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Establishing Tennessee as a hub of entrepreneurship

In the season 3 finale of Disrupt the Continuum, host Clark Buckner and Launch Tennessee CEO Van Tucker provide an overview of the extensive resources available to entrepreneurs all across the state.

Van Tucker believes Tennessee is an ideal place to start and grow a business, and it all comes back to community, connection and culture.

“It’s what differentiates us as an ecosystem and as a state. LaunchTN empowers Tennessee’s ecosystem through 12 network partners,” she explained. “We cover the entire state with entrepreneur centers that serve as the community front door, each with their own unique ecosystem, to help connect entrepreneurs, investors, organizations, institutions, and researchers to resources to help them build and scale a business.”

In this episode of Disrupt the Continuum, Tucker joins host Clark Buckner to revisit some of the conversations held with leaders at LaunchTN’s network partners across the state. She also explains what’s next for the organization as they work to make Tennessee the most startup-friendly state in the nation.

Empowering Entrepreneurs at the Community Level

By partnering with seven entrepreneur centers in cities across the state, LaunchTN is helping to strengthen the ecosystems in individual communities and beyond. Each of these centers has also developed specialized resources for the dominant industries in their cities.

In Nashville, a hub of healthcare and music, Tucker pointed out that entrepreneurs have enormous opportunity to drive progress and innovation.

“What industries besides healthcare and music have been more disrupted?” she asked.

For Brynn Plummer, vice president of inclusion and community relations at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, this work is important because it doesn’t only impact the startups, it also affects the entire local economy.

“Nashville is Nashville because of its entrepreneurs in many ways. If you think about how Nashville got its start as a music city, and then 30 years after that became sort of a healthcare mecca, Nashville is a place that, really, it’s whole identity is forged by its entrepreneurs.”

In Chattanooga, CO.LAB CEO Marcus Shaw wants to take that impact even further by using the city’s resources to attract new businesses. 

“We’ve got incredible healthcare density, we’ve got an asset in the gig network that makes us one of the most attractive cities for testing and building technology applications, and we’ve got an incredibly rich history in consumer goods,” Shaw said. “Whether it’s Little Debbie or MoonPie or Coca Cola or Gold Bond, all of those brands were born in Chattanooga.”

Knoxville has a similar legacy as the home to globally recognized businesses like Regal Cinemas and historic institutions. 

“It’s the trifecta of the University of Tennessee — a tier-one research facility — Oak Ridge National Labs — one of the oldest and largest concentrations of PHDs in the country — with Tennessee Valley Authority,” Tucker explained. “There’s so much opportunity, and there are so many resources that are available for entrepreneurs and many opportunities for investors.”

As a result, the city already holds an incredible talent pool, and the team at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center is helping entrepreneurs take advantage of that.

“This is a place where I was able to have a great experience building a company, and the reason it was such a great experience is because there was so much talent here,” explained KEC’s Board Chair Brandon Bruce.

In Memphis, Tucker highlighted the strong community of researchers and innovators in the medical device sector. Further, Epicenter Memphis’ founding CEO Leslie Smith pointed out that membership in the LaunchTN network allows each entrepreneur center to seek out advice and support from others across the state. 

“What’s really beautiful about Tennessee and the entrepreneurship centers is the way we’ve come together across the state to come to know each other and be in relationship,” she said. “In so doing, we’ve created an expanded network upon which we can rely as professionals when we hit a snag or a challenge.”

For example, many of the network partners have drawn inspiration from theCO in Jackson and their Driving Innovation program, which sends out mobile labs into rural communities.

It didn’t necessarily make sense to always put a brick and mortar coworking space in every community throughout West Tennessee, but it might make some sense if we can do targeted trips into these communities and bring the resources that those entrepreneurs need,” explained theCO’s cofounder and CEO Ben Ferguson. 

It’s that same creativity and determination to support entrepreneurs in all parts of the state that allows Sync.Space, the newest center in LaunchTN’s network, to thrive in Tri-Cities. In fact, Sync.Space’s Founder and President Heath Guinn believes entrepreneurs in his area have a unique and often underrated advantage. 

“There’s something to be said for being able to get a hold of the city managers and mayors on a quick phone call and introducing the startup companies and young entrepreneurs. Because it demonstrates a level of commitment and access that is hard to find in a bigger market,” he shared.

And as more people start to understand that startups can exist outside of traditional markets, The Biz Foundry CEO Jeff Brown also believes that more people will want to move to beautiful places like Cookeville.

“In today’s world, you can do the cool tech job and still live where you want,” he said. “And that’s what we’re really proud of. You can start a business here and still have that utopian lifestyle.”

Connecting with Statewide Partners

In addition to the seven entrepreneur centers, LaunchTN also works closely with five organizations that are driving innovation and economic development all over the state.

Several of these organizations are focused on advancing Tennessee’s position as a leader in scientific innovation.

“Those assets really center around the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Oak Ridge National Lab,” explained Cortney Piper, the cofounder and vice president of Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council. “There’s really no other state in the country that has those blend of unique assets that really help propel our advanced energy economy forward.”

BioTN is also working to create new partnerships across those research institutions in an effort to advance the life science industry.

“We’ve always thought that the cornerstone of the life science industry in the state is really based on the research that we have here,” said BioTN and Life Science TN’s Executive Director Abby Trotter. “All kinds of terrific life science research is happening at those institutions, and there’s all kinds of great partnerships.”

LaunchTN’s two newest statewide partners are doing similar work in their respective industries. For AgLaunch, the goal is to build new advancements in agriculture, and TennSMART is focused on automotive technology and mobility.

Finally, partner Bunker Labs is an organization that supports and connects veteran entrepreneurs. “They’re exploding across the United States,” Tucker said. “We’re very proud to be an early partner.”

Please subscribe, rate, and review Disrupt the Continuum wherever you listen to podcasts. We’ll be back soon for Season 4, but until then, join the conversation by following us on Twitter and Instagram: @LaunchTN.

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