By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“We learned a lot last year,” Dan Marcum said about the inaugural autoXLR8R that the Southern Middle Tennessee Entrepreneur Centers (SMTEC) conceived and offered.
The knowledge that he and his colleagues gained is reflected in the bold plans they have made for the 2014 edition. They are seeking aspiring entrepreneurs, but the deadline to apply is soon – next Friday, April 4.
Marcum told us recently that the ideal number of teams is about 10, but they will consider allowing a few more if they get strong applicants. A recently announced partnership with Tech 20/20 could also allow for more area entrepreneurs to participate without having to be in Spring Hill full-time.
“If we get too many teams, it makes it more difficult for the venture side to get involved,” Marcum explained. He understands that reality very well. In addition to serving as SMTEC Executive Director, Marcum also is a Principal in NEST-TN and Relevance Capital.
Too many teams also challenges autoXLR8R’s mentor network. Marcum said that each company participates in about 80 sessions with mentors. That translates into 800 mentor sessions for the 13-week program.
So, what did the autoXLR8R team learn in its inaugural year?
“We can get high-level mentors from anywhere involved in our program via Skype,” Marcum said. That is important for the young entrepreneurs when geography is no longer a barrier to access to the industry’s best minds.
Another important point is the regional and national visibility that the nation’s only automotive-focused accelerator has gained in its first year.
“We’ve gotten more notoriety, so we are hoping for an elevated cohort,” Marcum adds. “We’re also going to be more structured this year.”
On the latter point, Jack Sisk, Program Manager for autoXLR8R and a former leader of Saturn/General Motors (GM) with more than 30 years in the auto industry, says the program will embrace some of the ways that the industry accelerates technology development.
“We will establish gates or milestones and make more capital available when a specific performance metric is successfully met,” he explains, adding, “We believe this performance-based process will strengthen our start-ups and make them more attractive to investors.”
For Marcum and Sisk, autoXLR8R reflects their personal passion, both for the industry and for the opportunities they see for young entrepreneurs. In fact, each has a son who was involved as staff in 2013 and will actively participate this year.
“The transformation in the automotive industry means the automobile is becoming more interesting to youth,” Marcum says in citing the emergence of the car as a digital media platform. “There are a lot of technology opportunities that excite young people. We want youth to think about the industry in a new way.”
Marcum and Sisk plan to base the 2014 program on three key industry trends when the autoXLR8R launches May 19.
“The ‘Big 3’ are no longer GM, Ford and Chrysler,” Marcum says. “They are lightweight materials, drivetrain, and connectivity.”
Both Marcum and Sisk cited the importance of the partnership with Tech 20/20 on several occasions during our interview
“Bringing John (Morris) and the Tech 20/20 team on board is an exciting addition to our 2014 autoXLR8R program,” Sisk says. “It is an indication that we are growing and looking forward to future opportunities.”
In addition to helping to deliver the program curriculum, Marcum says a future autoXLR8R could be housed at Tech 20/20’s Oak Ridge facility.