Brock: Tennessee startups focus on automotive industry

Brock: Tennessee startups focus on automotive industry

August 12th, 2014 Charlie Brock in Business Diary

Charlie Brock

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

As an industry as old as Henry Ford and the Model T, auto manufacturing may not spring to top of mind in a discussion about entrepreneurship in this era of Google Glass and cyber innovation. But in Tennessee, auto manufacturing startups are on the rise and an increasingly important catalyst for our economic future.

The automotive industry is Tennessee's largest manufacturing industry, and it happens to be one of the most innovative and technologically advanced in the country. Tennessee is home to three original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) -- Nissan in Smyra, GM in Spring Hill and VW in Chattanooga -- and more than 1,000 parts suppliers that are creating cars and parts that are lighter, stronger and "smarter."

Given the vigor of Tennessee's auto industry and the accompanying innovative forces, we are going to see more automotive companies birthed from our state's accelerator network.

The autoXLR8R program, a Launch Tennessee supported automotive-focused accelerator located in Spring Hill, is playing an important role in connecting entrepreneurs with the automotive community and identifying new technologies that will benefit the industry.

After successfully navigating the rigorous 13-week boot camp, this year's crop of companies will be ready to pitch to investors today in Spring Hill and on Wednesdayt in Oak Ridge.

CEOs and founders of several promising young companies are nearly complete with the accelerator's mentor-driven program, which was designed to vet market potential of technologies, connect entrepreneurs with potential customers and ultimately position them for investment. The technologies in this year's class have the potential to impact how future vehicles are designed.

autoXLR8R is a nationally unique enterprise. It is why entrepreneurs like Dennis Wong, founder of Hong Kong's Cyberloop, may have a future in Tennessee. His company -- which is in autoXLR8R's current cohort -- has developed a software and hardware application to enable a car's onboard diagnostics port for safety, navigation and other smart features.

The key to success in this field is connections to the industry, and autoXLR8R companies have been given the opportunity to work with mentors from the OEMs and major suppliers from across the region. One company, for example, is working on an industrial application of their product with a major auto manufacturer and was able to test the product on the plant floor. This experience helped the founder determine what refinements to make to the product and the business model.

This year, autoXLR8R accepted several technologies from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Tennessee Research Foundation into the boot camp. autoXLR8R is vetting the market potential of a light-weight, non-petroleum-based biodegradable plastic developed at ORNL. The plastic, made from the complex polymer lignin, may be ideal for making lighter, stronger car components.

By leveraging and connecting the region's assets in research, entrepreneurship and automotive manufacturing expertise, we are growing an innovation ecosystem that will lead to increased investment and more high-tech jobs.

More than 100,000 Tennesseans work in automotive manufacturing. In 2013 alone, an additional 7,000 new jobs and $1.7 billion in planned investments were announced. Additionally, the recent announcement by Volkswagen that they will be adding a new vehicle to their production line in Chattanooga, while also adding a 200-person R&D center, is a huge boost to the state. The industry is on the upswing and poised for growth. Our goal in offering an automotive-focused accelerator program is to create more Tennessee-based companies and increase jobs within our state's communities. Tennessee is known for world-class automotive production. As we foster this innovation ecosystem, we add more value to manufacturers who do business here and give others a reason to call Tennessee home.

Chattanooga native Charlie Brock is CEO of Launch Tennessee (www.launchtn.org), a public-private partnership focused on supporting the development of high-growth companies in Tennessee.