If you watched any lifestyle, cooking or travel shows on television recently, chances are very likely that they are connected to Knoxville, Tennessee, where six global cable networks based there deliver content to over 100 million homes worldwide. But Jonathan Sexton isn’t sure that many in the country or in the South are aware of Knoxville’s economic reach or the tradition of innovation that’s in the mountains of East Tennessee.
“Very few know that Knoxville is one of the top producers of television and media content in the country, a very vibrant creative community that is anchored by Scripps Networks, Regal Cinemas and dozens of nationally known production companies,“ says Sexton, who is Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s entrepreneur-in-residence. “The region has rich technology assets like the ORNL Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and the UT-managed Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. Knoxville’s vibrant downtown has restaurants, cool places to live, and a vibrant nightlife and cultural mix. Plus, the area has plenty of recreational opportunities – from mountains to lakes to biking.”
Many of these assets have been in the region for some time, but in the recent years, the desire to make sure that others know about the entrepreneurial opportunities that are around Knoxville – from technologies to talent – have turned into action, with the first-ever Startup Day in 2013, and its most recent Startup Day 2015 bringing together over 500 people. Sexton and the organizations that have been working hard to spotlight, celebrate and grow entrepreneurship in Knoxville have now formed a more cohesive unit, the Innov865 Alliance, a collaborative effort to put Knoxville on the map as a great place for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses and increase access to capital.
The Innov865 Alliance includes the University of Tennessee, which generates inventions and graduates students, some of whom are aspiring entrepreneurs; Oak Ridge National Lab, which is also a generator of cutting edge inventions as well as a partner with UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Launch Tennessee and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center which are focused on growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem; and PYA, a startup itself 32 years ago with a commitment to help others just as others helped it grow and prosper.
Building on the increasing success of Startup Day and pitch competition, 2016 will bring the inaugural Innov865 Week, on September 19-23. The calendar is quickly filling up, but they have already secured two events of note. “Having the Kauffman Foundation host an event during Innov865 Week and Paul Singh bring his ‘North America Tech Tour’ to town are huge,” says Sexton, a founding member of the Innov865 Alliance. “They underscore the vibrancy of the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. Singh’s visit promises to be an exciting opportunity for East Tennessee startups and entrepreneurs to meet and interact with an internationally recognized startup expert, and to show him why Knoxville is such a unique and dynamic place to start and grow a business.”
While these events are important components of the week, Sexton ultimately sees the events that include the local startups to be what captures the soul and spirit of the region, from the 4th annual Startup Day, Demo Day for The Works accelerator teams, to a series of micro events hosted by other organizations on topics ranging from analytics to cybersecurity. “Etsy is also going to be in town, as it has selected Knoxville as one of ten cities to be part of the inaugural Etsy Maker Cities program.”
And speaking of the fourth annual Startup Day, the pitch competition will take place on Sept. 22, and the application process to be considered as one of six startups competing for the $5,000 prize closes soon, on July 25. The pitch competition is open to anyone in East Tennessee with a scalable and investable business model. “This certainly tends to lean tech, but any sort of commerce, fashion, or product that represents a high-growth opportunity should sign up!,” says Sexton. When asked if there’s a clear definition of what he considers as East Tennessee, Sexton replied, “If you consider [your startup] to be in East Tennessee, apply for the Startup Day 2016 pitch competition.”