Knoxville’s 2014 Startup Day emphasizes startup-friendly culture, assets in East Tennessee

Knoxville’s second annual Startup Day kicked off Thursday, Nov. 20 at 2:30 p.m. at The Standard in downtown Knoxville. The event celebrated the success of Knoxville’s growing startup community and raised awareness about resources that support East Tennessee entrepreneurs.

“When most Americans think ‘startup community,’ they think Silicon Valley in California, New York City or Seattle,” said Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. “It’s significant that East Tennessee is nurturing its startup culture, making resources available to startups and generally creating a welcoming environment for entrepreneurs. Creating a startup-friendly city will keep and attract talent, capital and more resources.”

Startup Day featured fireside chats with eight of Knoxville’s seasoned entrepreneurs and investors, including Ben Brown, CEO of SwiftWing. SwiftWing invested $686,000 in Survature, a local startup at the University of Tennessee Business Incubator.

Ten local startups presented PechaKucha style, quick-fire pitches, including Vuture, an app that allows users to send personalized video messages to a recipient’s email or cell phone at a specified date and time.

“With Oak Ridge National Lab and the University of Tennessee, we see plenty of highly advanced technological ideas particularly in the energy, agriculture, healthcare, big data and big media fields,” said Ken Woody, president of Innova, an early stage venture fund located in Knoxville and Memphis. “There are some very bright and capable mentors in the Knoxville area, and a strong passion amongst many businesses to support these early-stage companies.”

Vig Sherrill pitched his seventh company, General Graphene, at Startup Day 2014. Sherrill attributes the region’s big science assets and world class manufacturing to the success of his first six companies that brought more than $100 million to the region.

More than 400 people registered to attend Startup Day 2014. Attendees included businesses, entrepreneurs and investors looking for the next big idea, businesses, regional accelerators and research institutions that provide support to startups and East Tennesseans interested in learning more about the region’s entrepreneurial community.

About Startup Day 2014

Startup Day 2014 is presented by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of Tennessee Research Foundation, Launch Tennessee, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and Tech 2020, who organized the event.

Startup Day Power Pitchers featured in Knoxville News Sentinel “elevator pitch” videos

The Knoxville News Sentinel and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center teamed up to produce “The Elevator Sessions,” videos of each entrepreneur pitching at Startup Day 2014 giving their elevator pitch – you guessed it – in a real elevator. Below are links to each of the 10 Power Pitch videos.

To read the Knoxville News Sentinel’s preview story from this weekend, click here.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel

The Entrepreneurship Buzz: A summary of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Roundtable through the eyes of a University of Tennessee student

By Cameo Jonas, University of Tennessee student, who attended the Knoxville Entrepreneur Roundtable on November 7

Knoxville is buzzing with talk about entrepreneurship. The city has become an exciting and engaging environment for startups to come and succeed.

To discuss this new landscape, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center hosted its first Friday Fanfare on November 7. The Fanfare was dedicated to a Knoxville Entrepreneur Roundtable, which also served as the kick-off to Startup Day on November 20.

The Knoxville News Sentinel’s Carly Harrington moderated the event. Panelists included: Chuck Morris of Morris Creative Group and Cirkel, Patrick Hunt of Fiveworx, Mary Shafer Gill of ARiES Energy and Tom Ballard of Pershing Yoakley & Associates and PY Analytics.

The panelists discussed how startup companies succeed and what factors are influencing entrepreneurship in the area. They all agreed that startups need funding to succeed. However, there are a lot of factors that go into receiving the necessary funds.

Hunt described fundraising for startups as a “numbers game. There are a lot of reasons for [people and corporations] not to invest and very few reasons to invest. You have to find the right timing and fit,” he said.

Even though fundraising for a startup can be a daunting task, Ballard stated that it is important to always remain positive. Gill also suggested obtaining clients that could someday turn into investors.

Other advice the panelists gave to the audience: have a mentor, find local customers, and “embrace the idea of failing fast.”

During the session the panelists also discussed how Knoxville could grow into becoming the South’s mecca for entrepreneurship. According to the panelists, for this to happen, entrepreneurs need to recognize the culture of the area and take advantage of it.

The region has a lot of strong assets like the Great Smoky Mountains and the numerous notable companies that are based in East Tennessee, like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, and Alcoa, to name a few.

Ballard stated, “The region just needs to set a brand that can entice people to come here. By doing this, we can [also] attract and maintain the talent we need to draw even more companies to the area.”

Entrepreneurship in the area will continue growing and changing, making Knoxville a great place to have these conversations. This will hopefully lead to Knoxville becoming the South’s mecca for entrepreneurship.


