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VOL. 133 | NO. 1 | Monday, January 1, 2018

Startups and Artisans: EPIcenter caps a Busy 2017 Supporting Entrepreneurs

By Andy Meek

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Memphis’ startup ecosystem and its small-scale makers and artisans community took another leap forward in 2017, with new programming, resources and support to help all of those entrepreneurs continue to thrive.

It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen by accident. And one of the unseen forces behind the support that keeps getting to people launching those startups and artisan ventures – there are many people and groups helping make it happen – is the local EPIcenter organization, which had a particularly busy year.

EPIcenter – the full name is a partial acronym, the Entrepreneurship-Powered Innovation Center – is a nonprofit leading a communitywide effort to help entrepreneurs here conceive, launch and grow businesses. The Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle tapped the Memphis Bioworks organization to lead EPIcenter’s efforts and objectives, in collaboration with business accelerators EmergeMemphis, Start Co. and other partners. EPIcenter’s goals include helping create 500 companies and 1,000 entrepreneurs by 2024.

Some of what the organization was busy with in 2017 shows how it’s making progress toward that objective.

This summer, for example, saw EPIcenter help oversee the so-called “Summer of Acceleration,” a season of joint programming across six startup accelerator programs led in a partnership between EPIcenter, Memphis Bioworks and Start Co. The startup teams hailed from Memphis, as well as far-off markets like Los Angeles and beyond, and they came here to participate in a boot camp-style program that included hands-on training and mentorship, among other benefits.

Also during 2017, EPIcenter hosted regular events like its Angel Investing Mixer held at various locations around town. Attendees at those mixers get to learn about angel investing and the entrepreneurship scene in Memphis, as well as meet other Memphians interested in early-stage funding.

Another big piece of EPIcenter’s year was its work with the local Made By Project, an effort to understand the needs and goals of “makers,” artisans and micro-manufacturers in Memphis and Shelby County.

EPIcenter, along with Little Bird Innovation, stepped up to lead the first goals of that project, which include a business plan competition and a nine-week cohort program.

The business plan competition launched in November and will award $20,000 to winners to help them advance their business idea, as well as giving them $5,000 in business service support from EPIcenter. Applications for the competition are due in January.

From that pool of applications, a second round of entrepreneurs will be chosen, and from that group winners will be chosen in February.


“Entrepreneurs who can build businesses around known problems, real data, and a potential customer have a better chance of succeeding, and this competition can give entrepreneurs those advantages,” said EPIcenter president and CEO Leslie Lynn Smith. “Not only can solutions launched through this competition help creative entrepreneurs grow their businesses, it can help start or scale another innovative business in Shelby County.”

Made By Project led a survey of more than 300 local makers, artisans and micro-manufacturers and its findings were released earlier in 2017. Among other things, that survey sought to explore data about makers in the region, as well as assets and gaps in the maker ecosystem.

Two of the solutions identified within the Made By Project’s development plan are helping makers address packaging, shipping and distribution needs, and helping them access raw materials. EPIcenter is looking for entrepreneurs who can build businesses around both of those needs.

Over the next three years, this development plan aims to grow the Memphis economy in areas that include the number of maker enterprises, especially by women and minorities; the diversity and quality standard of products; the number of micro-entrepreneurs scaling to small- and medium-sized businesses; the demand for skilled workers; and the brand perception of Memphis as a hub for makers and creative enterprises.

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