By Andy Meek
The mantra is “never stop starting.” The constituency it applies to is entrepreneurs in Memphis and those who come here flush with ideas and creativity. And for Memphis’ startup community – from the sixth floor of Start Co.’s 88 Union Ave. hive of activity to the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and points in between – that exhortation to “never stop” is as much a rallying cry as it is a marker highlighting one of the more dynamic and fledgling sectors of the city’s economy.
To hear Start Co. president Andre Fowlkes tell it, the startup ecosystem in Memphis is actually more critical to the health of the local economy than it might seem. The popular notion of the sector might conjure images of tech-savvy founders huddled around laptops and whiteboards, pizza boxes stacked high, sweating the details of an idea that might fizzle or turn out to have significant commercial potential.
But it’s much deeper than that, Fowlkes explains. Startups are especially important, he says, “in communities that have a pedigree like Memphis.”
“You had some big corporates that were the big job producers, but now they don’t produce jobs anymore,” he said. “Now, they’re trying to get more efficient.”
What the city does have, meanwhile, is an abundance of business accelerators that are recruiting entrepreneurs such as Josh Herwig and Esra Roan, the founders of medical startup SOMAVAC, and supplying them with mentors, seed funding , instructional programming and the help they need to refine their idea, as well as access to investors.
The startup founders, in turn, supply jobs, new products and services, and an extra edge to the local economy.
HERE’S A LOOK AT SOME OF WHAT MEMPHIS’ STARTUP ACCELERATOR PICTURE ENCOMPASSES:
• AgLaunch: An accelerator spearheaded by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture that works with agricultural tech startups.
• EPIcenter Logistics Innovation Accelerator: Sponsored by FedEx, this program focuses on helping brings startups to market that are focused on logistics products and technologies.
• ImagineU: A collaboration between seven Memphis colleges and universities focused on helping student teams bring ideas to fruition.
• NAWBO Memphis Accelerator Program: An accelerator operated by the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners that focuses on the needs of women entrepreneurs.
• Propel: A 12-week minority business accelerator run in a partnership between Start Co. and the city of Memphis Office of Business Diversity and Compliance. The focus is on programming, mentorship and resources to support and promote minority entrepreneurs.
• Seed Hatchery: A Start Co. accelerator focused on software and hardware as a service for enterprise customers.
• Sky High: A social impact-focused Start Co. accelerator designed to help startups build business models around addressing challenges in the Memphis area.
• Start MMT: A music industry-focused accelerator founded in conjunction with legendary songwriter David Porter.
• Upstart: A Start Co. accelerator focused on women-led tech startups
• ZeroTo510: Founded and housed at the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, this accelerator focuses on promoting medical technology innovation.
Allan Daisley, co-founder of local medical device startup accelerator ZeroTo510, singled out SOMAVAC as an example of how the startup ecosystem in Memphis is bearing fruit. The company – which went through ZeroTo510 in 2016 and has created a wearable, postsurgical drainage device that supports patient recovery – recently won the Delta Showcase at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.
“We’ve to date managed to mobilize over $12 million worth of investment funding into 24 companies that have gone through the (ZeroTo510) program,” Daisley told The Daily News. “For the past couple of years, we’ve also been recognized nationally as one of the top 25 accelerators in the country. So the story’s getting out.”
And though Memphis isn’t ever mentioned in the same place as, say, Silicon Valley, “still, we’re really building something special.”
How special? ZeroTo510 alone has been responsible for helping create 24 companies over the past five years. Fifteen of them are still viable and either in the market now or working toward their market launch, according to the program.
ZeroTo510 operates like a traditional accelerator in the city. It’s a boot camp-style affair, where startup founders hunker down for a focused, multiweek study of how to build a business and refine an idea; work closely with mentors; and use seed capital from the program to figure out how to commercialize their product, get their startup fully launched and woo investors for additional funding.
“Accelerators are good, because the numbers say most startups fail usually within a year,” Daisley said. “With accelerators, we try to change those numbers and maximize the potential for success. We surround entrepreneurs with good mentors; people who’ve been there and done that; specialists in the industry; legal folks who can help them avoid potholes and finally some investment that can really kickstart the business.
“With all those key components – the curriculum, mentorship and investment money – that comes together to maximize the probability the companies will succeed.”