(EDITOR’S NOTE: As we do in the early part of a year, we take a look at plans for the entrepreneur centers located in East Tennessee. Today’s focus is on The Biz Foundry. On Wednesday, we’ll spotlight the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center followed by Sync Space on Thursday. All are members of the Launch Tennessee network.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Jeff Brown is banking on a better 2021 for The Biz Foundry that he leads and the clients in the Upper Cumberland region that it serves from three locations – Cookeville, McMinnville and Sparta.
“We had a really good year overall in 2020,” the gregarious President says. “We’re just plowing along.”
In a recent interview, Brown started the discussion by asking and answering a simple but important question: How has COVID-19 impacted The Biz Foundry? “Is it different? Yes. Is it necessarily bad? No. The biggest challenge is doing meetings in person.”
For example, he says that the organization can deliver its cohort-based programs virtually, which it has done successfully for most of the past year, but “there’s not the same bonding” among participants that occurs when they are interacting in-person.
In terms of The Biz Foundry’s traditional clients, Brown says, “ A lot of them that are struggling were probably t not keeping up with market changes and technology; COVID just exposed weaknesses that were already there. The ones that were really innovative are doing fine . . . they accepted the new market realities and took advantage of new opportunities.”
The pandemic also adversely affected the organization’s work with nearby Tennessee Tech University (TTU) and its students, faculty and staff.
“Our volume of work is off maybe 20 percent of what it was,” Brown says. One of its most notable collaborations with the university is the “Eagle Works Innovation & Entrepreneurship” program for students that culminates in a competition each April – this year’s event is set for April 10.
“Last year’s program was great in terms of the quality of the teams, but we had fewer participants because of COVID,” he noted.
One of the developments in 2020 that Brown views as a high mark is its work with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center’s (TSBDC) Upper Cumberland office. Now officially operated as a partnership between Tennessee Tech and the Upper Cumberland Development District (UCDD) as reported in this teknovation.biz article from June 2020, the TSBDC Cookeville office is a close ally of The Biz Foundry.
“Our partnership has allowed each organization to do what it is really good at without duplication,” Brown says, citing the “Business Resource Collective” that includes the TSBDC; TTU’s Center for Rural Innovation; WCTE-TV, the Upper Cumberland’s public broadcasting station; and The Biz Foundry. “It’s a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs.”
Looking at 2021, Brown says programming will continue in a virtual mode for the first six months and then either remotely or in a “COVID safe” manner into the balance of the year, depending on conditions.
“There are four or five things that we will do forever,” he says. They include start-up bootcamps and specialized workshops. New programming includes:
- The “Restaurant Recovery” program, launched in January, that was pioneered in Chattanooga by Proof, a collaborative community for food and beverage professionals. Both the TSBDC and Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce are co-sponsors.
- A “Consumer Goods” accelerator that will be similar to Proof when it is launched soon, but focused on that sector. The TSBDC is a co-sponsor.
- A regional pitch competition in May, hopefully outdoors in Cookeville’s Dogwood Park.