Now is our time to celebrate Knoxville’s entrepreneurial community

Pictured from left to right at Startup Day 2019: Tom Ballard, PYA; Jim Biggs, KEC; Lynn Youngs, UT Anderson Center; Tom Rogers, UT Research Park; Leah Winter, Winter Innovations; Amy Henry, TVA; Dan Miller, ORNL; Jonathan Sexton, Bandera; Stacey Patterson, University of Tennessee; Maha Krishnamurthy, UT Research Foundation; Grady Vanderhoofven, 3Roots; Derren Burell, Veteran Ventures


By Jim Biggs, Executive Director, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and Cortney Piper, Innov865 Alliance

It is an exciting time to be part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Knoxville. 

In this city, we’re more than willing to get excited about the latest Vols win or claim Dolly Parton as our region’s patron saint, but we have not always been as proactive about telling the world about what makes our city such a great place to live, work and play. 

Our community has been so busy rolling up its sleeves, testing technology in the lab, strategizing in the boardroom and mentoring the next generation of innovators that we have forgotten to let people in on our best-kept secret: Knoxville’s entrepreneurial scene is thriving. We think it’s about time the rest of the country knows that too. From a nationally recognized business accelerator coming to town to concentrated efforts to promote our city’s entrepreneurs, we have some fantastic developments to share.

“Put simply: Knoxville is made for entrepreneurs. We know what we’re doing and want more people and businesses to recognize that too.”

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center serves as our city’s “front door for entrepreneurs.” Our mission is to build a community where entrepreneurs have access to the capital, customers and talent they need to be successful. We are a member of the Innov865 Alliance, a group of companies and stakeholders dedicated to advocating for Knoxville’s startups and entrepreneurs, ensuring our ecosystem is strong, vibrant and coordinated. The Alliance’s vision is to be a “nationally recognized” hub of innovation and entrepreneurship by leveraging our region’s world-class research, creative and technological capabilities to build the most connected and diverse startup community in Tennessee.

Our work is in line with the City of Knoxville’s latest commitments to bolster its entrepreneurial community. Mayor Indya Kincannon’s proposed 2021-22 city budget emphasizes investments in five priority areas, one of which is “thriving businesses and good jobs.” In this category, the proposed budget would provide over $1 million to support the City’s economic development partners, $90,000 in new funding to support business development in the Latino community, and $150,000 in new funding for KEC, including support for the 100Knoxville project to grow Black-owned businesses.

KEC and the Alliance’s efforts to grow and support our entrepreneurial community also wouldn’t be possible without the brilliant minds and extensive resources of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the University of Tennessee. These three entities recently came together to support the launch of a Knoxville Techstars accelerator in 2022. Over the next three years, the Techstars accelerator will engage 10 startups a year, attracting new entrepreneurs from around the world to start and grow their businesses right here. 

Before launching the accelerator, Techstars released an assessment of Knoxville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, highlighting both what makes our community so great and areas where we can continue to grow. Techstars identified five primary benefits of our region: large research institutions, excellent quality of life, relatively low cost of living, deep pool of technical talent and exciting support organizations for startups. We couldn’t agree more.

The report also identified six “gaps” where our community can continue to grow. Those gaps include funding, support for growth-stage companies, participation, access, measurement and perception.  

Perception, or the fact that many people in our state and city don’t know how well our companies are performing, was number one. Even though we’ve had many successful ventures over the years — Arkis Biosciences, Genera, EDP Biotech, Cirrus Insight, and Gridsmart, to name a few — this report made us realize how we need to do a better job sharing our triumphs within the community and on a larger scale.

We believe Knoxville is a wonderful place to start and grow a business. Our nationally recognized institutions, organizations, and resources are incredible assets for anyone looking to make it as an entrepreneur. Yet, simply having access to TVA or business support from KEC isn’t enough to make Knoxville great. The secret to Knoxville’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem is connection. Our organizations, groups, and experts continually collaborate and connect to ensure that we’re offering the best resources, opportunities, and expertise. Unlike larger cities, Knoxville entrepreneurs have ready access to this interconnected network of change-makers and leaders in their respective fields. 

