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November 15, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Two simultaneous virtual events showcase strength of East Tennessee technology sector

Have you ever tried to attend two multi-hour virtual events at the same time? It can be daunting and give you a headache, particularly if you are also trying to report on both events, but we somehow persevered on Thursday afternoon.

The two events were the Knoxville Technology Council’s “KTech Pulse: Technology Summit” and Launch Tennessee’s “Deep Roots: Building a High-Performance Entrepreneur Ecosystem in Tennessee.” Both had several commonalities. The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center was a co-sponsor, the delivery platform was Knoxville-based Lunchpool, and attendance at the starting time was in the mid-90s for both events.

We obviously were not able to listen to every session even though we had two computers going – one tuned-in to each event. Here are some of the highlights from both.

“Deep Roots” began with separate conversations with the top executives at three of the Knoxville region’s largest employers. The discussions were moderated by Jonathan Sexton, Senior Manager and Partner at Boldsquare.

Over the past few months, we have reported on several occasions about the Techstars study of the local entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem that has been commissioned by Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); Randy Boyd, President of the University of Tennessee (UT) System; and Jeff Lyash, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of TVA. Many of the thoughts that they advanced when the study was launched in early June (see our summary here) were reiterated in one way or another during their separate conversations with Sexton. The key themes were: (1) a region that is much better than most people realize, including both those who live elsewhere and those who call Knoxville home; and (2) the importance of the alignment that exists across the three organizations to help propel the region to much greater heights.

“KTech Pulse” featured two external presenters – Majid Khan, Verizon’s Managing Director of Strategy and Business Development for Network Engineering and Technology, and Alberto Arechiga, Enterprise Account Executive with Google Cloud. It was Khan’s second presentation in less than a year to a Knoxville group. He spoke last December at the “Opportunities in Energy” event hosted by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (see article here).

Ironically, during Arechiga’s presentation to the KTech crowd dominated by East Tennesseans, he highlighted the nearly $4 billion impact that Google Cloud was having on the entire Volunteer State including the $600 million invested in Clarksville in what he described as “one of the most modern data centers in the world.” Arechiga said Google Cloud has grown 45 percent year-over-year, manages 25 percent of the traffic on the Internet, and is the third largest producer of servers in the world with the company itself being the sole customer.

Two Knoxvillians moderated fireside conversations, obviously minus the fire, during the “Deep Roots” event. They were Bill Malkes, CEO of NellOne Therapeutics Inc., who chatted with Steve Blank, and Catherine Porth, Founder of Let Her Speak, who talked with Laura Arrillaga-Andressen (pictured here in a screenshot capture) who, among other roles, leads the Laura Arrillaga-Andressen Foundation. She is an educator and best-selling author who empowers women to pursue leadership roles and encourages all individuals to make an impact in their communities, workplaces and society by sharing their time, expertise, networks or resources.

“I’m a huge fan of Let Her Speak,” Arrillaga-Andressen told Porth about the start-up that the Knoxvillian founded several years ago to advance and support women in business. In response to a question from Porth, the Bay Area resident identified a number of actions that employers can take to support women. They included: (1) flexible hours to accommodate caregivers; (2) flexibility on work location; (3) workplace policies, starting with hiring, that are supportive of women; and (4) internal support systems focused on skill-building and mentoring.

As the old adage goes, “Blank is a legend in his own time.” He founded eight start-ups with two cratering – his description – and four that went public via the initial public offering process. He’s also known as the Founder of the lean start-up movement and the creator of the federal I-Corps initiative.

In a humorous and engaging conversation with the always smiling Malkes, Blank (pictured here in another screenshot capture) shared some useful insights, starting with the evolution of what individuals describe today as entrepreneurship. “Back in the 20th century, we did not have a real understanding of entrepreneurship,” he said. “Back then a start-up was where you got free food and could bring your dog.”

On a more serious note, he described a start-up as “temporary. You’re searching for a business model. Is it repeatable and scalable? No business model survives the first contact with a customer.”

Blank told the attendees that he used to believe initial meetings with investors or customers had to be in-person. “Now, if you take a first meeting and are not on Zoom, you are wasting your time,” he said. Later, Blank said, “On day one, a start-up is a faith-based organization,” and later added, “Being the Founder of a start-up is the world’s worst job, but the best calling.”

In a report to those at the KTech event, Co-Founder John McNeely noted that the organization has grown to 82 members in about two years and had hosted 32 events in that period of time. He added that more robust programming is planned for 2021.

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