legal and cultural.

The NIP team outlines its findings and recommendations in each of the five areas.

Phelps says the group has a weekly gathering from 7:30 to 9 a.m. on Fridays at oneC1TY where one person leads a conversation. “There are no Power Points,” he says. “The frequency of these meetings is very important. We’re building trust.”

“We need to pay attention to this topic,” Phelps says. “It’s about our future.”