Put simply: Knoxville is made for entrepreneurs. We know what we’re doing and want more people and businesses to recognize that too. We have the talent, labs, resources and know-how to transform our community and the world around us. This city is made for makers, dreamers, leaders, inventors, investors and visionaries. Now is our time to highlight the great work innovators in our city are doing every single day, which is why we’re launching the Made for Knoxville campaign. 

Made for Knoxville will elevate awareness of Knoxville’s diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem, and inspire action. The goal is to connect and empower the diverse entrepreneurial community in the Knoxville region — ranging from “solo-preneurs,” makers, growth-stage tech companies, investors and established institutions. 

Over the next few months , KEC will release dozens of inspiring, incredible stories about the hardworking men and women who make our entrepreneurial scene so vibrant. From hard-tech researchers to artisans, we are letting the world know that Knoxville is truly “made” for entrepreneurs. Come join us.


Knoxville is made for entrepreneurs 

Pictured: Chris McAdoo, Maranda Vandergriff, and Jordan Peltz on set at Phillips Forged, November 2020


By Chris McAdoo, artist, entrepreneur, and director of strategy & engagement for Knoxville Entrepreneur Center
(This article originally appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel)

An entrepreneur is defined by as: “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.” That seems simple enough, and I’m gonna make it even simpler: An entrepreneur really only has two jobs:
1. To create value, and
2. Share that value.
(and repeat as necessary).

To be an entrepreneur is to be in service to others. You can create a new life changing technology, paint a beautiful painting, or have a successful lawn care business. You exist to create a product or a service that matters to people. That’s it. You’ll make good decisions, you’ll make mistakes, and you will find yourself at 3 AM on a Thursday night sweating payroll. You will also find immense joy in creating something new, something that brings comfort, that brings joy, that represents a new way of doing things to the people that need it most. You’ll also be able to provide for your family in ways that you never thought possible.

“It’s not just about what’s now – it’s about creating value in what’s next.”

This past year has pushed us uncomfortably forward – in how we communicate, how we create, and how we share ideas…and it’s those ideas that make us who we are. The entrepreneurial spirit of independence, improvement and challenge of the status quo allows us to create the biggest value of all, and that is to be in service to others. Are you making art, creating the next big scientific breakthrough or simply providing a needed service? We can always be thinking of ways to improve what we do, and it positively affects the people that we serve. Creative thinking isn’t about writing a history report – it’s about looking to the future. It’s not just about what’s now – it’s about creating value in what’s next. 

“Entrepreneurship” may not be for everyone, but entrepreneurial, creative thinking is for EVERYONE. It doesn’t matter what your skill is, what your day looks like, or where you come from. The magic happens when we identify the value of an idea and allow it to flourish. 

Knoxville: we’ve got the resources, we’ve got the right people, and maybe most importantly, we’ve got the will to “get into the ring” to stake our claim as the Maker City. To every business owner and team who has bobbed and weaved their way through the most challenging year of our lives, THANK YOU. To every artist and maker that continues to hone their craft and share it with the world, THANK YOU. To every supportive spouse, tireless partner, and beleaguered accountant, THANK YOU. We’re on the cusp of something big, and it’s not just because the “powers that be” made it possible. It’s because of our people, our entrepreneurs, that are willing to make the big decisions, take the risks, and do the work that it takes to lead. We’re a diverse group that cares about our community, and we want to make a positive difference in our businesses, our lives, and the lives of those around us.

So, Knoxville, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. It’s time to show the world what we’re made for.

Artist, entrepreneur, and KEC chief of strategy Chris McAdoo sits down with successful photographer and entrepreneur Jennie Andrews at KEC headquarters, located in the heart of downtown Knoxville, TN. They talk all things creative, growing AND sustaining a business, and all of the ups and downs that come with entrepreneurship. What does it take to be intentional about your creative growth over the long haul? Find out in this fascinating conversation. Jennie is also co-host of our newest “BrandCamp” series, and can be found on instagram as @jennieandrews.

chris mcadooChris has spent over 20 years building businesses, forging a successful art career, and speaking all over the country on the power of creativity and challenging assumptions. Chris lives in South Knoxville, and can typically be found in the woods at Ijams Nature Center. Reach out to Chris at

Knoxville’s Lively History of Entrepreneurial Innovation

By Jack Neely,
Knoxville History Project

knoxville history project logoWe may tend to forget that Knoxville, Home of the Vols, Gateway to the Smokies, headquarters of TVA, etc., is also a city with a manufacturing heritage — and one also known for entrepreneurial innovation. Much of its growth — reflected today in many of the old buildings downtown, and the names of streets all over town — was inspired by entrepreneurial innovation.

