LaunchTN: A Public-Private Venture for Volunteer State Entrepreneurs

Jun 26, 2014

The winners of a LaunchTN competition recently went on a tour of the state, meeting business executives from a mix of industries.

When government officials knocked on Charlie Brock’s door and asked him to head a public-private partnership aimed at creating jobs and fostering his state’s entrepreneurial economy, he had some initial reservations.

“It took about five months before I agreed to come and run Launch Tennessee,” says Brock, the chief executive and president of Launch Tennessee (LaunchTN), a public-private partnership tasked with fostering the state’s entrepreneurial economy. “I was really plugged into Chattanooga and I was running its summer accelerator program. Plus, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure about the whole public private partnership. I wasn’t sure of just how private it would be, and whether they would let LaunchTN operate that way, or whether it was really going to be more like a state agency.”

Though it took months of convincing, Brock ultimately decided to come on board, a decision, he says, that he’s never regretted. LaunchTN was born of a vision that Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN) had when he was elected to the state’s highest office in 2010. The organization aims to cultivate and promote Tennessee’s many startups, which are responsible for more than 65% of all new jobs. The governor and other administration officials dreamed up LaunchTN as a means of strategically promoting the state’s startups by offering training, funding opportunities, and mentorship programs, among other initiatives.

Brock has a lot of experience in the entrepreneurial economy. In fact, one of the reasons state officials were so intent on having him run LaunchTN is because of the major role he helped play in driving entrepreneurship in Chattanooga. Beginning in 1998, Brock helped found Foxmark Media, which he eventually helped grow into one of the largest mall advertising companies in the U.S. before selling it to an Australian company in 2006. The experience drove Brock to want to help other entrepreneurs and taught him what it takes to create a successful business, he says, adding that the process involves a lot more than simply having a good idea.

“The reason for me that it became kind of a personal mission is because I had a startup that I had co-founded in 1998, and I needed to raise three rounds of private capital … and I was able to do that,” Brock explains. “I started talking to entrepreneurs and I became an angel investor and then I realized how few doors they had to go knock on to raise money. It reinforced to me that when I was raising money for my company, in 1999 to 2003, I had places I could go. My family’s been in Chattanooga for 100 years. I’m fourth-generation. I went to the local school. It didn’t mean that people were going to write me a check, but it meant that I could get in to see them.”

Now as the head of LaunchTN, Brock helps entrepreneurs not only in Chattanooga but also across the state. The organization oversees nine unique geographic startup accelerators, each of which has access to potential funders and mentors. Though it’s state-funded and is subject to certain regulatory oversight, LaunchTN is run a lot like any other company, Brock stresses.

“Our core values are very much about being entrepreneurial and innovative and running it like a private company,” he says.  “Because that’s where my background is.”

Thus far, running LaunchTN like a private company has paid off. The organization has helped startups throughout the state get funding and, Brock says, has successfully connected them with established business players like FedEx and Scripps. Looking toward the future, Brock says LaunchTN is focused on promoting its successful startups and securing additional funding to ensure that more companies will have the same opportunities to succeed. 

“Teams that have come out of our accelerators over the past few years have raised more than $48 million,” he says. “We’re spending a lot of time right now to get more in-state financing as well as attract out-of-state capital.”

Brock is even more excited now about LaunchTN than he was nearly 18 months ago when he assumed his role at the organization. As he continues to push for Tennessee to become the preeminent center of job growth in the Southeast, he says that he’s increasingly confident that LaunchTN’s unique model could prove to be an example for other states. 

“I’m a big believer in collaboration—public-private, statewide, as well as regional,” he says. “That’s what Chattanooga has been built on over the past 25 years.”

And, if all goes according to plan, that’s exactly what Tennessee will be built on over the next 25 years, too. 

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