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February 05, 2019 | Tom Ballard

EC OUTLOOK PART 3: KEC’s 2019 plans include a reboot of some existing program plus a few new ones

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a three-part series spotlighting plans for the Entrepreneur Centers in the eastern half of Tennessee.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Like the other two programs that we have spotlighted in this series, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s (KEC) plans for 2019 include a continuation of successful activities from the past plus a few new initiatives.

“We have two or three that are either a reboot of existing programs, or entirely new for us,” KEC Executive Director Jim Biggs says. We discussed those plans with Biggs and Jonathan Sexton, KEC’s Chief Operating Officer, recently.

“As KEC has matured over the past five plus, our community of start-ups has grown with us,” Biggs explains. “Our goal now is to create a really exceptional experience for entrepreneurs across a wider range of businesses. We want it to be more continuously engaging for them.”

We recently spotlighted one of those new initiatives – the Executives-in-Residence (EIR) program. As described in this December article in, the inaugural team is comprised of Eleni Stratigeas and Richard Dapaah, who bring very different skillsets to the table. Stratigeas was Senior Vice President, Legal Affairs and Corporate Secretary of Scripps Networks Interactive, Inc., while Dapaah is a Venture Partner at FundRx. Before that, he was the first analyst at Shire Capital Management and led late stage investments as part of a team working with high-growth companies like Alibaba, Uber, Snapchat, and Lyft.

“They are incredibly bright, talented individuals with great experience,” Biggs says. “We want to provide them with an opportunity to do something that is of interest to them and also aligns with our mission.”

Sexton adds that the two EIRs will initially work with entrepreneurs for a few months before developing a more self-defined set of programming that they will offer at KEC for the balance of 2019.

As a result of their respective corporate experience, both Biggs and Sexton believe Stratigeas and Dapaah can help with another of KEC’s priorities – successfully building business connections between start-ups and corporations. That effort was the focus of the “LEAP” (“Local Executive Access Program”) series launched in 2018 and will continue this year with the strong support of Launch TN and the network of regional accelerator programs.

“Last year, LEAP helped connect start-ups throughout Tennessee with business development opportunities at marquee companies that included Pilot Flying J, Radio Systems, Bush Beans, Tractor Supply and Jewelry TV,” said Biggs. “We’re excited to help facilitate more opportunities like that in the year to come.”

Another evolutionary project for KEC this year is a greatly enhanced version of its original accelerator program.

“It’s an extension of what we started with the both ‘The Works’ and our ‘Growth Works’ teams over the past several years,” Biggs says. However, instead of being a several-month accelerator, it is a year-long initiative led by Brandon Bruce, Co-Founder and former Chief Operating Officer of Cirrus Insight, and Bob Camp, a retired corporate executive turned consultant and turnaround specialist.

“The companies set the agenda, not us,” Sexton says. For those who are familiar with traditional accelerators, that is a significant departure from the norm where a preset agenda is followed during the 10- to 12-week program.

Instead, the new program will have eight to 10 promising growth stage companies that will meet for three hours each month to discuss and address current and future issues. A likely topic is talent recruitment, something that challenges any start-up, particularly those in the technology space.

“Meetings will likely focus on one company dealing with a specific issue, but we’ll be sure that the topic is applicable to all of the companies,” Biggs explained.  “We want them all to come away from each session having solved a problem and learned something about their business.”

One of the participants is Bryan Foster, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of CTS Software. We’ll spotlight that company in tomorrow’s edition of

Another KEC initiative has a new name and an expanded focus.

“We’ve revamped our mentorship program and are now calling them advisors,” Biggs says. “It’s a more accurate way to characterize their interaction with entrepreneurs.” In addition to increasing the number of advisors participating in the program, there are now set office hours for nearly all of them on a monthly basis. Those office hours include business founders; experts in areas such as marketing, advertising and social media; and professionals that include finance and law.

Sexton adds that KEC has “tripled the preset schedule of hours” when its cadre of advisors is available.

Other programs that will continue in 2019 include “What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Launch” held in conjunction with The Development Corporation of Knox County, several CO.STARTERS classes and BrandCamps, activities to support the local maker community through The Maker City initiative, and a collaboration with The Biz Foundry on the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER (“Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization”) initiative described in this article.

Biggs also notes that KEC is exploring ways to work more closely with the local chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization and to continue to support activities of the Innov865 Alliance and its partners including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee Research Foundation.

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