Episode Description

In this episode, Host Cortney Piper interviews Lilly Tench, Director of the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park. The two discuss the Spark Cleantech Accelerator program and how applications are open for Cohort Three until May 15, 2024. TAEBC is a proud partner of the Spark Cleantech Accelerator. We provide operational support and mentorship through our Energy Network program, which operates with support from Launch Tennessee.

Learn more about TAEBC and the Spark Innovation Center.

Thank you to our podcast sponsor, FirstBank.

Episode Transcript

Cortney Piper: Welcome to Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. I’m your Host, Cortney Piper. Welcome back to Energizing Tennessee, powered by TAEBC and FirstBank. 

Today, we’re highlighting a 12-week accelerator program for early-stage cleantech entrepreneurs. We’ve invited Lilly Tench, Director of the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park to talk about the Spark Cleantech Accelerator Program and, by the way, applications are now open for Cohort 3.

The Spark Innovation Center leverages the region’s unique science and technology resources to help startups grow, succeed, and stay in East Tennessee. The Spark Innovation Center has many partners, including the City of Knoxville, The Department of Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Launch Tennessee, and TAEBC to name a few.

TAEBC is proud to partner with the Spark Cleantech Accelerator. We provide operational support and mentorship through our Energy Network Program, which operates with support from Launch Tennessee. As always, if you like what you hear, subscribe to our channel, and don’t forget to leave a rating or review. It helps us reach a wider audience to champion Tennessee’s advanced energy sector.

Energizing Tennessee would not be possible without the support of TAEBC members and our sponsor, FirstBank. To learn more about FirstBank and how they can support you or your business, visit FirstBankonline.com.

Today, we’re speaking with Lilly Tench, Director of the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park, about her career, the Spark Cleantech Accelerator, and the importance of supporting early-stage entrepreneurs. Lilly, welcome to the show. 

Lilly Tench: Hello, Cortney. Thank you for having me. 

Cortney Piper: Tell us a little bit more about your role and the mission of the Spark Innovation Center.

Lilly Tench: Knoxville in East Tennessee is a pretty unique and special place in terms of innovation and technology resources. So we have here in this fairly small area, we have the University of Tennessee. We have Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We have the Tennessee Valley Authority. We have the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council.

We recently have the Techstars program here. We have the Innovation Crossroad Fellowship Program at Oak Ridge National Lab. We have a lot of innovation happening here. And some of that innovation is being turned into businesses. People are also coming through the Innovation Crossroads program collaborating with the lab and creating new companies and solutions.

 But we weren’t necessarily providing all the resources that companies like this who work in these advanced tech solutions need in order to stay and build a thriving business here in East Tennessee. So that they can grow their business and hire people here. The Spark Innovation Center was started in partnership with these organizations and different entities, with the purpose of providing those resources to serve those entrepreneurs and help them to stay and grow here. 

Lilly Tench: It started with The Spark Incubator here in the UT Research Park, which was physical lab space. So that was a big gap as if someone was trying to spin out a company in one of these advanced tech areas, or a company was graduating from their Innovation Crossroads Fellowship they’re usually still at the stage where they’re not yet ready to go out and build and develop their own lab space. It’s gonna be incredibly expensive. But companies and, you know, working in these fields can’t necessarily do it just anywhere. You do need things like fume hoods and hazardous waste disposal and expensive laboratory equipment so that was kind of point one. Something they needed was a place to land and to be able to build their businesses and develop here. So in the Spark Incubator, we worked with the UT Research Park to have lab spaces here in the Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing. So we have entrepreneurs here working alongside top researchers and materials and energy.

And then these entrepreneurs also still need industry guidance. They’re often coming from science and engineering backgrounds and might be new to the kind of business side of building a startup. Then we have the mentorship element, we partner with the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council, as you know, we also have EIRs here at Spark who work one-on-one with Spark entrepreneurs to help them build their business model, develop a robust financial model, fundraising plan, understand who their customers are, build customer partnerships and connections, and, then finally They need access to an understanding of capital.

So how you go about raising funds for this type of business and securing grants, moving into equity funding, what the debt options are, what makes sense for your business, etc. So we supply those things as well. So that was the Spark Incubator. Then, we received a grant from the Department of Energy as part of the Heartland Climate Tech Partnership to start a cleantech accelerator.

