Nashville's growing attraction for entrepreneurs is sparking new investment in markets from health care to digital media.
Nashville is striking all the right chords these days, thanks to collaborative efforts throughout the region’s close-knit business community.
Leading this effort is the Nashville Entrepreneur Center (NEC), a nonprofit that helps startups in health care, technology, social enterprise, digital media and entertainment get their ventures off the ground.
“A lot of good people are working on a common vision at the same time,” says Michael Burcham, CEO of the dynamic NEC, which recently expanded into the renovated Trolley Barns at Rolling Mill Hill. “What we have done here at the center is create a front door, allowing entrepreneurs to get assimilated quickly.”
The $5 million NEC expansion – fully paid for through a successful fundraising effort that Burcham describes as a testament to Nashville’s business leaders – is proving to be the right move. Burcham says that his staff is seeing 30 to 40 people coming into the center each week who are seeking assistance through information and collaboration.
Google Comes Calling
Those efforts are drawing national notice. Google, one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneur stories, named Nashville as one of its seven tech hubs in 2013.
“Google is here almost every month doing things with us to help our entrepreneur and business community,” Burcham says. “Their brand has attracted other brands. It’s good for the center, for the city and especially for our new businesses. You can feel the amp up of energy in this place.”
Recognition from the White House for the NEC’s work in mentoring young entrepreneurs turned the national press into international visits, with the NEC regularly hosting groups from Saudi Arabia, Brazil and other countries.
“Once we started being recognized nationally for our work, it created an international audience,” Burcham says.
Information is important, but for startups, money is crucial. The NEC has that covered, with access to seed money through groups like the Jumpstart Foundry and the Nashville Capital Network. Those connections are being augmented with a new NEC program, the Unconference, a sort of speed-dating event that affords entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their idea to a host of investors. The first one netted about $16 million in deals, Burcham says, and that is expected to grow.
Healthbox Advances Health-Care Innovation
The health-care industry is Nashville’s largest employer, with approximately 50 percent of the workforce employed in health care, and one of its most innovative sectors. That reputation is drawing partners like Healthbox, an international health-tech business accelerator working with the NEC and industry leaders like Blue Cross Blue Shield and HCA to mentor health-care IT startups such as Clariture, eClinic Healthcare and others.
“Healthbox directly matches BlueCross’ overall strategic vision of fostering innovation to advance health-care outcomes,” says Brian Stansa, BCBS vice president and treasurer. “We want to help small startups get their products and services to large companies, mentors and investors.”
“Nashville has long been the epicenter of health care and has one of the longest established health-care organizations in the country,” says Amy Len, who directs the Healthbox Nashville operation.
Promising early-stage companies in the health-care field can apply for a four-month program with Healthbox that gives them access to mentors and investors. Those selected also receive a $50,000 seed investment.
Success is measured by financing but also by market traction because “it’s not going to be a successful business until you’ve got traction in the market,” Len says.
One of the biggest successes emerging from Nashville’s health-care IT scene is Shareable Ink, which recently raised $7.7 million to expand its operation. The firm, which uses iPads and digital pen and paper to transform point-of-care clinical documentation into data and analytics, was one of a dozen companies honored at the 2013 annual NEXT Awards, hosted by the NEC and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Collaboration Equals Success
Along with partnerships through the NEC, the region’s collaborative environment is helping small, emerging companies in all sectors develop profitable partnerships with bigger corporations.
“Nashville has earned its reputation as an incubator for collaboration and cooperation that allows profitable partnerships to unfold between small shops and big enterprise,” says Floyd DePalma, principal of DePalma Studios, a Nashville-based user experience (UX) design and development firm whose clients include corporations like Nissan and Deloitte.
“Nashville’s bottom-line value is as a thriving city where a UX lab like DePalma can sharpen focus to provide increasingly meaningful services to a list of enterprise clients in the automotive, high-tech, accounting and health-care industries … only Nashville sets the creative stage for that level of mutual ROI,” he adds.