By Jonathan Sexton, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center

Entrepreneurs are the arbiters of “what’s possible” – they dream it before anyone else dreams it. But it’s more than being a prophet, because part of the job is actually making it happen, no matter who says “That’s not possible,” “It’s a crowded space,” “I’ll be the second investor in,” or “I don’t like your revenue model.”

All of these responses can be valid. Constructive feedback from experienced entrepreneurs is vital to success – however, often this feedback can be shortsighted, making it all too easy to derail an early stage idea.

I recently returned from a trip to the Bay Area, where I met with a myriad of startup founders, big VCs and took a tour of Facebook’s Campus. I looked very closely for the true differences between the Southeast and the Bay Area.

Over the course of four or five days and many intense conversations, certain themes kept coming up. Before I left, I wrote five of these themes down in my notebook. They aren’t truth, fact, or law, but they were consistently reiterated 100 different ways over these days of intense conversations about what it means to be an entrepreneur and more importantly what it means to think BIG.

Here is what I came back with:

  1. Technology > Revenue
    I’m not saying revenue doesn’t matter, but I am saying that if you can build some amazing technology that someone else will find useful, build it. If someone else thinks they can figure out how to monetize it or it solves a problem they have…or they are afraid the competition is going to buy you to get ahead…then they will buy it, and you will have an exit.
  2. Show up and dream big
    You can’t fake showing up. Anything is possible, and more importantly, you can reach ANYONE. So if you are trying to build a Finance app, find the executive who led the charge on Mint or Lending Tree and ask them for a coffee meeting. Love music? Find the investors who put money in Pandora and Spotify, pick their brain and ask them questions. People love being “experts,” so take advantage. Everyone’s success story has mentors behind it, which leads perfectly to my next theme.
  3. 10 minutes face to face > 100 emails and phone calls
    In a text and email driven society – or should I say an efficiency driven society – it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. Everyone you meet becomes a faceless entity in the cloud (and I love text and email). But if you really want to build a relationship, share space with someone. Ten minutes face to face will infinitely increase your chances of being remembered. Also: make those ten minutes count! Relationships trump ALL. Your personal network is your greatest asset.
  4. Seed money is for proving concepts
    It takes money to make money. Money is needed sometimes to get development going, to make business trips, and to go to key conferences and demo your product. In year one, you are out to prove that you can land a few KEY customers, build a working product and team, build a few fantastic case studies about how the technology or product can be used, and most importantly, that there is a big enough market interested in your product. That’s it. The idea of a startup breaking even on a $100,000 round of investment is short-sighted and damaging to young companies trying to build technologies that could have a global impact.
  5. The Burritos are better in California
    Sorry Tennessee…but it’s the truth. (Good thing we have the music and moonshine!)

Source: Jonathan Sexton, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center

Jonathan Sexton

Jonathan Sexton

Knoxville Entrepreneur Roundtable set for Friday, November 7

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center will host a Knoxville Entrepreneur Roundtable on Friday, November 7 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The Roundtable will be a candid conversation about the state of entrepreneurship in the Knoxville region with Chuck Morris, Morris Creative Group and Cirkel; Patrick Hunt, Fiveworx; Tom Ballard, PYA and Mary Shaffer Gill, ARiES Energy.

Carly Harrington of the Knoxville News Sentinel will moderate the Roundtable.

The event is open to the public and is a pre-First Friday activity.

Click here to learn more and/or register for the event.

Audiohand launching private beta test later this week

Audiohand, a Knoxville startup that will deliver a Power Pitch at this year’s Startup Day, provides an innovative, economical way for artists to be able to record their music. In just days, all of the planning and preparations will be unveiled when Audiohand will launch a private beta test with up to 100 bands trying the app. The official date is November 1.

“The beta version is going to look pretty close to the actual product,” said Co-Founder Haseeb Qureshi.

Audiohand’s secret sauce is its ability to use multiple mobile phones to capture a musical performance and then integrate the multiple inputs properly to create one high-quality, band-sourced, stereo track.

Helping bands find an economical way to record their performances is just the first in a line of applications for the technology.

“Once we get the band sourcing down, we’re going to focus on fans,” Qureshi says.

Audiohand was a participant in the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s (KEC’s) inaugural “MediaWorks Accelerator.” Since July, the company has added two seasoned players – Mark Montgomery and Jonathan Sexton – as Co-Founders.

Read the full story here.

Source: Tom Ballard,

Knoxville well represented at inaugural “Reverse Pitch”

Knoxville and Northeast Tennessee were well represented at Launch Tennessee’s inaugural “Reverse Pitch” event last week in Chattanooga.

Two Knoxville companies – AC Entertainment, in conjunction with Aloompa, and DeRoyal – were two of the nine companies that “pitched” specific needs they hoped the more than 150 attending entrepreneurs and technologists would be interested in addressing.