Someone born in Knoxville in 1850, just before railroads arrived, might live to turn 80 in 1930, in a city that was literally 50 times as big. Almost all of that growth was industrial and entrepreneurial.

It’s hard to say where it started. Maybe in the city’s earliest days, when it was a territorial and later state capital: the legislature met here. What do legislatures need? Liquor, for one thing; Knoxville supported several dozen small distilleries in that era, each presumably offering a slightly different product. But more important was paper, for newspapers and law books for the whole state. With plenty of trees, that was no problem. Knoxville had a cottage printing industry, putting out even sheet music and a few novels, as well as the first books and newspapers ever published in the Cherokee language. Hence, Papermill Road. Its papermill did big business until the 1880s.

Knoxville’s been making interesting things for a long time — and just occasionally, things the world had never seen.

Railroads helped everybody, both passengers and freight, and unlocked several heavy industries, like marble, iron, and lumber—but also spawned its own businesses, as cabinetmakers moved here from other parts of the country to help build the interiors of train cars. Some of them used their fine carpentry skills in other ways, creating coffin factories, for example — or, in one case, violins. Amburn Watson, who had built both passenger cars and coffins in Knoxville, preferred to make musical instruments. He is the city’s best-known violin maker, and the young fiddler Roy Acuff was impressed with his product.

East Tennessee’s abundance of hardwood lumber spawned furniture companies, of course, but even that led to some unexpected results. C.B. Atkin grew up in a furniture family, but chose to specialize in mantels, and did astonishingly well with it. At the height of his career, Atkin claimed to have the world’s largest supplier of wooden mantels.

Sterchi Bros. Furniture
McClung Historical Collection

And Sterchi Brothers Furniture, founded by members of a Swiss family, became one of the South’s great furniture suppliers, but also played a surprising role in the development of the American recording industry. Sterchi’s sold phonographs — they were considered furniture, after all, and in fine polished cabinets even looked like furniture — but around 1920, even as phonographs were getting cheaper, Sterchi noticed the working-class people weren’t buying them. Phonographs had been a luxury item, available mainly to the rich, who favored classical music and opera. Sterchi had an idea that maybe working people might buy phonographs if there were commercial recordings of their own music. In those days, long before Nashville was Music City, the good recording studios were all in New York. So by 1924, Sterchi Brothers Furniture was sponsoring trips to make some of America’s first country-music records — by street performers and banjoist Uncle Dave Macon. The initiative yielded records the people did like.

Architecture was another lumber-related industry. Originally from the Chicago area, architect George Barber moved to Knoxville in the 1880s, and became the city’s best known designer of wooden Victorian houses in the Queen Anne style. Then he tried something unusual for an architect. He created detailed mail-order designs that became popular nationwide. Thousands of Barber houses popped up from Maine to Oregon. The architect never saw most of his houses.

Other industries spawned other kinds of innovation. The city’s burgeoning marble industry spawned earth-moving and marble-cutting equipment, much of it created by English-born William Savage. However, Savage came to Knoxville to custom-build some milling equipment for J. Allen Smith — a young flour dealer from Georgia who created several new flours for an international market, among them his best known: White Lily. It became a preferred flour for bakers as far away as Cuba.

Cal Johnson (1844-1925)
Horse breeder,
jockey, and businessman
(racetracks, saloons, etc.)

One of the city’s most creative entrepreneurs was a man raised in slavery. His name was Cal Johnson, and he was still a teenager at the time of emancipation. According to the legend, he took a government offer of money to disinter corpses from shallow battlefield graves, at about $7 per, for delivery to the National Cemetery here. He did enough of that to buy some property, and eventually start a chain of saloons. Cal Johnson, who loved horses, eventually owned thoroughbreds, and eventually even a racetrack in East Knoxville; its traces remain as Speedway Circle, a neighborhood on a half-mile oval.

Renovated Cal Johnson Building on State Street

Politics closed Knoxville saloons in 1907, and Tennessee banned horse-race betting about the same time, but Johnson was always flexible and open to the next new thing, even in his later years. In 1908, Johnson opened one of Knoxville’s first movie theaters, the small Lincoln Theatre, in a former saloon space on the Central Street Bowery. In 1910, he hosted the first airplane landing in East Tennessee history, at his racetrack. Later still, he was landlord to one of Knoxville’s first automobile dealerships.

