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Knoxville Entrepreneur Center: Building on big ideas

When Knoxville Entrepreneur Center talks big about the area as an innovative power, people tend to listen. From the world-class talent at UT Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Labs and Y-12 in nearby Oak Ridge, to a community that’s managed to put on a World’s Fair not so long ago and spawned and continues to be the home of Pilot Flying J, Clayton Homes and Radio Systems Corp., this part of East Tennessee is no stranger to entrepreneurship.

“This really is a place where people with ideas turn into people with companies,” says Jim Biggs, executive director of the 2-year-old enterprise. “We’re the front door for entrepreneurs in our 16-county region, and a resource for anyone looking to start or grow a business here.”

KEC has received funding through the City of Knoxville’s Industrial Development Board, as well as through LaunchTN as part of its accelerator network. It also benefits from ties to the Haslam, Clayton and Cornerstone foundations, and Radio Systems founder and Chairman (and current Commissioner for the TN Department of Economic and Community Development) Randy Boyd and his wife Jenny.

“We have been very fortunate to develop those partnerships, and hope to do more in that regard because that will greatly enhance our ability to offer new programming while we also grow our current offerings,” Biggs says.

Programming for all levels

KEC is building a community where entrepreneurs have access to the capital, customers and talent they need to be successful. Nowhere is KEC’s “welcome to all comers” mission on display more than its role as a Front Door in the region, making KEC available to any entrepreneur with an idea and the drive to turn it into a business. People come in and are given information and guidance, and then steered toward other KEC programming or perhaps additional community resources. With those referrals, the organization continues to grow its community footprint.

And then there are the mentoring and business model development services, which include a local version of the accelerator’s Chattanooga counterpart CO.LAB’s highly successful CO.STARTERS series.

“We are running that program three times a year here at KEC, and have also partnered with the Knoxville Area Urban League to run an additional 2-3 cohorts at their facility. Those peer-driven classes are helping a lot of people in the lifestyle-business sector, those interested in restaurants and retail primarily, get much closer to their goal over those nine weeks,” Biggs says. “Those entrepreneurs also need some help in putting a framework around how to start and grow their business, just like you would do with a solid, high-growth idea.”

The KEC also has moved into producing full-on accelerators, with three under its belt to date. The first was more of a general boot camp, Biggs says, while the second honed in on energy tech and sustainability companies. The last was called MediaWorks, and brought in entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on Knoxville’s established industry strength in traditional and new media.

“This was Tennessee’s first digital media startup accelerator,” Biggs says. “Knoxville has Scripps Networks Interactive here, as well as the headquarters for Regal Cinemas, Bandit Lites and AC Entertainment, which puts on the Bonnaroo festival. There are even three of the top 100 global production companies for unscripted television based in Knoxville. KEC is trying to leverage a rich media heritage here, and we’re looking to continue that accelerator and hopefully grow a more expansive community project out of it.”

In fact, he believes, “We could grow a whole conference or summit around new approaches to the media industry, even create an innovation center that would allow young creatives to come in and explore their art. I believe MediaWorks could be the catalyzing thing for Knoxville, let us really plant our flag around new media and become a center for that.”

It’s a lofty goal, but there are plenty of cars around here that still bear bumper stickers saying “The Scruffy Little City Did It,” a slap back to a national broadcaster who referred to Knoxville as the aforementioned scruffy locale in the run-up to the 1982 World’s Fair.

“We are a startup, and we are still finding our role in the community even as we are reinventing ourselves,” Biggs says. “Even our physical location in a revitalized downtown Knoxville shows just how far we’ve come, and how much potential there is here.”

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