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VOL. 133 | NO. 3 | Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Off to a Great Start

Memphis' startup community hit new strides in 2017

By Andy Meek

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When Megan Smith, the former U.S. chief technology officer under the Obama administration, praised Memphis’ startup community during an interview last summer on Bloomberg TV, it was a high-profile example of the ongoing coming-of-age of the ecosystem here.

Start Co. offers several startup accelerators that give entrepreneurs access to mentorship, seed funding and resources to build their ideas into a business. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

On a cable business news program, Smith gave the shout-out specifically to Building Box, a startup that wants to help children learn by developing STEM classrooms within portable shipping containers. And, by extension, a shout-out to Memphis as well. That the city is enabling startups like Building Box in the first place is indicative of how Memphis remains a city where it’s easy, and where there are plenty of opportunities to keep starting up.

That’s thanks in part to Start Co., the organization working out of 88 Union Ave. As part of its work, Start Co. helps lead a collection of startup accelerator programs focused on niches like women-led ventures and social enterprises, to name a few.

Building Box was part of this year’s local Sky High startup accelerator, which has a specific focus on social innovation via education technology. In all, 16 startup teams participated in this year’s “Summer of Acceleration,” the season of joint accelerator programming across a group of startup accelerators overseen by the EPIcenter organization, Memphis Bioworks and Start Co.

Start Co. president Andre Fowlkes told The Daily News the summer’s participating entrepreneurs were particularly strong. Many, for example, were a “bit more seasoned” and farther along in their entrepreneurial journey, as opposed to the early stage when the idea is little more than a dream that you’ve got to refine and figure out how to execute and fund.

It’s work that spurs Fowlkes to offer frequent reminders that economic development should encompass a lot more than the chase to land big-dollar, high-profile corporate names that bring buzz and hundreds of jobs. It should also be about the small, scrappy enterprises.

Most net new jobs, he explains, come from “high-growth entrepreneurial companies that are 5 years old and less,” while most local economic development efforts seem “mostly big industry-focused.”

That’s one reason his organization is focused on startups and accelerator programming – and the results speak for themselves.

An audience of more than 400 business leaders including entrepreneurs and investors attended this year’s Demo Day in August. Demo Day is the culmination of each summer’s accelerator programming, during which participating teams present a refined version of the business idea they’ve spent the course of the program working on – a presentation that hopefully lands them follow-on funding from investors.

This year’s startup teams came literally from around the globe. In the AgLaunch accelerator alone, for example, startups included Kilimo, from Argentina, which has a support tool for irrigation management in broad-acre agriculture. Microbiometer, from Englewood, New Jersey, has a rapid on-site soil testing tool that measures microbial mass, making it possible for soil health to be assessed quickly and inexpensively. And Persistence Data Mining, from San Diego, California, which uses proprietary technology to rapidly develop soil nutrient maps over large tracts of farmland.

AgLaunch is an accelerator spearheaded by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture that works with agriculture tech startups. Memphis’ startup accelerator picture also encompasses the EPIcenter Logistics Innovation Accelerator, sponsored by FedEx Corp., which focuses on startups themed around logistics products and technologies.

ImagineU is a collaboration between several Memphis colleges and universities focused on helping student teams bring ideas to fruition. The NAWBO Memphis Accelerator Program, operated by the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, focuses on the needs of women entrepreneurs, and ZeroTo510 – housed at the Memphis Bioworks Foundation – focuses on promoting medical technology innovation.

Other such programs include Start MMT, a music industry-focused accelerator founded in conjunction with songwriter David Porter. Seed Hatchery is focused on software and hardware as a service for enterprise customers; and Upstart is a Start Co. accelerator focused on women-led tech ventures.

In related news, the city of Memphis’ inaugural minority business accelerator Propel graduated its first participants this year. The graduates included seven companies whose businesses touch everything from event planning to construction.

Propel was a partnership between Start Co. and the city’s Office of Business Diversity and Compliance.

All of these efforts, working together, will continue making an impact on Memphis in 2018 and ensure that the city remains one that, in the words of the Start Co. motto, never stops starting.

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