Knoxville is a mid-sized city on the Tennessee River that is blossoming as an entrepreneurial hotspot in the Southeast United States.
Knoxville, TN, also known as K-Town and the Heart of the Valley, is the state’s third-largest city. It is also the home of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the University of Tennessee, which was formed in 1794 as Blount College. Knoxville is known as one of the gateways to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The city is located between the Great Smoky Mountains to the east and the Cumberland Plateau to the west. It’s also nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River, which is formed from the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers.
Knoxville began to show promise in 1855 when railroads were constructed in the more swamp-like areas. Specifically, in what has been termed the “Old City” since the 1980s, downtown Knoxville was home to a multitude of saloons. In that same era, the Old City was home to the city’s wholesale food district, peppered with several coffee and flour factories that eventually became famous. By 1900, the city held entrepreneurs from all over: Irish saloons, Greek restauranteur, some Italian confectioners, and several other groups from Eastern Europe and even Lithuania. The Heart of the Valley has been a constantly evolving entrepreneurial hotspot for more than 100 years.
In a 2020 ValuePenguin study performed to determine the best U.S. cities for small business, Knoxville ranked 170th overall and 69th in the “Economy” category. The city also frequently ranks as having one of the country’s lowest costs of living, an asset to local entrepreneurs. Based on this ranking, FundingSage has reviewed the resources that make up Knoxville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem:
Knox Makers, a local maker space, hosts weekly events that allow makers in the area to meet one another as well as showcase the projects they’ve been working on. This meetup is open to not only entrepreneurs, but engineers, artists, innovators, and even educators.
Launch Networking in Knoxville is a weekly opportunity for local business owners to trade referrals with one another and make professional connections. This group prides itself on a focus on individual referrals from businesses with a similar category.
The Knoxville Professional Women’s Networking Group is an opportunity specifically for women in business and entrepreneurship to meet one another and expand their networks. The group meets every month.
This group of over 800 networking investors encourages those of varying experience levels to join in their monthly networking opportunities.
The Knoxville Entrepreneurship Meetup is a monthly opportunity to network with fellow business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs. In this group, collaboration of varying kinds is encouraged: whether that be referrals, trading services, or assisting others in their business development.
Similar to Knoxville Professional Women’s Networking, Successful Women Marketing Together is a networking group designed specifically to support women in the world of business and entrepreneurship.
The Knoxville Toastmasters Meetup is an extension of Toastmasters International that is based in the Knoxville area. This is a nonprofit organization that helps to sharpen its members’ leadership and communication skills.
SCORE Knoxville – Small Business Mentoring and Improvement is a volunteer-operated group numbering over 600 members that provides workshop opportunities and free individual mentoring to small business owners.
Knoxville Entrepreneurs is a private social media platform with over 1,000 members there to network and to provide information for residents, visitors, and fellow entrepreneurs. Whether your a K-Town native or someone passing through, this group prides itself on providing information on the city and its surrounding area.
In the same fashion as the meetup Successful Women Marketing Together, Women in Entrepreneurship Knoxville is yet another social media networking opportunity for women with any and all forms of professional experience.
Another of many social media networking opportunities, the BSN gives its 1,000 members a platform to learn from and connect with other budding entrepreneurs.
The Knoxville Business Networking group has helped to connect over 1,400 business owners in the Knoxville area since 2015. The group remains consistently active with 50 or more posts monthly by its members.
This social media group provides students and fledgling entrepreneurs with numerous job opportunities. The group has been active since 2012 and has 2,000 members. Many professionals in this group provide regular links and information regarding job opportunities and conferences.
A group that uplifts professional women in the Knoxville area, Women Supporting Women encourages business owners to promote their business and opens up a dialogue for those looking to improve their trade.
Knoxville Marketing Minds, a social media resource group for marketing and communications professionals, offers startup advice, vendor referrals, and general advice to those looking to become a professional entrepreneur. This group is ideal for potential business owners looking for guidance from a more seasoned professional.
