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Tom Ballard still failing to retire from business and economic development
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Tom Ballard

KNOXVILLE's Tom Ballard is past the age most executive types exchange their business suits and frequent flier miles for some casual volunteering and a regular tee time.

But retiring does not come easily to the 70-year-old chief alliance officer for Pershing Yoakley & Associates (PYA). In behalf of PYA and its affiliates, he nurtures relationships with and often advocates for commercial, governmental and nonprofit entities.

He's retired a couple of times already -- first in 2004 from his job as VP for PR and governmental relations at the University of Tennessee, where he served 35 years, and then from his position as director of partnerships for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he served til joining PYA in 2012.

These days, Ballard says tries and frequently fails to work just 30 hours a week for PYA, while retaining the nine positions on various state and local boards listed at the end of this story, including his director-emeritus role with Launch Tennessee, officially Tennessee Technology Development Corporation.

He originally joined UT as director of alumni programs in 1969, and transitioned to its Institute for Public Service a few years later.

Cracker Barrell ready,
Ballard not so much

Full retirement? "I haven't quite gotten there yet," Ballard told Venture Tennessee.

Since then, his work has been weighted toward economic and business development, first focusing on traditional industrial partnerships, then shifting at ORNL toward support of innovation programs and advancement of tech start-ups.

That Ballard found his way into the world of start-ups and innovation from academe and service with a government contractor seems consistent with the way the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region, itself, has until recently sought its piece of the New Economy: Not so much from home-grown innovation, as by leveraging older institutions, whether it be UT, the national lab and the nearby Y-12 federal weapons plant, or the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Though PYA is his first purely private-sector job since his long-ago stints as a reporter with the then-Knoxville Journal and The Daily Times of nearby Maryville, Ballard has for decades been part of the process by which state and local actors seek to match local research with economic opportunity.

He has seen the rise and fall of several generations of initiatives aimed at creating a more vibrant and entrepreneurial community.

Ballard said he believes that pattern is changing, although in ways that might have surprised those who dubbed the highway between Alcoa and Oak Ridge the "Technology Valley Corridor" or those who launched the now-defunct Technology2020, or even those who helped channel hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into local start-ups through a handful of venture capital funds.

"I can't quantify empirically how much more is occurring today than five or six years ago," Ballard said. "Anecdotally, there is a lot more going on locally. There is much more entrepreneurship than there was five to six years ago."

For example, he said, the local entrepreneurial event Innov865, formerly known as Startup Day, grew into a weeklong conference with some 1400 attending last year, according to Ballard.

He said Knoxville not only has its fair share of software and app companies, but also has a growing presence in the materials space, with several start-ups from outside the region drawn to the resources at ORNL and UT, including Local Motors, a 3D car printing company, and LeMond Composites, founded by Tour de France winner Greg LeMond to produce carbon fiber composites.

According to Ballard, Knoxville serial entrepreneur Vig Sherrill is gaining traction with his latest start-up General Graphene; and, the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing and Innovation (IACMI), a federally backed partnership between UT and ORNL, has attracted private funding.

"There's no question companies are relocating here or adding capabilities here because of the technology assets here," Ballard said of his home region.

Yet, he said, "the challenge is still the one out there for start-ups in terms of the 'Valley of Death'," a reference to the point in the lives of many tech startups at which opportunities to secure outside capital seem to have evaporated.

Fortunately, there are now more resources available to address those challenges, said Ballard, citing as examples UT's Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship, the UT Research Foundation and the Launch Tennessee (TTDC) contract funding that helped create the Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center.

Ballard-the-realist also acknowledged that the impacts of those and other programs results of such initiatives are difficult to measure and likely don't represent a direct cause and effect in terms of tracking investment dollars to the business growth for which they were intended.

"Sometimes you invest in one thing and it leads to not exactly what you thought you were going to invest in... I think investments have produced more in the last five years than say the 10 years before that," said Ballard.

Ballard has probably earned the right to make such estimates, after decades of participation on boards of educational, entrepreneurial, economic development and funding organizations, during a career spent mainly with just three employers.

Shortly after he arrived at PYA, he started writing about local, state and regional tech start-up activity on a PYA blog, Teknovation.biz, for which he continues to post his pieces and aggregate news from elsewhere.

Rather than a pure newsgathering endeavor, Ballard made clear he views Teknovation as a champion advocating entrepreneurial activity in the region.

With that in mind, he acknowledged that at Teknovation "you're not going to find a skeptical view on the promise of a start-up or how it's going," he says. Upbeat promotion is important because "We need more people that are not afraid to fail, pick themselves up, dust themselves off and pursue it again."

And while Ballard may not have personally endured the rite of entrepreneurial failure, he certainly knows about staying in the game--something he intends to do for the foreseeable future.

"I've had three wonderful careers, wonderful opportunities," he said. "My goal is to continue as long as I can to give back to others in ways that I've had others give back to me and help me along the way."

Ballard's current service on boards of directors and related:

  • Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council
  • Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee
  • East Tennessee Economic Council
  • Launch Tennessee
  • UT President's Council
  • Chair, Board of Trustees of Pellissippi State Community College Foundation
  • Chair, Tennessee Tech University Research Foundation (Cookeville)
  • Steering committee, Innov865 Alliance
  • Advisory Board of T&T Scientific (liposome-production device maker)

Ballard has at times served as interim chair and/or vice chair for several of the abovementioned groups. Click for earlier VTC and VNC reports on Ballard. VTC

Larisa Brass is a freelance writer and social-media specialist living in the Knoxville area and is a former reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel and the Oak Ridger. Her Linkedin is here.

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