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Tech industry talk in Northeast Tennessee focuses on start-ups

W. Kenneth Medley II • Mar 17, 2019 at 11:45 AM

When there’s talk about the Technology Industry in Northeast Tennessee, the conversation drifts toward entrepreneurship.

There are existing staples of older and established tech companies operating in the region, like Aerojet Rocketdyne, Siemens and Eastman, but the region isn’t as tech-heavy as larger metropolitan areas.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, there are 5,322 businesses in Johnson City and 203 information and professional, scientific and technical service companies.

Although technology-industry jobs in Johnson City are few, the income for those positions is at or above the median income.

A significant portion of the technology sector listed in Johnson City is in fact within the medical-tech realm. ETSU continues to be an innovator inside and outside the region. In addition to research conducted by faculty and students, the university operates an Innovation Lab, a collaborative community office space, off Market Street.

According to some, like David Nelson and John Cannon, ETSU does a great job training students for the technology sector. After students graduate, though, they leave the area to head for Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and even Las Vegas, which has a budding tech sector.

Cannon, who was brought to the this area by Texas Instruments decades ago, said when the company sold their local holdings to Siemens, it downsized, and Cannon was let go. Being a curious and enterprising electrical engineer, he began to work for himself.

Since then he has founded multiple companies, some, he says, successfully and some not so much. About two years ago, Cannon began researching cryptocurrency and co-founded Symply Data Centers, a company in Piney Flats, with Bobby Carr. The business sets up “Mining Rigs” (computers) and maintains them for a fee to “mine” cryptocurrency.

“It is a mining service that we offer,” Cannon said. “We mine the most profitable crypto currency available. What happens is, is that every time a person makes a transaction with cryptocurrency, that transaction has to be validated. Our rigs or our customers’ rigs, will validate that transaction, and in return they get access to new currency (0.33 per transaction validated, according to Symply Data Center’s website).”

Cryptocurrency is a digital asset used as money online. There are multiple currencies available, and the industry is expanding rapidly. Experts have continuously argued that this market is very volatile, and Cannon admitted that regulations have not kept up with innovation.

David Nelson is a computer programmer and entrepreneur who has made a home in Johnson City. Like Cannon, he has founded and co-founded businesses and continues to build onto the list of companies he is involved with. He co-founded a craft-beer-sharing application company called BrewFund, co-founded Startup Tri-Cities.

Nelson says that people have to realize that in today’s business climate, it does not matter what one does or where they do it, there will be a tech component. He gives examples of digital bookkeeping, digital sales and marketing, publishing and distributing media content and more. For individuals working in programming, design or other like professions, office space is not needed.

“Coming into (Johnson City), the only difference I noticed from the other places I had lived,” said Nelson, “is that there is a group of entrepreneurs that would all meet and get together regularly.”

Nelson says he began computer programming in the fifth grade and is now 34 years old. During this time he has seen an evolution from computer-based software to mobile applications since the advent of smartphones. This excites him, because of the ability for people to work where they are comfortable.

Spark Plaza is a community office space that houses some of the small businesses Nelson was involved in. Nelson said these companies, although small, perform at top levels within their respective industries.

“There are hidden companies like BlueZebra Sports,” Nelson said. “They do almost all the scheduling for the Big 10, Sun Belt Conference and a bunch of other basketball conferences all across the country.”

The first challenge for technology companies in Northeast Tennessee is capital funding, according to Nelson and Cannon. Although there are motivated people in the area to create and manage businesses, they do not have the financial means to build and grow them. All the while, talent pouring out of ETSU flows to other job pools in the U.S., according to Edwin Williams.

Williams is a programmer that created ZenHammer and helped co-found Startup Tri-Cities. He said that one can see the talent come out of ETSU and head to other areas. There is not enough enticement to keep them in the region and that is doing a disservice to the students and to the region.

Once local utility BrightRidge bringing a fiber-optic internet service online that will boost speeds of data exchange, tech workers will have infrastructure to support their work. Nelson and Cannon both said that the only items a programmer needs are a laptop, a comfy chair and strong internet connection.

“I bet not one person can tell you exactly how many start-ups are in Northeast Tennessee,” said Nelson. “It is because of the fact that now all you need is a computer and good internet.”

Cannon said he feels the infrastructure has been here; Nelson said he feels the fiber-optic service will help boost the region toward being a “tech hub.” He said those rows of programmers and engineers ticking away at keyboards could help churn out the region’s success.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article characterized David Nelson as a founder of Spark Plaza. Jose and Shannon Castillo are the business’ founders.

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