Entrepreneurial Events & Startup Competitions
B-Sides Knoxville is an annual conference focusing on technology and cybersecurity. Specifically, the program aims to create a relaxed and educational environment and provide the opportunity for attendees to make connections.
Since 2008, CodeStock has been an annual two-day event held in K-Town. The conference is designed to help educate and connect the technology community through 90+ sessions held between the two days.
Hosted by the Knoxville Chamber, the Endeavor Summit is an annual conference designed to support and celebrate young entrepreneurs and professionals in the area.
The Innov865 Alliance is an organization that hosts a variety of regular events related to entrepreneurship and small business. Since 2018, it’s also held Innov865 Week, a weeklong conference that includes a major pitch competition.
Every year, the Maker City Summit is held to support those interested in maker businesses through workshops, presentations from successful keynote speakers as well as networking opportunities. The annual event has doubled in size since 2017 with more than 900 makers.
The Pinnacle Business Awards are an annual black-tie awards ceremony and networking event honoring the area’s most successful businesses and startups. With awards focused on Business Excellence for both large and small businesses, the gala offers acknowledgment of excellence to a variety of demographics.
The Let Her Speak Women’s Summit is a nonprofit annual event that brings together Knoxville businesswomen and those who support them.
The University of Tennessee’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation hosts a handful of startup competitions open to students, with a grand total of over $40,000 in prizes available.
Every year, tech enthusiasts from the Greater Knoxville area can compete in the Knoxville City Hackathon. Competitors have 28 hours to work on their civic-minded tech project, with over $6,400 in cash prizes up for grabs.
The SEC Student Pitch Competition is not specific to the area but is open to all students at SEC colleges, including the University of Tennessee.
Every year, one day of Innov865 Week is Startup Day, a “Shark Tank”-style pitch competition between six area startups that offers up to $10,000 in cash prizes.
Organized by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, What’s The Big Idea? is a 48-hour business pitch competition. Winners earn enrollment into a local business incubator as well as up to $10,000 in reimbursement for business launch costs.
Co-working & Makerspaces:
Girl Boss Offices is a co-working space specifically designed for women in entrepreneurship. In addition to providing workspace, the company also aims to develop the entrepreneurship skills of its members.
LiquidSpace is a company that organizes office space available to rent in cities all around the country, as well as Knoxville.
Technology Cooperative is an organization that provides area children with access to technology and other resources. It’s also used as a co-working space during weekdays.
Regus is a private organization that offers a variety of rental packages to suit the needs of your business.
Easy Offices is a coworking space with a variety of rental options from meeting rooms, fully furnished office space, and business lounges near downtown Knoxville.
Located in the Cedar Bluff area, AlmaDiem Office and Salon Suites provides a creative and energetic atmosphere for positive-minded business owners.
The Sky City Initiative has dedicated its time and efforts to assist the launch of small businesses in the Blount County area. Its prime location and affordable office space make it an essential entrepreneurial hub.
The University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design runs the Fab Lab, a 20,000 square foot maker space located in a restored historic building in downtown Knoxville.
After joining Knox Makers, members have 24/7 access to space’s wide array of tools and small-scale manufacturing equipment as well as prototyping tools.
Undergraduate and graduate students at UT can use the MABE Maker Lab’s range of industrial technologies. These include 3D printers and scanners as well as CNC machines and more.
Incubators & Accelarators:
Just down the road from Knoxville, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory runs Innovation Crossroads. Every year, the lab picks top entrepreneurs from around the world to join their prestigious technology program
The University of Tennessee Research Park runs the Spark Innovation Center, a program that assists early-stage technology companies located in East Tennessee.
The University of Tennessee Research Foundation runs a business incubator that works specifically with promising young technology startups.
The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation runs a Business Accelerator program designed to support startups led by students.
The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center runs a variety of accelerator programs designed to support local startups regardless of the stage of development.
Colleges / Universities:
While Maryville College doesn’t offer a specific degree program in entrepreneurship, the school’s business program does include majors in international business and management.
