Entrepreneurial Spirit Thriving in Memphis

Saturday, March 16, 2013, Vol. 6, No. 12

In recent years, there has been a civic pushback against the relentless downing of Memphis that over a long period of time came to dominate any attempt to have a purposeful discussion about the city’s future.

The pushback is more than an equally relentless sunshine-and-rainbows view of the city. It is the laying of an entrepreneurial foundation that seeks to connect Memphis to venture and risk capital “angels” in Memphis and other places, in particular the West Coast.

The LaunchYourCity organization is a realistic acknowledgement that the entrepreneurial blossoming of Memphis won’t happen in a backyard garden of ideas and a finite market of available financing within that same backyard.

“We’re always looking at the amount of resources necessary to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” LaunchYourCity co-president Eric Mathews said in this week’s cover story. “Our local community is not the sole source and can’t be the sole source for that.”

It is a simple statement that says a lot about the new realities and possibilities in building innovation and also building capital.

For too long, we have pursued solutions and ways forward out of the city’s historically high levels of poverty exclusively on the premise that someone with fabulous wealth will drop a lot of money into some project that will provide us with full employment in perpetuity, and then all of our problems will be over.

When that someone with fabulous wealth who makes a major investment here turns out to live someplace else, our hopes drift toward setting a date when they will move here because then our prosperity will be truly secure.

We do need to create the ability for more Memphians to build wealth as a key component of long-term prosperity for our city. But building that wealth is more complex than, to put it bluntly, getting more rich people to move to Memphis and waiting for them to begin shedding dollars.

We have to up our confidence level to realize there are business ideas that can attract venture capital from a marketplace that today isn’t about a specific location or even a region in many cases. It’s about a business plan and the willingness to take risks, and even a hefty burn rate in the case of biosciences, for a breakthrough. These are the kinds of risks that financial institutions in our own backyard often can’t make because that is the nature of institutions with geographic foundations. They are conservative and they should be.

Accelerators like the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and LaunchYourCity effort being planned in biotechnology logistics recognize the risk in the name of innovation. It’s a risk that venture capital firms can take because of the city’s existing and growing logistics infrastructure as well as ongoing bioscience pursuits. They are nimble enough and they are geared for the risk.

What they need is to know more about who we are and what we do.