The Spark Innovation Center at UT Research Park hosted a workshop featuring strategic partnerships and business engagement practices for early-stage tech companies.

Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council member, Spark Innovation Center at UT Research Park, hosted a hybrid session on business engagement for entrepreneurs on Oct. 19. John Bruck, Director of the Spark Innovation Center, moderated the event focused on strategic partnerships and business engagement practices for early-stage tech companies. The workshop’s theme parallelled the mission of the Spark Innovation Center’s goal: to provide startups with the support they need to become successful companies and continue to grow here in East Tennessee.

“Success for early stage companies is often partly derived from mentoring, support, and resources from across the community,” explained Bruck. “Today is about learning. Today is about a selective group of speakers who have experience, knowledge and lessons learned.” 

The event explored the strategy of engagement between the smaller companies, and how the largest companies in the Knoxville region can excel the budding visions of the products and services underway. Representatives from PYA, Egerton, McAfee Armistead & Davis, Innovation Crossroads, TAEBC, Schneider Electric and UT spoke to attendees on topics ranging from strategic partnerships to “lessons learned” as a successful entrepreneur.

Martin Brown, President and CEO of PYA opened the workshop with a discussion on strategic partnerships. 

“We want companies that start here to stay here,” said Brown. “If you’re looking at growing your business, it’s important to understand what those strategic partnerships are, and what you need to be looking for. ” 

TAEBC Executive Director Cortney Piper shared the vital role her legal counsel has played in her entrepreneurial success. She spoke to the role her attorney has had in her business ventures.

“Over the last thirteen years, she’s educated me on how deals and contracts are formed,” said Piper. “I receive contracts from big international companies, and she’s able to assess my risk level and my risk tolerance and offer advice – it’s more helpful than you would ever realize.” 

Several factors play a role in launching one’s startup business – accessing legal resources to bolster the success of a company plays a massive role in the longevity and prosperity of the venture.

A representative from TAEBC member Schneider Electric also spoke at the event. Senior Vice President of The Edge Jean-Louis Stasi shed light on the intricacies of building long-lasting strategic partnerships between a global entity and local startups to accelerate the innovation cycle.

“When you are a startup, you can work with any of our twenty lines of businesses depending on the problem you are trying to solve  and that’s where the action happens,” explained Stasi. “When you are a startup, and you look at a big company like us, find the operating model and how they play – who are the guys that ultimately have a problem that you can solve?” 

Stasi discussed the two key areas of innovation at Schneider: advancement in both at the organization’s core and at The Edge. The innovation on the edge of Schneider serves their interest in expanding partners, investors, incubators, and joint ventures. 

“The purpose at The Edge is to enable organizations to learn about the future, but to adopt technologies and help create a reality of an innovative future,” said Stasi.

Randy Boyd, President of UT, joined the workshop to share his evolutionary narrative of entrepreneurship from his initial electric fence venture to owning baseball franchises.

“It’s good to get failure out of the way early,” said Boyd. “I would encourage you, it’s okay to get out and try your idea …  a lot of times it’s not about the path that you start,  but where you end up.”

When asked about the future of Knoxville in light of the region’s specific local resources, Boyd responded, “We’re the next big deal. I don’t think the collaboration between The Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge National Lab and UTK has ever been greater. There’s a lot of momentum, we’re at that turning point where amazing things are going to happen here.”

Boyd mentioned the Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator, which he believes will be integral in bringing new entrepreneurs and companies to the threshold of the three organizations’ resources. 

Gary Rawlings, an Energy Mentor Network mentor and advisor within the Innovation Crossroads Program at ORNL shared the value in engaging large companies as an entrepreneur in order to add to a company’s value chain.

“As trivial as it sounds, you’ve got to do your homework,” said Rawlings. “In order to add value to a product or service, strategic connections are necessary to progress the partnership for a mutually beneficial relationship. Prepare before your pitch, and listen to customers for your business.”

Rawlings’ major advancements came from gleaning insight from the initial consumers of his product – he urged the future entrepreneurs to seek out the same insight from their future stakeholders. 

Insights shared at the event served as a catalyst for future conversations soon to reverberate through the center – illuminating the collaborative efforts at the disposal of Knoxville entrepreneurs to make connections towards fostering their success.

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