Q&A with Tech2020 CEO Kevin Kragenbrink

Kevin Kragenbrink served as the interim head of Tech2020 for nearly six months until being named permanently to the position of CEO last month. I sat down with Kevin to talk about his vision, as well as the challenges and opportunities ahead for the organization, which marks its 20th anniversary this year.

Carly – When you were first named interim, it was really not considered a longer term commitment. What changed your mind?

Kevin – I got into the process sort of helping identify what the organization could and should be doing for the future and helping to sort of define that with the board. It just got e0515_kclo_carly_KevinKragenbrinkxciting for me to see the opportunities that Tech2020 has and the things it could accomplish, I think, as part of the region’s entrepreneurial support system. My passion has always been helping business owners succeed and getting their businesses to where they want them, just as Tech2020 is so well positioned to do that. As we got a little further along in the process, I just said this is a lot more exciting than I expected it to be and a lot more in line with my passion than I expected.

What are some things you feel like you bring to the table?

At the front end of that, I think nearly 20 years of experience in entrepreneurial support as a consultant, as a coach, as a director of a center for entrepreneurship, as a business training systems creator and provider. All those elements of being part of entrepreneurial support, I think that’s a big part of it. I think a network of people that I know and have worked with and who I can call on to help us be successful is another big piece of what I bring. And then passion and energy. I’m really excited about it; I’m passionate about it. I think I can bring real energy to the position.

Obviously the organization has been around for 20 years now. You’ve had an opportunity to kind of dive in and take a look at, as you said, what could it be and what it should be. Can you talk a little bit about what initially you see as the role of the organization?

I can but I think I have to put that in a larger context. I believe this: that the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the small business development ecosystem in this part of Tennessee is growing and maturing and developing, I think, in some really important ways. You have in the last couple of years the emergence of KEC (Knoxville Entrepreneur Center) as an influential part of that process. You have a number of other players who have been in that process for a long time – the Small Business Development Center, Entrepreneurs of Knoxville, EO and private sector providers like Estrada Strategies, where I was for so long. So there’s been a lot of people in the system including Tech2020. But I think right now, we have a great opportunity to create a lot more collaborative effort. You’ve got new leadership at KEC, new leadership at Tech2020, strong leadership at some of those other locations as well and a lot of us working together to create a much better and more above the ground – not below the ground – above the ground collaboration and just doing things together. There’s a unique timing where we can really begin to see some great things regionwide because of those collaborative efforts. There’s more capacity, more technical skill, more knowledge base and more access to information than we’ve ever had before in the region and we’re doing it as a team. To me that’s one of the most important things that creates a foundation for the future.

Tech2020’s role in that will continue to be a focus on technology commercialization and technology startups. But added to that real services provided to existing technology and advanced manufacturing businesses at either the very early stage, prerevenue all the way through growth stage to where we’re working with businesses who are already in the revenue stage. They have money. They’re are making sales, but they need to figure out how to best grow that business and how to scale that business and how to make it go to the next level, which in some way is the skill set I bring most directly from my experience. That’s what I’ve done the last 20 years. So really being able to combine the existing base of expertise and experience in technology commercialization and add to that these other elements. And then wrapping around that, again, as part of the regional collaboration, a better chance of really creating some strong access to capital for entrepreneurs and growth stage businesses than we’ve ever had before. So a lot of pieces coming together at the same time.

But you really feel like the organization has a niche it sounds like.

I do if you think of the niche as technology and advanced manufacturing. That’s where I think we serve best, and I think we’re very complimentary to the other organizations in the region when we’re doing that. Some of the programs you’ve seen announcements about recently like Autoxlr8r and the larger program over that which will be Autovation, which we’re developing and going to launch in the fall, I think. The focus on technology outreach pieces that go with Autoxlr8r and our relationship with ORNL and UTRF (UT Research Foundation). All of those things create an environment where we really have strong opportunities in technology commercialization and developing advanced manufacturing. The RAMP, regional advanced manufacturing partnership program, all those are areas of emphasis that really touch businesses in this sector.

What’s the challenge for the organization? Just in my observation, it does seem like there is still a sort of divide about Tech2020 and has its time kind of come and passed. Is there a place for Tech2020?

