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Gov. Lee samples major 2021 feats -- no entrepreneurial gains highlighted
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Governor Bill Lee

TENNESSEE Gov. Bill Lee recently published his sample of 38 of the state's "major" legislative accomplishments and government investments in 2021. The roundup included an expression of thanks for support from members of the General Assembly.

Particularly heading into Election Year 2022, amid persistent pandemic headwinds and natural disasters, the Governor's acknowledgment of help from legislators and his review of major budget allocations for healthcare, education, economic development, safety, foster-child services probably went down well with legislators, as well as with constituents who might have seen the list.

However, in the course of reviewing the Governor's list several times, it struck me that I did not recognize on the list a single "major" achievement anchored in native Tennessee technology, commercialization, venture and entrepreneurship.

Why? It seems unlikely the Governor and his list-making aides might have overlooked one or more "major" entrepreneurial gains within the state.

Instead, maybe entrepreneurial efforts didn't make the cut because there actually were no "major gains" -- i.e., notable improvements on the status quo that bettered the lives of large groups of Tennesseans and which were supported by state tax dollars -- on that front during 2021.

Some readers might exclaim, Surely! there have been tech-commercialization and entrepreneurial achievements in Tennessee that rival Gatlinburg being applauded as a top-ranked travel destination; or, The Smoky Mountain National Park getting a hat tip as the most-visited national park.

Both those items made Gov. Lee's highlights list, alongside really impactful events that were included, such as Ford Motor's extraordinary $5.6BN "Blue Oval" investment in West Tennessee.

Others might say the matters we're raising here are trivial in the face of challenges known and unknown that lie ahead.

They might be right -- IF, that is, innovation and entrepreneurship had not proven so powerfully disruptive and beneficial in national, state and global economies; and, IF the General Assembly and four consecutive Governors had not repeatedly affirmed the mission of an organization known as Launch Tennessee.

Launch Tennessee is an assumed name for Tennessee Technology Development Corporation (TTDC), a small nonprofit organization first backed in 1997 by the Tennessee General Assembly and then-Gov. Don Sundquist (R-Memphis).

It began operations in 1998, with a mission of expanding the roles of commercialized technology, entrepreneurship, corporate innovation, and private capital in expanding and technologically advancing the competitiveness of the Tennessee economy, and desirable job opportunities therein.

LaunchTN operates as a virtual subsidiary of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD), and its board is currently chaired by ECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe.

LaunchTN currently operates under Interim CEO Abby Trotter, who has for years played a similar role for a separate and independent nonprofit, Life Science Tennessee (fka Tennessee Biotechnology Association).

Today, Trotter told Venture Nashville that a full-time CEO for LaunchTN/TTDC is still projected to be selected and in-place during the current 1Q CY2022. Search coverage here.

Looking ahead to FY 2023 (beginning July 1, 2022), Trotter said the LaunchTN board of directors has authorized requesting $13MM in grant funding from the state, which would cover $7MM in matching grants for startup teams pursuing federal SBIR-STTR grants, plus $6MM in funding to cover both LaunchTN's direct operating expenses, as well as its grant awards to the state's network of regional Entrepreneur Centers and other ecosystem partners.

LaunchTN is not now, nor is it ever likely to be the "silver bullet" in entrepreneurship -- and, few would have it otherwise.

That said, as we haltingly emerge from an extraordinary social-economic trial, many government leaders, authors, educators, workers and business leaders are telling us that great leaps forward in a number of fields are at this time in history not only possible, but essential if we are to expand and make more resilient a U.S. economy in which opportunities are more equitably shared.

In more than a decade of covering Tennessee's entrepreneurial and commercialization pursuits, and LaunchTN's role therein, this reporter has never known a time at which engaged stakeholders have simultaneously been (a) more eager to build upon the state's recent economic momentum, growing entrepreneurship and industry recruitment success to take Tennessee higher in the ranks of innovative states; and, (b) less confident that Tennessee government and business will stop playing incremental "small ball" and take more aggressive steps to advance its innovation and entrepreneurship sector.

This state has been subject to statewide and substate regional economic-development and entrepreneurship assessments multiple times, particularly in the past 15 years.

The pivotal players have not changed much in the past decade, and many share the impression that, to borrow more sports metaphors, Tennessee and its agents are both checking our swing and punching beneath our weight.

The General Assembly convenes next week on January 11.

A few weeks later, Gov. Lee will address legislators and the people of Tennessee, when he delivers his last State of the State Address as our first-term Governor.

There will be a wide range of people and programs deserving of recognition in that speech, as well as another opportunity for the Governor to reinforce the case for greater unity in addressing both our challenges and opportunities.

Whether or not Tennessee's capacity for discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship deserves a berth on the heavily freighted State of the State address, this Winter of '22 seems like a good time for reflecting on what is -- on all fronts -- the best that we can do together.

VNC's related LaunchTN coverage. The Governor's Dec. 21 highlights list here. Other Gov. Lee coverage here. An earlier related report here. VNC

.last edited 0625 8 January 2021 typos corrected

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Tags: Bill Lee, Bob Rolfe, commercialization, economic development, entrepreneurship, Launch Tennessee, technology, Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, TTDC

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