Nashville’s missing ingredient

What does Nashville need to truly become a tech power?

Depends on whom you ask.

Some say more venture capital would do the trick. Some say a big successful exit of a homegrown tech firm is the secret sauce. Others believe Music City needs a local office of a major tech company (think Google or Apple).

But Michael Burcham, head of Nashville’s Entrepreneur Center — a driving force in the city’s emerging tech scene — says one thing won’t do it. In Burcham’s view, you’ll never need just one thing to grow a tech ecosystem; you need five.
A thriving technology ecosystem requires talented people, basic technology infrastructure, a tolerant community, business leaders to serve as coaches and mentors and a flow of capital to fund new businesses, Burcham said. For the past few years, Nashville has invested heavily in fostering talent, adding necessary infrastructure and courting business-leader support, Burcham said. And, politically, the city has always been a “blue island in a big red ocean” that’s more tolerant of diverse ideas than its surroundings, he said.
But while those four buckets overflow, Burcham said, the fifth will, of course, look low in comparison.
“So the one piece that’s the lowest right now is the capital,” Burcham said. “It’s not necessarily been the lowest at any other point, but it’s the lowest right now.”

Even as entrepreneurs and others bemoan the scarcity of capital, Burcham said the tides are turning. Crestlight Venture Productions, a California venture services firm, recently announced plans to open a partner office here. Brentwood Capital Advisors, a Franklin-based investment-banking firm, has brought on a new vice president with California experience to bolster its tech cred in advance of arriving venture capital.
“We’ve got new West Coast capital showing up here and opening some partner offices that weren’t here before,” Burcham said. “That’s not happening because they’re bored. That’s happening because they say, ‘There’s some really new hip investments in Nashville, and we want to be part of it.’”


Why Nashville’s tech scene is the dark horse

Spend a few days at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, and it’s easy to get swept up in the optimism and momentum of the city’s fledgling tech scene.

Spend four days on a bus trip to Texas, though, and you’ll start to get a sense of the mountain left to climb.

Each time the coordinators of this spring’s StartupBus competition in San Antonio announced a new round of advancing teams, there was a hint of incredulity in their voices when they called out On The List, a representative from Nashville.

“Whenever they announced our name … I think they were kind of surprised,” said Grayson Carroll, one of five Nashville natives at the helm of the startup, which uses corporate sponsorships to enhance concert experiences.

But the team’s name kept being announced, as On The List advanced from an initial group of 40 startups from across North America to the six-team final round.

“There wasn’t a lot of expectation of us doing well in the competition, because no one outside the region really understands the caliber of the startups that are in Nashville,” said Steve Repetti, co-founder of investment group Crunchfire Technologies, a recent Nashville transplant and the conductor of Nashville’s first StartupBus. “That single event put Nashville on the map of a lot of important folks that didn’t have a clue.”

Although it didn’t take home the grand prize, On The List is one of a handful of recent success stories for Nashville companies at out-of-state startup competitions and demo days. San Francisco online ticketing company Eventbriterecently chose Nashville over dozens of other potential cities — including tech hotspot Austin, Texas — as the home of its second office. And just last month, Silicon Valley venture firm Crestlight Venture Productions announced it will open a Southeastern partner office in Nashville.

Then there’s Google’s growing interest in Music City, as Nashville now serves as one of the California-based giant’s eight Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hubs and was recently named one of 40 cities to split $1 million as part of a Google program aimed at fostering female entrepreneurship. The search giant’s interest may expand further if Nashville is selected for Google Fiber gigabit Internet. At the very least, that potential has driven AT&T to consider the metropolitan area for its own ultra high-speed service.