And for that program whereas the Spark Incubator was serving companies that were here in Knoxville, the Cleantech Accelerator, while also meant to serve cleantech companies that are here, also brings cleantech companies from around the country to Knoxville for a 12-week period to go through reverse business training and mentorship. So it’s a 12-week program that starts in August and goes to November. 

Through this program work closely with mentors from TAEBC and the Energy Network to try and help these companies not only advance their business but develop partnerships with these unique resources and entities in Knoxville and the surrounding area that they will hopefully be incentivized to either keep working here, start their and move their headquarters business here to the area or develop some kind of ongoing business activities and partnerships.

So, we are now going into year three of that program. We have started a partnership with Innovation Crossroads. So their new fellows go through that program alongside our six companies who we select, which has been a really exciting development. We did it for the first time last year and we’ll be doing it again this year.

So last year we had 13 companies going through the program. Side by side, they’re all in clean tech and advanced technology, and it just created a really exciting community of entrepreneurs doing this kind of work here. And then finally, we have the Spark Scholars Program, which is a partnership primarily with the Center for Materials Processing here at the University of Tennessee, and that is to bring Interns with startups so that interns couldn’t get hands-on experience working with the startup helping develop prototypes and then the startups get access to talent they might not otherwise have, and also the ability to have a talent pipeline as well. So, several of our companies have gone on to hire these interns full-time.

Cortney Piper: In my humble opinion, these three things that the Spark Innovation Center offers, which is the incubator, there’s an accelerator, and the Spark Scholars, Those things were game changers for our community because it is exactly what entrepreneurs needed if they were coming out of Oak Ridge National Lab’s Innovation Crossroads program, or if they were coming out of a research institution like the University of Tennessee or any of our other universities.

They needed more time to incubate, they needed more affordable space where they could have their lab equipment set up, they needed more affordable office space that was right next to that lab space, and continued access to mentors and other entrepreneurs that could help them move their business along, and that has been a complete game changer for our community. We’ve been able to retain and attract a lot more clean tech, climate tech, and advanced energy entrepreneurs to East Tennessee.

So Lilly, what kind of impact are these Spark companies having in our community? Our economy and the planet.

Lilly Tench: Well, I’m so happy you asked. So on the planet, while that is a, you know, a harder one to give the total results yet, because there are a lot of these companies are still early stage, but, you know, they’re all working on things that use the word game changing. Like they can be truly game changing. We have companies doing energy storage creating lithium ion batteries that don’t catch on fire.

We have very important, right? We have companies doing carbon capture. We have companies working in hydrogen fuel cells. Advanced materials and manufacturing and circular economy, being able to create materials that can be recycled and reused or used with natural fibers when they weren’t able to before.

So we’ve got some really incredible stuff here. And so far, even though these are early stage companies and these technologies do take a long time to get to market. They’re really a lot of our companies are doing extremely well. They have, we’ve worked with 29 companies so far in the first three years.

They have collectively raised 56 million, and that’s a combination of grants, equity funding, and revenue. They’ve created 57 jobs hosted 34 interns, And one number we’re really proud of is they have a 76 percent retention rate. So, of those 29 companies, 76 percent are still in the area. 

Cortney Piper: That is great news for Knoxville in particular.

It’s even better news for East Tennessee and also New York. Tennessee because like you said, we have all of these assets already in East Tennessee with the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Lab, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a bunch of different incubator and accelerator programs. And now we’ve got one thing at the UT Research Park that pulls it all together and is able to help these companies stay and grow in our region, which is just incredible.

So, Lilly, last year was the Spark cohort number two. It was your first cohort. What was your favorite memory or standout moment from the Spark Cleantech Accelerator’s second cohort? 

Lilly Tench: It’s a really hard question to answer because the whole thing, I mean, there’s so many different examples I could give from different perspectives.

It’s just seeing the Connections and collaborations and friendships and community that formed between the entrepreneurs in the program was really incredible and that’s kind of, it’s one of those things that it’s hard to control or plan and you just kind of hope is going to happen and then to see those kinds of organic connections and collaborations and they’re teaching each other about, you know, SBIR budgeting and they’re teaching, you know, they’re collaborating on this project and they’re continuing to support each other and they’re, they, you know, two people gave each other rides every single day of that cohort coming into the research park and many of them are staying in touch and continuing to collaborate.

