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Formerly ‘Startup Tri-Cities,’ nonprofit ‘FoundersForge’ hopes to grow local tech startups

David Floyd • Feb 2, 2020 at 6:09 PM

As part of an enhanced effort to serve tech entrepreneurs in Northeast Tennessee, a regional resource for startups has relaunched as a nonprofit under a new name.

During a kickoff at Spark Plaza on Jan. 30, Startup Tri-Cities announced it is rebranding under a 501(c)3 designation as “FoundersForge.”

“We believe these underdog entrepreneurs are a key piece to the success of our entire region and our existing tech startups are proving this to be true,” said David Nelson, director of FoundersForge. “With stronger support and connections to new opportunities, we feel we can add fuel to the fire and see our region’s tech ecosystem take off.”

Startup Tri-Cities began four years ago with its first Pitches and Pints event, a recurring competition that serves as an opportunity for local entrepreneurs to sell their ideas to a panel of judges for the chance to win prize money.

Nelson said organizers were expecting 20 to 30 people to show up to that first Pitches and Pints event. They ended up getting four times that number. Since then, Nelson said the organization has been continuing to host Pitches and Pints and other activities like workshops for local entrepreneurs.

In the past four years, Nelson has seen the region change: More downtown businesses are popping up and scaling, and interest in tech entrepreneurship is gradually growing.

Nelson said members of Startup Tri-Cities realized the organization could be focusing its efforts on fostering that local tech community.

“So we regrouped, rebuilt the board, became a 501(c)3 nonprofit all for the sake of focusing 100% on this one area that’s just ripe for amazing growth,” he said.

FoundersForge will continue to host events in its new form, and Nelson said the organization’s 501(c)3 status makes it easier for FoundersForge to accept funding. Leaders say they are also hoping to hire full-time staff members.

“We’re not trying to raise millions of dollars, but at the same time we’re trying to get all our events funded,” Nelson said.

The recent push to unify under a regional identity, the Appalachian Highlands, also inspired the organization’s name change.

The organization is currently gathering sponsors and acquiring funding for a new event for startups that Nelson called “the Manhattan Project for East Tennessee.” They’re planning to host the event over a weekend closer to the end of the year.

“We’re trying to bring all of the brightest minds together from the business world, the creative side and the software and technology side together to solve our region’s toughest problems,” Nelson said.

Jose Castillo, a member of the new non-profit’s board and the organization’s “Spicy Forge Master,” said the organization is also making an effort to identify all of the existing startups in the region so that FoundersForge can then connect those entrepreneurs to available resources.

“2020 is a big year,” Castillo said. “We really feel like the region is responsive and ready to entrepreneurship and startups to grow.”

The organization has established several long-term goals, which includes organizing one event with 1,000 people in attendance, having 10 successful startups in 10 years and 100 startups in the region in 10 years.

They also have four events planned in February: The TriDev Meetup at 6 p.m. Feb. 11 at Spark Plaza; The Tech Founders Meetup at 12 p.m. Feb. 13 at ActionVFX; The Entrepreneur Summit at 7:45 a.m. Feb. 20 at BrightRidge; Pitches and Pints at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at Spark Plaza.

Specifically, Mitch Miller, CEO of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said it could be worthwhile for economic leaders to partner with local entrepreneurs to work on the region’s outdoor recreation industry.

“We’ve got to focus on recruiting people here, and it’s beyond just people having an engineering job at a company,” he said.

In order for the region to be successful, Miller believes it’s going to take efforts like the one launched by FoundersForge.

“We need to find linkages where economic development can play into the private sector world and get entrepreneurs around the table and really just have a true plan of action,” he said.

Nelson said the region has a wealth of bright people, including engineers from Eastman and retirees who are looking for their next challenge.

“That’s an untapped resource,” he said. “People like to think entrepreneurs are just people in college in a basement coding away, but it’s really everyday people who find problems and want to solve them.”

“We already have that here, we just need to kick it into high gear,” he continued.

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