You just named the challenge. It’s the perception. The biggest challenge we face on the front end of this process is the perception that I think twofold: One, I think there’s somewhat of a perception that Tech2020 serves Oak Ridge. It’s headquartered there, and it sort of feels that way sometimes, right. But the documents that created that organization and the mandate for it has always been regional. It’s got its headquarters in Oak Ridge and a building there, but it’s never been an Oak Ridge organization by mandate. It’s always been a regional organization, and we see it that way. And that’s one part of the perception to sort of overcome. Then there’s this perception that its time may have passed; that it doesn’t have a real role to play. I would actually carry that a little further, Carly. As I’ve traveled around I’ve discovered most people don’t even know it exists. In the business community in Knoxville as I talked to people, and I know a ton of people in Knoxville, and I talk to people and I tell them what I’m doing and they say, ‘What’s Tech2020?’ They’ve never heard of it. So I think maybe the biggest challenge is telling the story well. I’ll give you an example. I met today with a business owner who has a business in the Fairview Technology Center, been there a long time, and they’re actually just about to close their C-round of funding. The company has grown from a startup working with Tech2020 several years ago to the point where they’re going to be valued at about $100 million and nobody knows they’re there. We’re going to get to tell that story .. but there’s a huge success story that shouldn’t have waited this long to be told. And Tech2020 played a very significant role in that and it wasn’t 20 years ago. But that story isn’t being told. It’s as if Tech2020’s not been doing anything. There’s no history there,; there’s no success there. There are lots of successes there and that story has been, I think, not well told. So if there’s a real challenge at the start of the process, it’s telling the story.

There are probably two other challenges that I think are important. One is to do the things we do, we need to have the participation and the commitment of three kinds of people. We need entrepreneurs who are really interested in continuing their entrepreneurial adventure. What I mean by that is we need people who are willing to say, ‘I’ve built one business; I’ve been successful; I’ve sold that business or exited from it in some way and I’m looking for that next big adventure. We’ve got some people in our community who are like that. Vig Sherrill is a great example of that. We need more of those. And I believe two things about that. I believe they’re in our community, and I think they’re interested in doing projects, but they don’t know where those projects are. And oftentimes, they’re looking outside of Knoxville and outside the region to find those projects. We need to get their attention and let them know we’ve got projects they can work on. We can help them find those projects right here. There’s great technologies; there’s great opportunities right here. We need our entrepreneurs to be part of that process.

The next group we need to talk to is the business owners who are in those early and growth stage businesses who need to understand there are services available to help them get to that next place. The Autovation program is going to be very exciting when we do it because it will be focused on advanced manufacturing and automotive sectors. We’ll be able to talk to business owners who are Tier 1 and Tier 3 manufacturers who are really wanting to break into that supply chain or enhance their position in that supply chain; increase their volume or production, get better contracts, and we’ll be able to provide the right kind of technical assistance to them across the spectrum of the business to really get bigger and better and faster and stronger to increase their production, to increase their sales, increase their workforce, advance their technologies, all those things.

It’s the entrepreneurs and the business owners that we need to attract. And it’s also the funders, the investors. And not just investors, not just angels and venture investors but also the other elements of the funding networks. So the CDFI funds need to be more activated here and we’re working with Pathway Lending to bring more this way. The angel investment community needs to have a higher profile here. The venture investment community needs to have a better presence here. And so working on all three of those elements together is a major part of our challenge but I think we’re up to the challenge. I really think we’ve got the capacity and tools to bring those people together.

Listening to you talk it sounds like these are very fundamental things that need to happen. As an organization, how do you structurally achieve what you just talked about?

We’ve got a really good staff. One of the real advantages that we have is we’ve got a really good staff in place, so I’ve got a very strong entrepreneurship leader, educator, trainer in Shawn Carson. He’s just stellar at what he does. There’s nobody I can think of that’s better at helping an entrepreneur understand how to do things when it comes to putting together a funding plan or putting together a pitch plan or understanding the opportunity analysis piece. And so we’ve got a great guy there and I want Shawn focused on those things, running the accelerator programs and those sorts of things.

I’ve got a talented leader in the area of entrepreneurial and business finance and operations in David Snyder. I think he’s been underutilized. He’s been sort of locked away as our CFO and hasn’t had much client focus work to do. I’m changing that. He’s going to be refocused. He’s still going to be my CFO, but I’m going to put him in front of clients and help them with the entrepreneur and business finance piece and the operations piece. He’s got a great background. He’s going to be huge in that regard.

I’m going to bring my own skills into play. As a business coach, I’ve got a lot of background and history in terms of training and coaching and developing business leaders. And so I’m going to put my skills to work. In some ways it’s about taking the existing team and positioning them better, utilizing them.

