A Q&A With Innov865 Featured Speakers Charlie Brock and Mark Montgomery

By Chris Clancy

Innov865 Week is a week-long series of events, taking place September 18–21, 2017, to celebrate and showcase Knoxville as a great place for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses. We have partnered with the Innov865 Alliance to bring you stories of innovation born in East Tennessee.

Charlie Brock and Mark Montgomery have been tapped as the featured speakers at Innov865’s Startup Day, on Sept. 21.

Formerly part of the Brock Candy Company, Charlie Brock currently serves on the board of directors at Pinnacle Bank, FourBridges Capital Advisors, Cumberland Emerging Technologies, and Life Science Tennessee. Since 2013, he has been the CEO of Launch Tennessee, a Nashville-based public-private partnership that supports entrepreneurs through commercialization, capital and outreach.

Mark Montgomery has spent the last three decades generating hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholder value and economic impact in Middle Tennessee. In 1999, he co-founded and led echomusic, a pioneer in the direct-to-fan space that was sold in 2007 to IAC/Ticketmaster for $25 million. A nationally recognized thought leader and speaker in the direct consumer e-commerce space, Mark remains a key player in the operation of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.

We were lucky enough to be able to ask Charlie and Mark some questions about entrepreneurship in Knoxville and beyond.

Nashville is best known for two things — music and healthcare — and you both have worked in those industries, to great success. What are some of the emerging industries within Knoxville?

CB: First of all, to clarify, I have not “worked” in music or healthcare, but have certainly helped mentor — and invested in — companies in both industries in my roles at Colab (The Company Lab), Chattanooga Renaissance Fund and LaunchTN. That said, we have encouraged all our entrepreneur centers to develop programming that takes advantage of local industry strengths. For Knoxville, this has manifested itself in accelerator programming in the digital media and energy industries. Additionally, the maker movement is very strong in Knoxville, as evidenced by [its] designation last year as one of Seven Etsy “Maker Cities.”

MM: I like the Knoxville market better in some ways than Nashville. You have a great ecosystem here that Nashville had in spades for a while (keep in mind, things shift all the time). It’s really great to see so many people contributing for the right reasons. Beyond that, you’ve got a great resource with Jim and Jonny at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, [what] seems like a solid mentor network, and, with big players in video (Scripps etc.) and the Oak Ridge piece, it’s a great combination.

What are some qualities unique to Knoxville when it comes to startup culture and entrepreneurship? Do you foresee a lot of research regarding how best to spark Knoxville’s entrepreneurial spirit?

CB: The big need for Knoxville is to develop more early stage capital sources. That is the most significant difference between Knoxville and Nashville as it relates to support for entrepreneurs, though it’s worth noting that much of the available Nashville capital is primarily targeted to healthcare companies.

A key advantage for the Knoxville market are the research institutions and the potential innovations that can spin out of UT and ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory). For example, the current Innovations Crossroads program running at ORNL is a wonderful step forward and a great way to take advantage of the world-class research, people and facilities at the lab and collaborate with organizations like LaunchTN and the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council to access mentors and early pilot customers. If we can effectively do that, we can find the potential capital sources.

MM: Knoxville feels like the early days (2009-ish) of the Nashville market: a vibrant, amazing time. It feels a lot the same in Knox. A little more fragmented perhaps, but a building that has a mission — like the project the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center is undertaking — will fix that, if you build it correctly. Build yours around an idea and a mission more than around a person.

There is also a lot of cooperation in the market, people helping people for the right reasons. Be careful to prune as you go — atrophy and greed can creep in. You also have people who are doing it for the right reasons! Keep them around!

Both of you are heavily involved in the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. Do you think the success of the EC there can be replicated, not just in East Tennessee, but elsewhere in the country?

MM: I’d love to see someone do a study on the Nashville Entrepreneur Center versus other U.S. and global accelerators to see where we really stack up. It’s easy to get stuck in the Nashville (or Knoxville) bubbles, much less the state, the United States, the world. When we set out to operationalize the Nashville EC, we looked at 25 or so accelerators for best practices, took what we thought would be best pieces of the various models, and set it up. As my old partner, Kidd Redd, used to say, “At some point, we just gotta start.” How it stacks up nearly 10 years later would be an interesting question to answer.

What do you want the audience to take away from your talk at Innov865, or the conference in general?

CB: The breadth and depth of events on the Innov865 Week calendar reflects how much the Knoxville region has built and how committed so many people are to making this area a place where entrepreneurs can build a great business and enjoy a wonderful quality of life. I hope they realize and appreciate the efforts of local institutions like UT, ORNL and the KEC in this process, as well as some strong private sector companies and individuals.

MM: New connections, new ideas, and a couple of laughs. And it will be good to share the stage with Charlie again — last time we shared, it was electric!