Students at South College in Knoxville can earn a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a concentration in entrepreneurship. This program focuses on finance, management, marketing, and accounting.
The University of Tennessee’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation provides entrepreneurial students a variety of resources, both inside of the classroom and out. The Center’s goal is to provide students with an entrepreneurial culture to help build their skills through research and experiential learning opportunities.
LMU’s Knoxville campus may not have a concentrated entrepreneurship program, but they do offer a Masters in Business Management concentrating on operations and marketing management.
Roane State Community College has nine locations across Eastern Tennessee offering various degrees in business, business management, and economics. It is also home to a Tennessee Small Business Development Center and the Cumberland Business Incubator, an accredited member of the National Association of Small Business Development Centers.
Pellissippi was founded in 1974 and currently has 5 campuses across the Knox and Blount County areas. They offer an Associate of Applied Science Degree with a multitude of concentrations that include Business/Hospitality Management and Business Management.
Johnson University’s Tennessee campus is located in South Knoxville near the banks of the French Broad. The university is one of the religious roots and focus. They offer a Bachelors in Business Administration and a Masters of Business Administration.
Angel Groups / VCs:
Since 2018, the Appalachian Investors Alliance has invested in promising startups located in Knoxville and the greater Appalachian region. This establishment’s main goal is to reinvent the entrepreneurial landscape of the region while also celebrating its culture.
The Sheltowee Angel Network is a group of angel investors with locations in Nashville and Louisville, KY as well as Knoxville. Specifically, the group focuses on investing in science and technology startups. The SAN emphasizes the importance of due diligence and strategic partnerships.
Three Roots Capital is an organization that provides a wide array of funding opportunities to business owners and entrepreneurs as well as other financial services. Since its establishment, Three Roots has created and retained more than 1,000 jobs, developed over 280,000 square feet of real estate, and deployed approximately 57.8 million in capital.
Knoxville Angel Investors is an angel investment organization that has interests all over the state. With more than 150 companies and 5,318 investors involved, they have a vast cache of opportunities available. They even have a list of investors with details such as how many investments they have made and also lists their number of followers.
Since 2013, The Jump Fund has focused on improving the percentage of venture capital provided to women-led companies in the Southeast United States. Along with the state of Tennessee, The Jump Fund offers its services and opportunities to Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and several other southeastern states.
The TennesSeed Fund was founded by professionals with more than 18 years of investment experience that were looking to aid in the growing need for seed-stage capital. This organization does not have a specific industry focus due to an interest in maintaining the industrial variety. They maintain a unique opportunity platform by aiding both for-profit and non-profit ventures. It is also an extension of Three Roots, and other companies based in Tennessee.
Entrepreneurial Newsletter Coverage:
Among the many newsletters offered by the Knoxville News-Sentinel is Knox.biz, which sends subscribers important local business headlines every weekday.
Startup Southerner is a website that breaks down and analyzes business and tech news throughout the south. In addition, the website offers a newsletter.
Teknovation is a web-based news service focusing on technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship throughout East Tennessee.
Tennessee Business Daily covers business news from all around the state. It also offers a newsletter that brings the biggest news and updates right to subscribers’ inboxes.
Hypepotamus keeps those interested in entrepreneurship and business innovation informed with a newsletter subscription that is distributed via email, online advertising, or regular mail.
LaunchTN’s goal is to build the state of Tennessee into the most startup-friendly state in the nation. They are partnered with several entrepreneur organizations which include the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. Their newsletter showcases a multitude of business opportunities.
While this organization may be based in Nashville, Tennessee, it is a great source regarding the economic and developmental happenings all over the state; including, of course, Knoxville. They are also partnered with LaunchTN, TNEntertainment, and other organizations.
Another strong source of startup news, Startup Southerner offers a newsletter that focuses on startup stories and opportunities.
Interested in Ecosystem Spotlights of other cities in the southeast USA?
Are you familiar with the entrepreneurial ecosystem infrastructure in Knoxville not included in the article above? If so, let us know via a comment below and we will add it to the article.