But we’re also adding to the team. I’ve added Jack Sisk, a specialist from the automotive industry. He’s working on the Autoxlr8r and Autovation programs. I added Stephen Williams, who is a consultant from the Oak Ridge area and he’s working on the RAMP program full time, focused on the manufacturing partnership program. I’m going to be adding someone I hope in the next couple of weeks to focus more on technology commercialization and pairing technologies with entrepreneurs, which is a key part of that process. We don’t have anybody who is just focused on just that activity, how we pair the entrepreneurs with the technologies. So I’m going to be adding someone to take on that work.

It’s about building a solid, powerful team that really has the skillsets and capacity to make all these things come together.

How is Tech2020 funded?

Its history has been, Tech2020 has drawn its funds from several resources. There is some money that comes from ORNL. There is some money that comes from UT Research Foundation, both of those tied to the technology commercialization function. There has been in the past some sponsorship money and those sorts of things. And there has been in the past some venture development funds, money that has come from projects that Tech2020 has helped to start that has either become part owner of or wholly owned subsidiary. Digital Crossing was a wholly owned subsidiary for a long time and put out a lot of cash flow before they spun that out. Pathway Lending was at one time a wholly owned subsidiary of Tech2020 and provided cash until they spun that out. And then grants have been a big part of that funding stream as well. Our go forward perspective is we still hope to keep contracts with ORNL and UTRF and various technology partners. Those are things I think we do well. Those are contracts we’ve held for a long time and we hope to keep those obviously. They provide a base of funding at a very small level.

The long-term perspective is that we want to be able to build a set of services that is value-added and understood to have value that the entrepreneurs and business owners will pay for. So we’re building a fee-for-service model that allows us to go to the people we want to serve and say, ‘Listen we want to help you. There’s a lot of value we’re providing. It makes sense for us to have charges that are affordable and manageable to you but meaningful to us in terms of a long-term revenue stream.’  And we’ll continue to do some grant funding as well. Grants are very, very targeted and specific to what we do. It’s a mission focused grant that won’t distract us from what we do. And we’ll apply for those grants where appropriate. We have two or three grant applications in process right now, but they’re very mission focused. We’re not going down the direction of going after dollars because they’re dollars. We want dollars that really focus on our mission.

Has the board given you a directive in terms of what they’d like to see happen?

If there is a real focus right now, it’s a short term and a long term. The short term is obviously demonstrate economic viability. It just makes sense as you would for any organization. Show us the economics. Show us how the dollar works to make sure that we’re going to be successful economically. Institute the programs and process systems necessary to get us financially solid. That’s number one and that’s about clients; it’s about effective programming; it’s about ground-level success. I think we’re doing well with that.

Beyond that, I think they want me to promote and sustain a focused mission and vision. I think we have those things in place. I think we’ve built that over the last six months. They want to make sure it stays focused, that we don’t move in too many different directions. Lets focus on these things that we’re going to do well.

You talked about programming. Can you talk about some things that are in the pipeline?

We have a lot of things in the pipeline. This is brand new. I’m going to do that one personally. It will be  the first time I stood in front of a group as the CEO and done a presentation. We’re going to talk about the kinds of things entrepreneurs think, believe and do that causes them to be successful or not successful. We talk about overcoming some of the built-in obstacles as an entrepreneur and how you grow in stages of enterepreneur.

We’re also bringing up Jim Greenwood to do an SBIR workshop for researchers interested in applying for SBIRs and teach them how to do that. On June 2 we’re doing our spring even with UT opportunity analysis. In July our autoexlr8r kicks off .. we already have six or seven confirmed. We have applicants coming as far as Europe and Mexico. During late summer .. it’s still in the works .. a reverse pitch program. In the Fall, working with KEC, ORNL,  .. next startup day .. in association an opportunity to put some companies in front of investors ..

Autovation .. the autoxlr8r in X year .. there’s a need for something that goes beyond the startup auto manufacturing, the new technology in auto manufacturing. We wanted to do something that would let us address business development, business growth, process needs of the existing manufacturer. Autovation is a program that will allow us to do that existing business focus for startup or growth stage businesses in the automobile industry  .. we need to put something in place to help improve their systems, skill sets, business acumen.

Is there anything else you would like to add?


Just a point of emphasis. The most important thing we can do right now is tell the story that the entrepreneurial ecosystem here is alive and well. And the service providers who working here are working together. Because I’ve heard too many people around the state literally say they don’t see us working together. They see our environment as either unclear or in some cases overly competitive.

(KEC executive director) Jim Biggs and I have discussed this. I see us building a truly collaborative network of entrepreneurial service organizations that two years from now I think we’re going to be in a better position than we’ve ever been to support our entrepreneurs in every category, because I think we have the right people in the right leadership positions in all of those organizations to truly create a collaborative working environment

I think we’re well positioned to tell that story now in the best possible light.