And I think that is really valuable because. Being an entrepreneur at all, but especially in this advanced technology and cleantech space can be a very lonely journey, and having that community of other people around you doing that kind of work is so impactful. 

Cortney Piper: It’s all about building community.

So there will be. There will be another opportunity for energy entrepreneurs, climate tech entrepreneurs, whatever, whatever you would like to label yourself. There is an opportunity for you to participate in this amazing community-building mentoring accelerator. called the Spark Cleantech Accelerator at the University of Tennessee Research Park.

So Lilly, the applications are open for the third cohort. Tell everybody where they can apply and what they need to know about the application. 

Lilly Tench: They are open until May 15th. So they’re currently open. You can learn more about the program at tnresearchpark.org/Spark/accelerator/. And hopefully we can put that link somewhere.

Cortney Piper: We can certainly do that. We can certainly do that. But the key date for folks to remember if they want to apply. May 15th is the deadline, correct? Correct. 

Lilly Tench: Yes. And the program will start on August 19th and will run until mid November. Companies do need to be physically located in Knoxville for the duration of that period.

And they receive a $15,000 equity-free stipend. So that can be used, yes, that can be used for living expenses during the 12 week time period. It can also be used for whatever business investments a company deems necessary. So, the intention is to be able to give them the ability to purely focus on advancing their company and doing that here in Knoxville for that 12-week period.

Cortney Piper: I cannot wait to see what the third cohort brings into East Tennessee. It’ll be really great. Okay, Lilly, some parting thoughts. We are hot off of our annual trip to Washington, D.C. with the National Coalition of Clean Energy Incubators. We were talking with congressmen and congresswomen about the importance of supporting early-stage and tech based clean energy entrepreneurs.

I always love it because it’s a great opportunity to connect and collaborate with other incubators across the country, but it Also, we’re able to make our case to the people who are deciding how much money we’re going to invest in American innovation and what kinds of programs can best support that.

So, Lilly, why do you think it’s important to support early-stage entrepreneurs? 

Lilly Tench: Entrepreneurs, I would say, are arguably the best, most efficient problem solvers. So their whole business is seeing a problem and efficiently creating a solution to that problem. And we want these problem solvers, these people who I consider to be dreamers and doers to be focusing on those really large problems impacting our society like a shifting climate, to resource scarcity.

And clean air, clean water and so supporting companies that are working to solve those problems and to advance new technologies in these areas is incredibly important for all of us. It is also important from an economic development perspective. So these companies are creating the high paying jobs of the future.

And we want that to be able to be done across the country, not only in the largest cities where it has traditionally been focused, and companies also in these advanced tech areas that need resources to help get them over some of those humps. So. We mentioned some of the things in the beginning ways to support these entrepreneurs.

And but the fact is, this is often referred to as, you know, the valley of death. The fact that taking innovation from the research all the way to commercialization for these kinds of companies who are making hardware things in advanced technology can take a really long time.

Cortney Piper: Lilly, our involvement with the National Coalition of Clean Energy Incubators is what allowed both of us to bring new access to capital to Tennessee entrepreneurs because this is how we found out about the LACI, the LA Cleantech Incubator, clean tech debt fund. So that is, as you know, if you are an energy entrepreneur, it is really difficult to walk into a bank and say, Hey, I need a loan. But our friends at LACI piloted and then made this clean tech debt fund available to their partner organizations in this coalition.

And we have had several of the companies that have gone through Spark interested and apply for this program. So, you know, that involvement and that sort of collaboration I think is really key to helping build our community and build our ecosystem in Tennessee. And you all have been great partners with that.

Lilly Tench: Thank you. 

Cortney Piper: All right. Lilly Tench, Director of the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park. Thank you for coming on the show. Tell our listeners where they can learn more about you and the Spark Innovation Center. 

Lilly Tench: All right. Well, Cortney, thank you. It’s a pleasure to join you. You can learn more about the Spark Innovation Center at tennesseeresearchpark.org/spark/. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or by email. You can reach out to me at Lilly@tennesseeresearchpark.org. 

Cortney Piper: Thank you, Lilly. 

Lilly Tench: All right. Thank you. 

Cortney Piper: And that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into Energizing Tennessee powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank.

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