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VOL. 130 | NO. 32 | Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New Entrepreneurship Group Taps First President

By Andy Meek

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The Memphis Bioworks-led entrepreneurship initiative EPIcenter has tapped a nationally recognized entrepreneurship and business development leader to serve as its first president.


Leslie Lynn Smith comes to the job after five years as president and CEO of TechTown Detroit. She'll also serve as a vice president on the Bioworks executive team.

Similar in purpose and function to EPIcenter, TechTown Detroit worked to transform the city’s economy with fresh economic development programs and innovative business modeling.

Before that, Smith was director of business acceleration for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and oversaw the state’s $300 million investment portfolio.

EPIcenter, or the Entrepreneurship-Powered Innovation Center, is a kind of one-stop shop for Memphis’ entrepreneurial ecosystem. The idea is that it will act as a central point of contact and coordinate resources from local accelerators, incubators, mentors, investors, networking programs and technical assistance programs for entrepreneurs.

In a statement about the new job, which she starts on March 16, Smith said that while she’s proud of what’s been accomplished in Detroit, she’s likewise enthusiastic about the potential she sees in Memphis.

“I am passionate about American cities and the power of entrepreneurism as a catalyst for growth,” she said. “Much like we had in Detroit when we began our entrepreneurial renaissance, Memphis has untapped opportunity, energy and a variety of successful programs.

“I’m particularly impressed with the level of private sector engagement in Memphis, and in the city’s embrace of its existing category strengths as a foundation for growth,” she said. “I could not turn down this opportunity to become a part of an organization that is accountable for building a national model for a successful integrated entrepreneurial ecosystem that has real community impact.”

The creation of EPIcenter is an outgrowth of a so-called “moon mission” of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle – a mission to create 1,000 entrepreneurs over the next several years, which EPIcenter will help accomplish.

The Chairman’s Circle is a group of more than 100 business leaders focused on pursuing transformative change in the city through a set of “moon mission” strategic initiatives.

Bioworks president and executive director Dr. Steve Bares said that after a nationwide search, “it was clear to us that Leslie had the talent, the experience and the leadership that we need.”

Chairman’s Circle co-chair Spence Wilson Jr., principal at Kemmons Wilson Cos., likewise pointed to Smith’s Detroit experience, saying the collaborative process she led at Detroit’s TechTown is “precisely” what the Chairman’s Circle envisioned for Memphis.

EPIcenter was created and proposed by Memphis Bioworks in response to the goal of enabling 1,000 entrepreneurs in Memphis by 2024.The Chairman’s Circle likewise benchmarked Memphis against other successful communities and decided that success would require an effort to organize the organizations that serve startups and small businesses in the area around a common strategy.

While EPIcenter’s leaders say it will work with any entrepreneur starting a business, the focus will be on Memphis’ existing economic strengths of logistics and emerging technologies, healthcare and bioscience, as well as information and software technology.

EPIcenter will work directly with companies through existing accelerator, capital and incubator programs – ventures like EmergeMemphis, Start Co., Memphis Bioworks, and Innova – and will also work in conjunction with the local Economic Development Growth Engine and the Brookings Regional Economic Development plan. The EPIcenter will also launch new programs and team up with other groups to support companies outside of these areas as the need arises.

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