A signature program of Launch Tennessee’s (LTN) over the past 4 years has been our statewide network of entrepreneur centers, comprising nine entities spread across the state and geographically aligned with the Economic & Community Development (ECD) regions. Though each of these entities has its own governance structure and are separate 501c3’s, they have received significant funding from LTN, in addition to raising their own funding from various local sources.
Considering that the majority of these entities did not exist at the program’s inception in 2012, the activity level and outcomes have been tremendous. On an annual, aggregate basis, our network averages over 2,000 screenings (one hour meetings with entrepreneurs), holds over 500 events and graduates 100 potential high-growth companies through 13-week boot-camp style accelerator cohort programs. They are also providing significant “basic entrepreneur training” through programs like Co.Starters and elevating workforce development in the technology arena with coding camps. LTN has also run programming “on top of” their programming, such as The TENN master accelerator program and the LTN Specialists program. The entire mix of activity, which has also tried to take advantage of key regional industry strengths, has all led to our state being recognized nationally for taking an innovative approach to entrepreneurship and been a calling card for us as we develop relationships with investors across the state, region and country.
As the clock turns on a new year, some changes are in the offing, driven in part by some funding cuts by one of our major funding sources, the federal Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). They have, and continue, to be a wonderful partner for LTN and ECD but historically they have not funded the same program more than three years running. Thus, when we were informed earlier in 2015 of a 25% funding cut from ARC, there was obviously disappointment. However, they assured us that it was unusual, and a testament to the results they were seeing from the network, that it was only a 25% drop as we were moving into year four. Since receiving this news last spring, we have tried to continue the funding level and pull funds from other LTN programs but we are now at a point where we have to make some changes in our network. Thus, effective January 1, we will not be providing the same level of funding for overhead and payroll in our entrepreneur centers in Northeast TN and Southern Middle TN, but will be shifting those dollars to be more directed to support programmatic activities.
As we respond to changes in our funding sources, LaunchTN continues to test strategies to most effectively meet the demand for supporting entrepreneurs from region to region and across the state. The new pilot program we are starting in these more rural regions involve us expanding our programmatic offerings and enlarging the number of partners with whom we work to deliver the programming. We hope this leads to even greater programmatic activity across the footprint and will be a model that we can roll out on a statewide basis. It’s important that we continue to test new strategies that will deliver impact in our rural communities. Our goal, certainly shared by ECD, ARC and the Governor’s new Rural Development Task Force, is that all of our state can participate in the entrepreneurial renaissance enjoyed by our four largest urban areas. Importantly, and thankfully, our entrepreneur center partners in the Northeast and Southern Middle regions, AccelNow and SMTEC, will play an important role in this new strategy as they will continue to be a provider of programs in the regions, though we will not be solely reliant on their efforts to produce the desired results.
We appreciate the diligent efforts of so many across the state who are working hard to elevate entrepreneurship. When entrepreneurs build successful companies, opportunities for economic growth expand and as this happens, the support for civic, educational and philanthropic endeavors grows. It’s a virtuous cycle that strengthens our communities and the state, thereby improving the lives of many of our citizens.