The final report, including gaps and recommendations that were identified in the recently completed Techstars assessment of the Knoxville area innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, is now pubic, and the hard work is just beginning to ensure the region capitalizes on the effort.
As TVA Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jeff Lyash told the slightly more than 100 attendees at yesterday morning’s virtual town hall, “It’s our job to take this Techstars assessment and operationalize it.” The full report can be downloaded at this link. If you were not able to view the town hall, you can watch it here (page down to “Report Out” section).
In a rapid-fire overview of the report, Rhett Morris, a Consultant who talked with many in the community on one or more occasions, outlined the regional strengths that the Techstars assessment identified and the gaps that need to be addressed.
“I heard that this was a unique moment for the Knoxville community,” Morris said, adding that he concluded the community was performing “far below its actual potential.” Those comments echoed opening remarks by Jeff Smith, Deputy Director for Operations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who said it this way: “The region punches below its weight in innovation.”
For those who are intimately involved in the local innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, none of the findings that Morris outlined should be surprising nor should the proposed recommendations. They are as follows:
- Strengths – the vibrant research community, regional quality of life, low cost of living, deep technology talent, and existing support organizations for start-ups.
- Gaps – perception of the region, locally and more broadly; funding for start-ups, frequently referred to as access to capital; insufficient support in ways such as mentoring; easier access to the bigger public and private enterprises; lower levels of participation by minorities; and absence of defined goals with appropriate metrics and regular reporting.
After Morris’ presentation, representatives of the Innov865 Alliance discussed how the Alliance, as a group, and also as individual members will take leadership responsibility for addressing the gaps and specific ways in which that will occur.
- Grady Vanderhoofven, President and CEO of Three Roots Capital, said his firm will lead “a shared initiative to address capital” that includes: (1) expanding on efforts such as the TennesSeed Fund launched in 2019; and (2) working closely with the Knoxville Chamber on the latter’s access to capital initiative that is a component of its broader “Path to Prosperity” plan.
- Jim Biggs, Executive Director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), spotlighted activities that cover several of the gaps through: (1) its “Made for Knoxville” initiative; (2) a collaboration with the City of Knoxville to launch a Mayor’s Entrepreneurship Council patterned after the well-established Mayor’s Maker Council; (3) the recently revamped and renamed “Inflection Point” initiative; and (4) new efforts focused on underrepresented populations like the upcoming “100Knoxville Launch Event.”
- I had the privilege of addressing three topics – perception, access and measurement. The points that I made included: (1) the Alliance will create and coordinate an ongoing, integrated public relations and marketing campaign to showcase our regional successes, both historical and current, as well as assets that will focus locally, regionally and nationally; (2) PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz, has added an additional writer with part of her role being to help expand on what we are already doing to tell the community story; (3) Alliance members will continue their individual regional promotional efforts in various ways such as KEC’s “Made for Knoxville” initiative and the “Startup Knox” podcast series that will feature Randy Boyd as of today; (4) the Alliance will take leadership for developing a set of metrics to show our progress and produce a report card that will be routinely updated and spotlighted in teknovation.biz; and (5) the Alliance will work to identify and/or recruit “Navigators” to help facilitate access to and connectivity between entrepreneurs and the region’s assets – from big enterprises like ORNL, TVA and University of Tennessee (UT) to private companies like PYA and others that can and should help local entrepreneurs.
The 90-minute session also featured the leaders of the three sponsoring organizations – UT President Randy Boyd; Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); and Lyash – along with their key representatives on the Techstars Steering Committee – Joe Hoagland, TVA’s Vice President of Enterprise Relations and Innovation; Stacey Patterson, UT’s Vice President for Research, Economic Development and Outreach; and ORNL’s Smith.
Boyd, Lyash and Zacharia separately noted the significance of the region’s largest employers coming together to collaborate on the Techstars effort and the potential benefits that will derive from it.
Zacharia talked about likely new federal initiatives in the R&D/innovation space and said that East Tennessee is “positioned perfectly” for significant investment. In the case of Boyd, one of the region’s most recognized and very successful entrepreneurs, the emphasis was on what he called “an historic partnership” and an important message for those who are starting or those who are supporting entrepreneurs who are starting new businesses.
“Entrepreneurship is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “There is a catalytic or compounding effect” that comes from working collaboratively.