As an old man he became a philanthropist, helping found Cal Johnson Park, a city park specifically for African Americans — the site of today’s Cal Johnson Recreation Center.

Sometimes innovators can get a little too creative. William Gibbs McAdoo, a lawyer who was the son of a UT professor, was a young, technologically adept innovator who built East Tennessee’s first electric streetcar in 1890, a line from downtown to Chilhowee Park. Amazing as it was, it broke down a lot and was ultimately unprofitable. McAdoo moved to New York, where he became prominent as a planner of subways, including the first one to go under the East River. But the memory of his failure in Knoxville kept gnawing at him, especially as he heard another businessman had taken the remnants of his streetcar and made a success of it. In 1897 he came back and began building another streetcar to compete with the first one. He hired 200 men to start building it on Depot Street. The main problem was that he had not gotten permission from the city to do so. When police began arresting the workers who were tearing up the streets to lay track, a violent riot erupted. McAdoo, the innovator, was jailed. He later found his true callings, as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and U.S. Senator from California. Innovative even as an attorney, in 1919 he helped some actor friends found a new kind of talent-driven movie studio called United Artists.

Cowan Rodgers
McClung Historical Collection

Transportation revolutions inspired many young innovators. Cowan Rodgers was a young athlete, more interested in building and repairing bicycles than becoming a lawyer or banker as his affluent family might have expected. He heard about a new invention from Europe, a horseless carriage powered by the internal combustion engine. Rodgers thought he could figure that out on his own. In 1898, he built and test-drove the first automobile ever seen in Knoxville. It was noisy and unpredictable; when he made some improvements on a second car, he had dreams of becoming one of America’s first automobile manufacturers. However, when he heard about the scale of assembly-line car manufacturing contemplated by Henry Ford and others, Rodgers decided he’d be better off as a mere car dealer. Rodgers Cadillac, as it was eventually known, became one of America’s most durable privately owned car dealerships, lasting into the 21st century.

Fulton Sylphon Plant
University of Tennessee Digital Collections

Weston Fulton came here from Alabama, originally to man the U.S. Weather Bureau. He was a weatherman. But he had a daily problem. Every morning, he was expected to measure the level of the then-unpredictable Tennessee River. His office was what they used to call “uptown,” about 65 feet above the river level. Checking the water level involved clambering down the bluff, and then hiking back up. So around 1900, he invented a device that would measure the levels for him, relaying an electrical signal to his office. The device that made it work was a flexible metal bellows he called a “sylphon.” It was never famous by that name, but it turned out to be infinitely useful for hundreds of other inventions, from depth charges in World War I to the top-secret Norden bomb site in World War II — to automobile air conditioners.

Fulton built a big factory on Third Creek, where sylphons — after Fulton’s death in 1946, they were most often just called “bellows” — were manufactured for almost a century. Fulton High School was named for him.

We think of entrepreneurs as middleaged guys, but young people are often the most receptive to new ideas. That was the case, right about a century ago, when there was something new called “radio.” The first person in Knoxville to build a radio was a 15-year-old kid named Powell May. And the first guy to start a radio station, a few years later, was an 18-year-old named Stuart Adcock. He started both WNOX and later WROL — they became arch rivals, but that didn’t bother Adcock much. He had made so much money as a radio pioneer he retired in his 40s and moved to Florida.

Tamale maker, Harry
Royston (ca. 1862-1917)
Knoxville Sentinel /

Innovators are sometimes just retailers. Harry Royston was a Black man, a former circus carnie, he introduced an invention of sorts that was centuries old, but nonetheless new to Knoxville. It’s believed to have happened in 1887, when he began making and selling tamales on the streets of Knoxville. It was 80 years before Knoxville’s first Mexican restaurant, but tamales became an African American tradition.

After World War I, Ben Bowers saw opportunity in the massive amounts of Army surplus material. He bought much of it up for cheap, and started a retail business on Market Square selling uniforms, tents, and other mostly nonlethal remnants of the Great War. Even today, many people remember Bowers surplus store, or know his Camel Tent company. But they may not remember Bowers’ contribution to aviation. Along with other Army surplus, he bought airplanes, especially “Jenny” trainers. They were Knoxville’s first consumer airplanes, and Bowers — who became one of Knoxville’s first pilots, himself — may be the reason Knoxville had so many local aviators in the 1920s.

