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June 07, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Techstars innovation ecosystem assessment of Knoxville region officially kicked-off on Friday

We have a long-time friend who is fond of saying, “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly,” and that is an apt way to describe the aspirational picture that the top executives at three of the Knoxville area’s largest employers painted during a late Friday morning virtual gathering.

The event was the kick-off for “The Innovation Ecosystem Assessment for the Greater Knoxville Metropolitan Area,” a study (see our recent article) to be undertaken by Techstars, the global platform for investment and innovation, and underwritten by the organizations that the three executives lead.

Why the analogy between a grizzly bear and the aspirations of University of Tennessee (UT) President Randy Boyd, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Director Thomas Zacharia, and TVA President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Lyash? The grizzly bear is one of the largest living carnivores, and that scale and size is exactly what the three executives want the Knoxville region to become in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship over the next 10 to 20 years.

“I want the rest of the world coming to Knoxville to see what our secret sauce is for having the world’s greatest entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Boyd said at the conclusion of the nearly one-hour virtual gathering of about 70 people. He certainly knows a few things, not only about entrepreneurship – think Radio Systems Corporation that he started decades ago and recently sold, but also about job creation strategies, having recently served as the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development.

Lyash characterized his hopes in terms of “something like a future Silicon Valley,” while Zacharia cited the Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies (GIANT) initiative in France. “Many nations are trying to recreate what we have here,” ORNL’s Director observed. “We already have all those facilities and more.”

In addition to having what he described as “a remarkable set of assets” in ORNL, TVA, and UT, Zacharia noted that the region also enjoys “reasonably predictable” federal and state funding and has a track record of creating successful companies.

Friday’s session, moderated by Techstars’ Ian Hathaway and delivered via the Crowdcast platform, was more about context, hopes, and philosophy than it was about specific details. Attendees included local economic development professionals, representatives of the sponsoring organizations, local government officials, individuals who are active in the innovation and start-up support community, and entrepreneurs.

Lyash noted that “entrepreneurship, innovation and our engagement in all of that has been the lifeblood of TVA in this region. Innovation is part of our (collective) DNA. Working together just seems natural.” Zacharia emphasized that latter point, citing the long-standing relationships that exist between the three enterprises. ORNL is located in East Tennessee because of TVA’s plentiful and reliable power, and UT is one-half of the management team at ORNL.

Techstars will begin its assessment work with a series of interviews starting this week. The original plan was for those interviews to be conducted face-to-face, but COVID-19 has changed the design. Those interested in contacting the team can email them at or schedule a discussion at this link. A final set of recommendations will be provided.

As we listened to the discussion, several critically-important words were reiterated throughout the event. They included alignment, collaboration, and community engagement. Perhaps Lyash said it best: “We need to set aside our individual interests and focus on our collective interests,” with Boyd adding, “We all need to be open and honest.”

The relationship between the community and Techstars began about 15 months ago when Brad Feld, one of the organization’s Founders and a well-known author on entrepreneurship, came to visit and speak at an event at ORNL. He was joined by Hathaway, the individual at Techstars who is responsible for assessment projects like the one starting here.

After the visit, Hathaway said he noted several takeaways including world-class innovation and technology assets and a place where “people care. The vibe of the region was a place I could see myself being in.”

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