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Reporter's notebook: TNInvestco 2.0
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TNINVESTCO is the subject of this reporter's notebook entry, which is offered as a glimpse into the mindset that partly shapes our coverage of the issue.

The Tennessee TNInvestco program is intended to drive jobs- and income-creation, spark business innovation, and contribute to the livelihoods of families and businesses, as well as ultimately contributing to the responsible operation of state and local governments.

TNInvestco, a State of Tennessee capital-formation and economic-development program, was legislated into life in 2009 and its participating funds began investing in 2010. The official title of enabling legislation signed into law by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen: Tennessee Small Business Investment Company Credit Act. It received bipartisan support in the General Assembly, having been shepherded chiefly by State Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) and State Rep. Charles Sargent (R-Franklin), who had earlier introduced to a similar concept by specialized venture-capital firms and their allies.

The TNInvestco program allowed owners of 10 approved firms to quickly raise a net of about $14 million each, and during 2010-2013 those funds committed capital to a reported 132 businesses. Annual reports here. The entire program was capitalized by allocating a total $200MM in insurance premium tax credits among the 10 TNInvestcos, which were authorized to sell or place those credits on favorable terms with insurance companies that exercised the option.

Little wonder that more than 60 interested firms attended one of the first briefings on qualifying to compete for TNInvestco funds. And, little wonder there was disappointment -- and one related lawsuit -- among the 15 or so firms that were certified to compete, but which did not win allocations under the program.

The final story on TNInvestco has not yet been written. As anticipated from the outset, nearly five years after its inception no formal verdict has been rendered regarding whether or not the program has thus far been successful.

The Tennessee Comptroller has on more than one occasion reported flaws in the administration of the program, as shown by this 2012 VNC story. And, as reported by The Times-Free Press, the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee has more than once stated its opposition to the existence of TNInvestco and the Center's commitment to fighting additional TNInvestco commitments by the state.

There is also wide recognition that the program has produced fewer high-paying jobs than some outside the process had hoped; and, the program is still viewed by some as flawed in terms of design, opportunity costs, execution or in distribution of benefits. Many venture-capital pro's say tossing-in short-term jobs-creation was always misguided, but that was seldom publicly uttered, on the front-end.

Too, some insist the funds' managers have been blessed with "windfalls," while the program has thus far produced inordinately low involvement by entrepreneurs who are members of African-American or other minority segments of our communities, as well as by Rural Tennesseans and by entrepreneurs in East Tennessee, which had no winning entry.

Yet, having reported on TNInvestco continually since early 2009, it seems to this reporter that TNInvestco stakeholders -- including, but not limited to people with direct economic interests and knowledge of the inner workings of the program -- generally view it as having somehow helped to "move the needle" for the state's entire economy.

Yes, public comment on TNInvestco is muted. Subtle praise for the program is often inserted into discussions of other matters, buried in press releases, or worked softly into PR and public affairs encounters. Critics' views are seldom refuted directly by the program's sponsors, advocates and administrators.

When they speak freely, usually in private, advocates of a second TNInvestco round often assert that the program has polished the state's entrepreneurial reputation and perhaps its business climate; has attracted multiples of privately funded co-investment; has bolstered existing and, marginally, some new venture-capital players; has created new and/or different opportunities for Angel investors; has produced some potentially ground-breaking commercial products and services; has helped Tennessee investors and operators, alike, create some additional jobs and attract talented professionals; and, has further stirred the passions that roil the souls of intrepid and-or irrational men and women who would create new and possibly imaginative businesses, in pursuit of fulfillment, wealth and, often, opportunities to improve the quality of life within their communities.

It seems beyond doubt that individual Citizens, Policy-makers, Educators, Journalists and others could do a better job evaluating and reporting or acting upon these and related matters, if government and TNInvestco executives were now to choose to go beyond the letter of the basic reporting laws governing the program, by committing now to further timely improvement and documentation of TNInvestco data and analyses, including portfolio successes and failures, and lessons learned.

Such transparency and educational outreach could serve to educate all stakeholders, including information-seekers and activists among the general public. It could also go a long way toward addressing the "parochial" mindset that economic-development consultants warned they had spotted in some quarters in Tennessee as recently as 2006, and which they cited as tending to impede growth, development and innovation within the state.

A well-run TNInvestco 2.0 process could be a credit to all involved, whatever the outcome.

The TNInvestco program is administered by Gov. Bill Haslam's Cabinet-level Commissioner of Economic and Community Development (ECD), Bill Hagerty, who is certainly qualified to run the assessment personally; or, who could opt to put responsibility for a thorough nonpartisan review and dissemination of the program in the hands of LaunchTN. LaunchTN is formally known as Tennessee Technology Development Corporation (TTCD), a nonprofit public-private partnership that has been relied upon by three successive governors. Hagerty chairs the board of LaunchTN, which is led by CEO Charlie Brock.

Or, among numerous other options, perhaps an independent financial analyst, economist or other advisers within or beyond the state could take-on the task. This might be preferred by Hagerty and Brock, given that the ECD Commissioner Hagerty was prior to his Cabinet appointment briefly associated with one of the TNInvestco funds, from which he promptly disassociated himself prior to taking his current Cabinet post; and, given LaunchTN's Brock's prior long-standing role as investor and entrepreneur, a role to which he might reasonably be expected to return, at some point.

In addition, the process might be improved by bringing into the policy discussion those who shaped the initial program during the Administration of former Gov. Bredesen, as well, of course, as the program's current and former detractors. This could lead to an outcome that is a source of pride, for all.

Journalists and others can probably rely on getting timely critique and commentary and occasional analysis from such actors as Beacon Center, where views are now well established on grounds of philosophy and on their reading of the socio-economics of such things.

It also seems some practical matters should also be addressed: Data published on the State's TNInvestco page is potentially valuable, but not easily interpreted in depth by those without continual access to transactions, regulatory filings, and information shielded by nondisclosure agreements. Perhaps assigning TNInvestco-related communications and outreach to LaunchTN, or another party, would result in dedicated staff being temporarily assigned to improve the situation.

A TNInvestco executive recently said that he and his peers view TNInvestco as having increased Tennessee's stature on the nation's entrepreneurial map, and his firm would definitely participate in a second round, if there is such an opportunity. In low-key fashion, he said, members of the de facto consortium of TNInvestco firms are working to get that message out, as opportunities arise.

Who, exactly, is to say whether all of this is good or bad? Politics seems likely to produce a verdict in the matter, sometime after Election Day 2014, spelling life or death for the program. Perhaps, as some say, state government wandered too casually into this business. But, how will we know?

It seems likely that broader awareness and understanding of TNInvestco and the economic issues surrounding it would improve the outcome, whichever way the verdict falls, and thereby set the stage for evermore mature decisions regarding innovations aimed at serving Tennesseans.

Meanwhile, we and other professional journalists will continue to make our best effort to cover in a balanced manner these and related matters.

Will you share your views on this subject? Please write me at milt@venturenashville.com. - Milt Capps

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Tags: Charles Sargent, Doug Overbey, entrepreneurship, Gov. Bill Haslam, Gov. Phil Bredesen, insurance, revenue, startups, taxes, Tennessee Small Business Investment Credit Company, TNInvestco, venture capital

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