Tennessee’s Patchwork Quilt of Innovation
Tennessee's appeal for entrepreneurial talent makes it an innovation destination
Tennessee is an innovation destination, offering a rich roster of resources that have created an entrepreneur friendly ecosystem that is launching new companies.
A coordinated effort is led by the state's Launch Tennessee initiative, which promotes collaboration among entrepreneurs, the business community, capital sources and all other stakeholders necessary for growing new businesses.
“What we’re trying to create is really a collaborative effort,” says Charlie Brock, president and CEO of Launch Tennessee. “It involves a lot of different pieces coming together. For me, I think about a quilt with patches of different colors, different shapes and different sizes, but they’re all part of one piece.”
Through Launch Tennessee, Brock says, an entrepreneur in Nashville can get access to resources that will help his or her business from Memphis to Chattanooga to Knoxville to parts in between. “It’s really an exciting time to be making this quilt, and to keep adding on to it,” he says.
Centers of Entrepreneurship
Launch Tennessee's statewide network of Regional Entrepreneur Centers offers co-working spaces, mentoring, training and other support. Not only do these centers, located in nine regions across the state, provide a place for aspiring entrepreneurs to nurture their business idea, they also offer resources for more established businesses like Cirruspath, which developed an app for Gmail and Outlook (and mobile apps for iOS and Android) that automatically keeps the Salesforce customer relationship management tool up to date for sales teams
The company has six offices including Knoxville and Chattanooga. A couple of employees who live in Chattanooga work in Co.Lab, the regional entrepreneur center in the Chattanooga area, where they share office space and get to interact with other business owners and entrepreneurs.
The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center is “the center of the universe for local entrepreneurs,” says Brandon Bruce, COO and co-founder of Cirruspath. “They can go there and then connect with all the people and organizations that are out there to help.”
Founded in Tennessee, Cirruspath, which now has 55 employees, was able to launch its groundbreaking marketing app, Cirrus Insight, back in 2011, thanks to state and local resources. Bruce notes that many Tennessee business owners realize the importance of Launch Tennessee, and actively work to support the organization, particularly the regional entrepreneur centers.
“I think of them as ‘collision spaces,’” he says. “You know, where I show up and you show up and we end up talking. Maybe you’re in media, I do software, and we end up having a chat and it benefits both of us.”
The word ‘startup’ often gets associated with IT companies, but there is much more going on Tennessee besides software development.
In Chattanooga, Branch Technology pre-fabricates custom modular wall panels or architectural components using free-form 3-D printing. The matrices are then filled with other materials and assembled together to make, say, a house — like the 3-D printed house that Branch plans to complete in partnership with Chattanooga State Community College, says company founder R. Platt Boyd IV.
"The entrepreneurial ecosystem is very supportive of startups and there is a lot of energy around them,” Boyd says.
Vanquish Worldwide is a company based in Maryville that provides talent solutions for the construction, information technology, security and transportation industries to developing nations. Grow Bioplastics is a Knoxville company that has developed biodegradable products for farmers, greenhouse and nursery managers, and home gardeners that eliminates oil-based plastics from their operations.
Other Startup Assets
Tennessee can make a compelling case why aspiring entrepreneurs should consider it when setting up shop. Cirruspath has offices in both California and Tennessee, and Bruce emphasizes that a dollar goes a lot further in the latter.
“I am from California and I love California and half of our team is there,” he says, “but to be able to scale as quickly as we have, we have really benefited from being in Tennessee. We have been able to identify and lucky enough to get a lot of great talent to join the team from our higher education relationships in Tennessee. We have been able to afford to do that.
“As largely a bootstrapped company with a few angel investors behind us, it has been great to be able to get to the scale that we have been. I think that would have been more difficult being in a larger market, like a Silicon Valley, Austin, New York or Chicago, etc. they are just more expensive places.”
Launch Tennessee’s Brock says his organization is continually working to boost startups in the state. A next step in that work is to further incorporate established businesses, like FedEx, which is headquartered in Memphis, into helping boost entrepreneurship.
“I think there is big opportunity for us is to bring more corporate and existing industry into that quilt of innovation and be supportive as customers of our startups,” he says.