TechStars accelerator coming to East Tennessee

·4 min read

Jun. 3—The first Techstars accelerator in the Southeast is opening in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge corridor with the support of the nation's biggest publicly owned utility, the Department of Energy's biggest research laboratory and the state's biggest university.

The new program announced during the Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit in Knoxville is designed to attract and nurture high-growth startup businesses and is being established with $1 million annual grants for each of the next three years from its primary sponsors — the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the University of Tennessee.

The accelerator will work with 10 startups a year over the next three years as part of the Techstars program, which began 15 years ago in Boulder, Colorado and has since grown to nurture startup companies around the globe with both financial and technical assistance.

Techstars General Manager Nancy Wolff said the partnership of the DOE lab, a major university and the country's biggest government utility provides " a unique and galvanizing opportunity" for startups, especially in energy-related fields or other research areas where ORNL is pioneering new technologies such as materials sciences, nuclear engineering and supercomputers.

ORNL will soon resume its title as home to the world's fastest computer, dubbed the Frontier by Cray Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices. The $600 million Frontier computer system is expected to go into operation at ORNL this year and will be the largest of three exascale computers planned by the Energy Department, including the Aurora and El Capitan computers at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

"The heart of the Oak Ridge Corridor and the abundant scientific research and quantum computing facilities available to entrepreneurs is game changing for startups tackling the most critical problems of our future," Wolff said.

The newest Techstars accelerator will begin accepting applications for its inaugural class in July. Members of that group will refine their technologies, receive mentorship, find and develop talent, and connect to organizations that could become customers. Participants will also gain access to Techstars' global network, which is a key reason why the sponsors decided to work with Techstars in their economic development efforts.

"Research and technology from ORNL and from companies that have grown up here have made a difference in lives around the world," said Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "In the next three years, the Techstars accelerator will attract high-potential companies in fields that will define the economy in the generations to come. This is a unique opportunity to share our region's great strengths with rising entrepreneurs."

TVA President Jeff Lyash said he was familiar with how Techstars had helped birth a number of growing businesses in Ontario, Canada where Lyash previously served as CEO of Ontario Power. When TVA, UT and ORNL officials began talking last fall about ways to cultivate the assets of East Tennessee to leverage more economic development, Lyash was eager to bring a Techstars accelerator to Knoxville.

The $9 million of investment over the next three years from ORNL, UT and TVA will be bolstered with funding for startups from Techstars. The businesses drawn to East Tennessee will be well positioned to try out new technologies using TVA's power system, ORNL's research facilities or UT's faculty support, officials said.

"This is an important step to raise the visibility of this region and attract people with great new ideas to come here and build new businesses and, if we are successful, draw more private equity," Lyash said. "I'm excited that TVA might not only aid economic development with this program, but we could get innovation and ideas out of the accelerator that we can apply at scale during this energy transformation that is underway in America."

Such economic development is one of the core reasons that TVA was created in 1933 as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal to help lift an impoverished Appalachia out of poverty and the Great Depression. In its early years, TVA provided federally funded research programs to develop new fertilizers for farmers and munitions for the military.

"In the old days, TVA could rely upon federal appropriations for major R&D and development programs, but that's not really the model anymore," Lyash said. "In these emerging fields like renewable energy development, electric vehicle charging, new nuclear power or developing new businesses like with this Techstars accelerator, it's going to be about partnerships between TVA, the federal government, institutions like UT and Oak Ridge and the private sector."

In an announcement of the new venture, University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd highlighted the broad impact of the accelerator and the partners' support.

"The University of Tennessee is committed to being an economic driver for Tennessee," Boyd said. "The resources available with our partners and through the Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator will establish the Oak Ridge Corridor as a world-class location for breakthrough technology startups to benefit people and provide jobs.

Startups interested in the accelerator can learn more by visiting Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator page. Corporations interested in learning more about Techstars' dedication to corporate innovation can learn more at techstars.com/corporate.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.