Believe in Yourself Knoxville (and Why Startup Day Matters) – by Jonathan Sexton

Knoxville is so full of talent, creativity, and ideas. I’ve always THOUGHT I knew that. Being raised a musician here exposed me to that early on, singers, songwriters, poets, painters, craftsmen (and women) of so many kinds. I also thought for most of my life that’s what creativity was: Art.  And it is.  But Startup Day taught me that Knoxville’s Creative Capabilities were so much more than that, and so much bigger than I ever imagined.


Let me explain.  My first work in the local startup scene was in Startup Day 2013.  Knoxville Entrepreneur Center was brand new, and I was a volunteer mentor fresh off a few years of launching a startup in Nashville.  KEC and Tech 2020 wanted to celebrate KEC’s inaugural two accelerator programs. It was the first event in the area to celebrate entrepreneurship. 300+ people showed up, 13 very nervous teams took the stage and it was a great event.  But looking back it wasn’t the music, food, attendance, glitter, lights, or speakers that made the first Startup Day important.


The inaugural Startup Day mattered because it was the beginning of a new chapter in the life of our city.


A rebirth.  We don’t live in the same Knoxville that we did in November 2013, which is a beautiful thing, but what’s more beautiful is what’s still to come for Knoxville.


Here are the top 3 reasons I’m excited to be in my industry (working with startups) in THIS town (Knoxville) for the next 5 years:


  1. Startup Culture:  Two years ago, I was often asked a simple question. “We have startups in Knoxville?” Now, the only thing that has changed is the punctuation. I hear someone say it all the time: “We have startups in Knoxville!!!” It’s a big change, and the startups here span the spectrum.   Advanced Manufacturing, Material Science, Media, Automotive, MedTech, Music, 3D Printing… you name it, we’ve got it.  And we have experts in the industry to support it. Literally hundreds of startups and infrastructure to support it, no matter the stage of your company. Knoxville is one of the most comprehensive innovation hubs in country, the roots of that go back further than Startup Day, but Startup Day started telling the story.  We are a humble bunch in this region, more concerned with doing the work than talking about the work.  But it’s time to talk about the work, to celebrate the work, and to BRAG about the work that entrepreneurs in this area are doing.  It’s world class. Thanks to Startup Day for teaching me that.


  1.  We live in a community of collaboration: Startup Day was originally a KEC and Tech 2020 event.  Immediately afterward ORNL, UTRF, The Anderson Center, PYA, LaunchTN and more stepped up wanting to take this event to the next level, and thank goodness they did. Not because it made for a better Startup Day every November, but because of the lasting relationships that have been built that add value to our startup community the other 11 months of the year. Collaboration between Entrepreneurial Support Organizations is at an all-time high. The Kauffman Foundation recently acknowledged this effort with a $25K grant for Knoxville to build software to streamline the effectiveness of our comprehensive support ecosystem.  In terms of collaboration, the last 2 years have brought 10 years of progress. For that I am grateful to the event and all my community partners.


  1.  Traction: The first Startup Day was about 13 companies launching. Now those companies and many more have gone on to do great things. One of the 13, Aries Energy, was just acquired by a bigger company for a large sum of money, hopefully the first of many.  ProNova is reinventing cancer treatment.  Local Motors printed the world’s first 3D-Printed Car.  EventBooking,, and Audiohand are reinventing the music industry.  ORNL and UTRF have collaborated on over 1,000 new patents in the last few years. NewsBreak Media installed their product in nearly 1,000 locations, and raised multiple rounds of funding.  Arkis and 490 just got huge SBIR grants.  Little Fishkopp has customers all over the world buying children’s clothing products.  Any Roam is installed on 350 Universities.  SpareTime Entertainment is reaching hundreds of millions of people on YouTube.


And this is just the beginning.  There are so many more positive things happening in our area, and one day I’ll get to those too.  But if you read nothing else, read this:

It’s all happening here and more is coming. So believe in yourself Knoxville, your creativity and your ideas will define the next generation of our great city.  And when we look back down from the top of that mountain, I believe we’ll look back at Startup Day as the key moment when we started celebrating the brilliant and creative minds of our entrepreneurs, and that is why Startup Day Matters.

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