The most popular airfield was in Bearden, then a rural backwater. After 1915, when it became part of the national Dixie Highway, it began getting automobile traffic, especially from vacationers in the urban North heading to southern beaches. At first, farmers offered their fields to traveling campers. A few took the next step, and installed public bathrooms, or a little cafe. Then, for those who traveled without tents, some built little cabins for travelers, just to spend the night on the way to Florida; the “motor court” was born. By the 1940s, they had evolved into something new, called motels.

Peter Kern (1835-1907)

Market Square was a constantly evolving experiment in giving the people what they want. German immigrant Peter Kern, a refugee from Europe’s political chaos in the 1840s, had been a cobbler by trade — but when he found himself stuck in Knoxville during the Civil War, befriended another German who suggested they go into business selling molasses cookies to the Union troop trains. The cobbler found he was a good baker, and he kept adding more fun things: toys, candy, fireworks. He opened one of Knoxville’s first soda fountains, with about 40 varieties (including something new from Atlanta called Coca-Cola) and made his own ice cream for a second-floor “ice cream saloon” open until midnight every night. He and his German-born bride also promoted Christmas to East Tennesseans who weren’t yet sure what to make of the Old World holiday, as well as American holidays. Kern was a successful and diversified entrepreneur — and one so popular that he was elected mayor.

McClung Historical Collection

Movie theaters there, run by the Italian Brichetto brothers, advertised their product by amplifying the soundtrack through speakers onto the always-crowded square. (Did you hear that? What does that mean? What’s going on? To find out, you’d have to buy a ticket.)

Sam Morrison sold records, and in the same way he’d play the interesting new ones over a speaker onto the street, to get random pedestrians interested in the latest pop music. He sold such an interesting variety of new music to such a wide variety of customers — the people of Market Square, all ages and races — that a scout for RCA came to respect Morrison’s little shop as a sort of bellwether for national tastes.

Sam Morrison, Owner, Bell Sales Record Store on Market Square
Courtesy of Mary Linda Schwarzbart

In the summer of 1954, he had something different, and it turned out to be a phenomenon. It was a freshly pressed 78 from Memphis called “That’s All Right, Mama.” The sound astonished the crowds of Market Square, and he sold the new Sun label record by the hundreds. And it got the attention of RCA. When that record giant first heard of Elvis Presley, all they knew was that his records were selling faster than ice cream cones on Market Square that summer. The following year, they signed him.

Knoxville’s most famous innovator, though, was a son of Scottish and Irish immigrants named George Dempster. He would be well known in Knoxville history even if he never invented anything. In the 1930s, he was city manager, and did much to establish the Henley Bridge as well as the new McGhee Tyson Airport. In the 1950s, he was city mayor.

Skipping college, he worked as a young man, often with machinery, and eventually co-founded the Dempster Brothers equipment factory. As one of the thousands who worked on the Panama Canal, he got used to thinking about the most efficient ways of moving thousands of tons of material you didn’t need. While also working as city manager, he came up with a simple idea. In November, 1936, Knoxvillians were surprised to find four big steel bins in the alley between Gay and Market Streets. They had funny slots and hooks on them that nobody could figure out. They did seem like a good place to put garbage, though, and were used almost instantly.

Later, a special truck came by equipped with hooks to carry it off and dump it elsewhere. George Dempster was so proud of them he named them for himself, sort of. These were the world’s first Dumpsters.

Within months, city officials from Louisville, Nashville, and Washington were visiting Knoxville to see this amazing innovation. The garbage problem would never be the same. For many years, Dumpsters were manufactured in the Dempster factory off North Central to meet a global demand.

Knoxville’s been making interesting things for a long time — and just occasionally, things the world had never seen.

jack neely on market square

Photo by Jennie Andrews

Jack Neely is the Executive Director of the Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit whose mission is to research and promote the history of Knoxville. He is a journalist who has been writing about his hometown’s character and heritage for many years. He has written several books about Knoxville and its history, and they can be purchased in various places throughout the city including Union Avenue Books and the Visit Knoxville Gift Shop.