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August 01, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 3: Right timing led to the founding of the “Energy Mentor Network”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third 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

There’s an old saying that “timing is everything,” and that just might be the case as it relates to the launch of the “Energy Mentor Network.”

Cortney Piper, Vice President of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC), recalled that the roughly one-year old organization released its inaugural report in 2015 that documented the impact of the sector on Tennessee’s economy.

“We reported that the sector employed 325,000 Tennesseans in 17,000 industries and contributed $33 billion to the state’s gross domestic product,” Piper said.

Shortly after the release of the report, Jill Van Beke, Launch Tennessee’s (LaunchTN) Chief Program Officer, called Piper with a simple question: “How are you working on the entrepreneurial aspects of advanced energy?” It was a perfect question, and Piper saw a great opportunity to partner with LaunchTN.

“Two of our board members – Jeff Kanel (Chief Executive Officer of Renewable Algal Energy, LLC) and Jim Plourde (then National Sales Manager for Schneider Electric) – wanted us to offer programming for entrepreneurs,” she said.

That would be a financial challenge for an organization that was a start-up itself. However, as Van Beke described the “Life Science Network” to Piper, she saw the possibilities and successfully pitched the idea of a partnership with LaunchTN to her board that included me.

As noted in the first article in this series, the two mentor initiatives are built around Springboard, a key component of the CONNECT program in San Diego that has stimulated significant start-up growth over the past three decades.

“The way they organized it was everyone was in the same city,” Piper said. “We needed to be able to develop a process of connecting entrepreneurs and mentors who are miles apart.” That was the same challenge that Life Science Tennessee (LST) faced with its network.

While both use Springboard as the foundation, Abby Trotter, LST’s Executive Director, noted that the two mentor programs operate differently, a reflection of the nature of each sector. That said, LST has been a great help to TAEBC.

Both Piper and Allie Rapkowicz, who manages the “Energy Mentor Network” on a day-to-day basis, said that Jim Monsor, Director of the LST program, “has been a great resource and very generous with his time.” We heard the same praise for Monsor from Jason Loyet of Solar Site Design, the first graduate of the TAEBC-coordinated program. (NOTE: Click here to read our recent article about the company.)

How easy has it been to start the mentoring initiative in the advanced energy sector?

“Because we were launching a program based on member demand, it was not difficult finding the first few mentors,” Piper said. TAEBC has recruited nearly 30 mentors, but is always looking for additional volunteers. The time commitment varies by company, but is about five hours a month on average.

“Many of the companies are looking for help on their business plan and ‘go-to-market’ strategy,” Rapkowicz noted. That means TAEBC needs for sector specific and generalist mentors.

Ironically, all but one of the current participants in the energy program have been the subject of one or more articles. They and the links to those articles, in alphabetical order, are: Active Energy Systems, One Scientific Inc., Peroxygen Systems Inc., SkyNano Technologies, and Stone Mountain Technologies Inc. The newest participant – Electro-Active Technologies – will be spotlighted in the final article in this series.)

NEXT: A look at the most recent graduate of the “Life Science Network.”

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