The term “Reverse Pitch” refers to the fact that established companies are presenting needs, not the typical “pitch” where start-ups are presenting their ideas to potential customers and investors.

In kicking-off the program, Launch Tennessee’s Charlie Brock noted that the event was the state’s first “Reverse Pitch.”

A number of Knoxville entrepreneurs and technologists were in the audience, including Jim Biggs and Jonathan Sexton of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, DMG Bluegill’s Parker Frost, Survature’s Jian Huang and Audio Hand’s Haseeb Qureshi, to name a few.

Read the full story here.

Source: Tom Ballard,

KnoxEC: Vuture looks to wrap some VC money around Angels

Venture Tennessee ConnectionsMilt Capps recently published an article on Vuture, a startup with plans for a platform for storing, prior scheduling and custom-sending video messages. Knoxville-based Founder-CEO Michael Crain says his startup is hovering with Angel investors while seeking a venture-capital firm to lead its $500K Seed round.

Crain says a lead investor is likely to come from venture-capital ranks, where institutional money is not shy of capital targets such as his. Crain says he believes he can count on about $50K in Angel money, already, and he has invested $50K from his 401K. He’s talking with both Tennessee and North Carolina investors.

He presented the company during the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s Aug. 5 MediaWorks Demo Day, as the app was nearing its first round of Apple review.

Vuture — its name conflates “view” and “future” — sends messages with links to video clips via text or e-mail. Crain said open-rates for text messages are typically much higher than for e-mails, although companies that want to use the service within their businesses are more likely to use e-mail delivery, at this time.

Pricing includes an attractive flex-factor: Customers only pay for videos “that actually reach your target audience,” Crain emphasized.

Knoxville-based Designsensory has supported its mobile app development, which is over the hump and nearly done with a second review by Apple, he said. Would-be users may sign-up via the Vuture website to be alerted when the app is ready.

Crain said his KEC mentor, Lewis Frazer, former CFO of listed Regal Entertainment, was tremendously helpful as Vuture made its way through KEC’s 13-week accelerator program. He gave strong credit, also, to KEC CEO Jim Biggs; and, to Jonathan Sexton, the KEC entrepreneur-in-residence who was particularly helpful in reaching out to specialists and potential investors.

Source: Milt Capps, Venture Tennessee Connections

Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, CodeStock Announce ‘Breakout Sessions: Turning Tech into a Business’

Fresh off the success of the MediaWorks digital accelerator program, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center has partnered with technology expo CodeStock for a three-part educational series, “Breakout Sessions: Turning Technology into a Business.” The series is aimed at bridging the gap between local coders and startup entrepreneurs.  Events will be held quarterly over the next year and are set to kick off on Oct. 2.

Programming is as follows:

  • Oct. 2 – Finding Users: I built it, where are they?
  • Jan. 22 – Finding Dollars:  How do I fund my idea?
  • April 16 – Finding People: Who else do I need?

All events will be hosted at KEC, located at 17 Market Square in downtown Knoxville.

“The goal of the partnership is to build a bridge between the local software development community and the local startup community,” said Jonathan Sexton, KEC’s entrepreneur in residence. “ There is so much technical talent in the Knoxville area, and these are the people KEC is built to serve, highly talented individuals with great ideas.”

Codestock is in its fifth year and attendance continues to expand with more than 500 coders showing up in Knoxville to this year’s July event.

“We are really excited to work with KEC, so many of our patrons have great ideas and often struggle with figuring out how to turn that great idea or technology into a business,” said Andrew May, CodeStock board co-chairman. “This is an awesome opportunity bridge that gap.”

Registration information and more details about the breakout sessions can be found at Attendance is free but seats are limited to 50. Donations will be accepted in support of TechCo, a local non-profit co-founded by CodeStock founder Michael Neel that helps “at-risk” youth learn how to code software.

Contact: Jonathan Sexton,

Source: Knoxville Entrepreneur Center

Knoxville: Home to emerging music-tech startups

According to an article in the Nashville Business Journal, Tennessee’s music-tech startups are coming from….Knoxville.

That’s right.  While Nashville is home to a $9.7 billion music industry, the latest round of Tennessee-based music startups aren’t coming from Music City. Why? Well, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) graduated its inaugural accelerator class in early August. The program, called MediaWorks, focused exclusively on digital media companies, and a third of those graduating were in the music-tech space.

The article quotes Jonathan Sexton, Knoxvillian and entrepreneur-in-residence at the KEC. “There’s got to be some benefit from actually being away from the industry, where entrepreneurs aren’t confronted with publishing rights the second they have an idea,” he said. “The KEC shows what’s possible when there’s not a lot of politics involved.”

Knoxville-based startups Audiohand,, and Street Jelly were all mentioned in the article.

Source: Nashville Business Journal