Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Spotlight: Tri-Cities, TN/VA

Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image

Photo Courtesy of Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image

One of the best kept secrets of the southeast United States is a region made up of Bristol, TN / Bristol, VA, Johnson City, TN, and Kingsport, TN. Known as the Tri-Cities, this unique area possesses some of the best resources of a major city, without the problems and hassles of a major metropolitan area.

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, the Tri-Cities is a Combined Statistical Area of more than 500,000 residents. All three of the principal cities appear on WalletHub’s 2019 list of the best small cities to start a business: Johnson City at 487th overall, Kingsport at 503rd and Bristol at 682nd. All three of the cities rank well in that list’s “Business Costs” category, with Johnson City also ranking 255th in the “Access to Resources” category. In addition, the area ranks highly in terms of cost of living, with the attributes of affordable housing and below-average utility, transportation and healthcare costs are shared by each of the communities across the Tri-Cities.

The region is also rich in both history and culture. Jonesborough, a bedroom community of the region, is Tennessee’s oldest town. Bristol has been recognized by Congress as “The Birthplace of Country Music”. The area is also the home of Davy Crockett, the “Lost State of Franklin” and the Bristol Motor Speedway. An area which continues its tradition of manufacturing with its solid base, is now in the process of developing a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Based on this activity, FundingSage has reviewed the resources that make up the Tri-Cities ecosystem.

 Entrepreneurial Meetups:

This networking group is an opportunity for local entrepreneurs to meet one another through monthly meetings.

Meetings of the SW VA/NE TN Business Meetup group are held in Abingdon, VA, but are open to entrepreneurs throughout the Tri-Cities region. Specifically, the aim of the group is to help its members grow their networks and make connections.

TriDev is a meetup group for those interested in software and web development. The group hosts monthly meetings, but they are currently online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Regular Entrepreneurial Events:

Straddling the state line, the Bristol Chamber of Commerce serves both Bristol, TN and Bristol, VA. The chamber hosts several regular events, including professional development workshops.

The Johnson City Chamber hosts a variety of regular events. Among those are a monthly membership breakfast, networking opportunities for women in business as well as annual meetings.

The Kingsport Chamber hosts several annual networking events in addition to an annual business awards ceremony hosted by a KOSBE, a business development program of the chamber.

 

Startup Competitions:

All members of the ETSU community can participate in ETSU Elevates. Applicants submit ideas for service projects focused on improving the lives of people in the Appalachians, then present to a live audience. After that, winners will be selected to receive $5,000 towards their project.

Since 2007, East Tennessee State University has hosted the iBucs Competition annually. The startup competition is open to all students and offers over $7,500 in cash prizes.

On the Virginia side of the border, entrepreneurs can compete in Washington County’s annual competition. The challenge boasts over $43,000 in prizes, in the form of cash as well as business services.

 

Co-working Space:

CoWork Bristol boasts a state-of-the-art workspace for entrepreneurs, businesses and nonprofits in addition to renting out a variety of meeting rooms and spaces.

Since 2009, Spark Plaza has been the Tri-Cities’ first co-working community. Located in downtown Johnson City, Spark provides high-speed internet and work space to local freelancers and entrepreneurs.

 

Maker spaces:

Located in Kingsport, Inventor Center is a maker space that offers potential members three plans to choose from. After that, all members have 24/7 access to the space and its equipment.

The Bristol Public Library in Virginia includes a resource known as the Jones Creativity Center. In addition to adult learning services, the center also provides a 3D printer and scanner as well as a small makerspace.

In Johnson City, Skillville Community Workshop provides tools and materials to members as well as offering classes for makers of all ages.

 

Incubators:

The goal of the ETSU Innovation Lab is assisting local small businesses to help them grow and succeed. The program is affiliated with the school, but is open to entrepreneurs from outside the university.

Located in Kingsport, the Holston Business Development Center boasts over 8,000 square feet of office space available. In addition, the organization provides business coaching and consulting services.

Mountain Harvest Kitchen is a food business incubator located in Unicoi. The company offers commercial kitchen space as well as classes and other support resources for food-based businesses.

The Kingsport Office of Small Business Development & Entrepreneurship (KOSBE) is a program formed by the Kingsport Chamber and the City of Kingsport. In addition to providing business development resources, KOSBE hosts an annual awards ceremony for area businesses and startups.

Small businesses located in Southwest Virginia can work with the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator, which offers support, guidance, office space in addition to other services to the startups that join their program.

Incubators vs. Accelerators: Which Best Fits Your Needs?

Accelerators:

AccelNow is an accelerator program that works with entrepreneurs throughout eight counties in Northeast Tennessee. Specifically, the organization provides feedback and support services to their members.

Located in Kingsport, Sync Space runs a number of accelerator programs for area startups. Specifically, Sync Space focuses on healthcare, technology and advanced manufacturing startups.

Seeking an accelerator which matches your needs? Check out our Global Accelerator Register.

Colleges / Universities:

In addition to a minor in entrepreneurship, ETSU also has an Entrepreneur Club to support entrepreneurial-minded students.

Milligan University’s School of Social Sciences & Education offers a minor in Social Innovation and Design. The program is not focused entirely on entrepreneurship, but it does include classes to help equip students with entrepreneurial knowledge and ability.

In addition to a certificate in entrepreneurship, students at Northeast State Community College can major in business with a concentration in small business management.

 

Angel Groups / VCs:Tri-Cities

The Angel Roundtable is a Tri-Cities-based angel investment network that invests primarily in startups located in the southeast United States, but is open to investing throughout the country.

Appalachian Investors Alliance is based down the road in Knoxville, TN, but serves the entire Appalachian region, including the Tri-Cities. Specifically, the organization works to connect entrepreneurs and investors throughout the region.

 

Entrepreneurial Newsletter Coverage:

The Business Journal of Tri-Cities Tennessee/Virginia offers monthly issues focusing on business news from around the region as well as regularly publishing stories online. Additionally, they also offer a free online newsletter.

FoundersForge is an organization that aims to support entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Tri-Cities region. The organization also offers a weekly newsletter with information on upcoming events and funding opportunities as well as startup success stories.

Teknovation is a web-based news service focusing on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship throughout East Tennessee.

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Tony Lettich

Tony Lettich has previous Business Analysis, Business Valuation, M&A, and Venture Capital experience and currently serves as the Managing Director of The Angel Roundtable and a Partner in Sheehan, Lettich M&A Advisory. He is also a co-founder of FundingSage, which provides valuable information, tools and resources to entrepreneurs seeking to launch and build startups.