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VOL. 127 | NO. 191 | Monday, October 1, 2012

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Memphis provides myriad opportunities for startup success

By Andy Meek

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Maybe you’re a startup founder who wants to rub shoulders with your peers, pitch investors in the hope of landing venture capital and talk to a lawyer about drawing up paperwork.

Maybe you’re a veteran researcher who’s got a side project that looks like it could turn into something big. Or maybe you’ve got little more than an idea on the back of a napkin.

Whoever you are, whatever the reason, whatever shape your idea is in, there’s at least one universal truth: it’s a good time to be an entrepreneur in Memphis.

The city’s startup and small business ecosystem keeps getting bigger. It’s comprised of a growing number of nonprofits, accelerator programs, research and networking “sandboxes,” and more, all behaving like a giant symphony that’s increasingly working in harmony toward a common purpose. The goal is to put everything within easy reach so that the next FedEx, Holiday Inn or AutoZone will immediately start out with an ally ready to give them a hand.

That’s the idea, at any rate. And what’s more: there’s no starting point here that every business owner will inevitably be funneled through. There are more side doors than ever that will take an entrepreneur straight to the action.

For anyone out there in startup land, as well as the small-business owners of Memphis or even the entrepreneurs thinking of hanging out a shingle here, listen up. Here’s an introduction – and by no means an all-encompassing guide – to what’s available.


In a blog entry he posted in September at Smart City Memphis, Eric Mathews – the founding CEO and co-president of LaunchYourCity Inc. and the interim executive director of EmergeMemphis – probably said it best. One of the most important seeds to making all this work is a leader, and lots of them.

“Building a startup ecosystem transcends election cycles and flash-in-the-pan leaders,’ Mathews wrote. “Brad Feld stated it best: you need 6 leaders dedicated to 20 years of work. Losing ecosystem leaders deflates all the momentum. Find leaders that have a long road view of advancing your ecosystem that will not be retired in 20 years and ensure they are entrepreneurs at heart. Give them resources and get out of their way.”

Memphis now has that in spades. Mathews and the team around him, for example, are building up a dynamic training ground for entrepreneurs in Downtown Memphis. Entities that are all connected to the LaunchYourCity banner are:

EmergeMemphis, where fledgling startups rent space, share communal resources and interact with each other, all toward the goal of “graduating” out into a space of their own.

Seed Hatchery, a boot camp-style accelerator that throws young startup founders straight into the mix, where they’re given seed funding, mentorship, training and a chance to pitch investors.

Launch Memphis, a more free-form, unstructured “sandbox” for entrepreneurs that includes regular networking and educational events, and more.

Mathews talks about the whole framework of building an ecosystem, from soup to nuts, whenever he describes his work. It’s something that he says needs leaders, mentors, venture capital and a training ground before things really start to take off. With him in this effort are LaunchYourCity co-president Andre Fowlkes and chief branding officer Elizabeth Lemmonds.

“Our system is really about the idea guys,” Mathews said. “We continue to hone our craft and build the right platforms for our community to support that.”

Other groups are helping in other ways. Earlier this year, the Greater Memphis Chamber announced that it had helped the area land more than $1 billion in investment from private companies in 2011. That total includes 28 projects landed in 2011 and 83 minority consultations.

Those projects will ultimately generate 3,709 new jobs and maintain 44,075 jobs in existing businesses, according to the chamber, and the total capital investment is almost $1.2 billion

The Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club is another major civic force working toward the promotion of the Memphis area’s small-business community. One of its signature projects is a “buy local” campaign that encourages the club’s hundreds of members to support local businesses with their corporate dollars as much as possible.

Accelerators, workshops, cocktails

Memphis now has a handful of intensive, short-term entrepreneurial boot camps that basically grab startup founders by the scruff of the neck and ask them, rather insistently, “Do you have what it takes?”

Seed Hatchery has now gone through two rounds, or cohorts. Six teams each of those times, for a total of 12, have been given a seed stage investment, mentorship, training, legal advice and a few months to put their ideas through the wringer. Some of those startups are still going strong, others have withered and still others are in a kind of limbo – but the point, say people like Mathews, is that Memphis is in a better place with outlets like these.

“So as we begin week 3 of Seed Hatchery, it hit me,” wrote Mike Hoffmeyer, the founder of a Seed Hatchery company called Paytopia, in a blog post earlier this year. “‘Hey, moron, you have no choice but to make this company work. You willingly gave up your comfortably secure job, your income, and you won’t find another job in Memphis at the same level of pay. You have a wife and kids to provide for. You have nothing to fall back on. Do or die.’

At the EmergeMemphis building Downtown, fledgling startups rent space, share communal resources and interact with each other, all toward the goal of “graduating” out into a space of their own. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“You’d think that I would be absolutely terrified. I think on a deep, subconscious level perhaps I am, but when you start Seed Hatchery it’s like strapping (yourself) to a rocket that’s already in flight. There is no time for worry or self-doubt. You’re just too freakin’ busy meeting deadlines, creating deliverables, and in general just making (expletive) happen. The ever-ticking time clock on the wall here in the Launchpad shows 78 days left. My blogging time is up. It’s time to go be awesome.”

ZeroTo510 is a new accelerator that got its first cohort of companies off the ground earlier this year. Some of them have gone on to win additional funding for themselves beyond the program’s initial investment, and, as with Seed Hatchery, they’re all getting invaluable training, mentorship and education that might not be available otherwise.

And there’s still lots more going on. LaunchMemphis and MemphisConnect will partner for Ignite Memphis 5. The event, Oct. 25 at the Bioworks Conference Center, will be a place for people to showcase topics they’re passionate about via a five-minute presentation with 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds.

LaunchMemphis hosts a regular series of “tech cocktails,” networking events and more. On Sept. 22, the group hosted a daylong interactive course in entrepreneurship at EmergeMemphis called a “Business BOOSTCamp.” It was geared toward small-business owners, nonprofits and anyone looking to expand into a new product line, to name a few.

November should be big for entrepreneurship in Memphis: LaunchYourCity is gearing up for some big events around Global Entrepreneurship Week and a technology conference is in the works via the TechCamp Memphis group.


More than 200 attendees from around the region were expected to attend the Memphis Bioworks SBA Fast Conference on “Growing your Bioscience Business” in September. Breakout sessions addressed topics such as acceleration strategies for a bioscience business; expanding into international markets; regulatory requirements; and commercializing new technology.

Keynote speakers included Dr. Mitchell S. Steiner, vice chairman and chief executive officer of GTx Inc., who offered best practices in founding and building a bioscience business, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital CEO William Evans. The conference was presented by the Memphis Bioworks Business Association, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service.

The 2012 Memphis Research and Innovation Expo was held Sept. 27 at the University of Memphis FedEx Institute of Technology. In addition to a keynote by Stanley McChrystral, the former leader of the Joint Special Operations Command – otherwise known as JSOC, which includes some of the nation’s most elite military forces – the expo was slated to include 28 booths showcasing local innovation.

Anytime a research and innovation event brings to town a four-star general who used to hunt Al Qaeda in the Middle East, it’s a sign that local entrepreneurial efforts must be doing something right.

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