Nashville may be known as the country music capital, but a slew of ethical fashion brands, Pinewood Social, and an $84 billion health care economy are transforming its reputation as an emerging tech hub.
The creative class clusters in East Nashville, where WeWork and Launch Pad recently planted stakes. The Idea Hatchery incubates niche retailers; and a former church is now home to digital agency SnapShot Interactive.
Local tech darling Emma, recently acquired by Campaign Monitor, an Insight Venture Partners portfolio company, was an early tenant in two of the six revamped red-brick trolley barns in the Rolling Mill Hill neighborhood. Other businesses, including a host of nonprofits and architecture firms, followed.
Wedgewood-Houston remains a relative bargain as its warehouses and factories--many colonized by artists--are redeveloped for office and residential use. This industrial neighborhood in transition includes some of the city's coolest co-working spaces and two craft distilleries--Corsair and Nashville Craft--along with Fort Houston, a large maker space.
Who to Know
Vic Gatto, an entrepreneur-turned-VC, and Marcus Whitney, a hip-hop-musician-turned-self-taught-software-developer-turned-entrepreneur, hatched the seed-stage health care fund Jumpstart out of a shared frustration with traditional venture capital. They met in 2008 at the geek-out conference BarCamp, which Whitney co-founded. More recently, the pair launched Health: Further, a community for health care innovators; and Whitney founded the Unlikely Company, which supports entrepreneurs from underserved populations.
Founder of artist development company AmpliFly Entertainment Stephen Linn joined the Nashville Entrepreneur Center's music-tech initiative--Project Music--as an adviser. Linn meets with entrepreneurs for weekly mentoring sessions on everything from acquiring rights to getting artists paid, and connects them with Project Music's extensive adviser network, which includes Joe Galante, the former chairman of Sony Music Nashville. Linn also sits on advisory boards for half a dozen startups, among them EyeBuy, which lets you buy stuff seen in music videos and TV shows.
A native Nashvillian known to wake at 4 a.m. to garden on her farm in a nightgown and Hunter boots, Van Tucker is the CEO of Nashville Fashion Alliance, which aims to build an ecosystem for the largest concentration per capita of fashion companies outside Los Angeles and New York City. Ethical brands Nisolo, co-founded by Patrick Woodyard and Zoe Cleary, and Able are among the more than 400 members who look to Tucker's organization for counseling and connections. Tucker, who helped launch Bank of America's entertainment industry division, now acts as Nashville's global fashion industry ambassador.
For 50 years, Nashville has been a health care powerhouse, resulting in a VC scene dominated by health and health-tech firms. Access to capital for other industries can be challenging, says Brian Moyer, CEO of the Nashville Technology Council, who struggled to raise money for his own tech startup while an acquaintance who started a company to acquire hospitals quickly raised $300 million.
Health care and music industry dominance also stifles the ability to find mentors and talent in other fields. Some skill sets, such as that of a cloud engineer, are scarce but in high demand. "If you want to start an e-commerce business here, you will be a pioneer," says Jumpstart's Whitney.
Recently Funded Startups
$106 million: Digital Reasoning (cognitive computing)
$60 million: Confirmation.com (audit confirmation software)
$54 million: Aspire Health (palliative care provider)
Recent Big Exits
$460 million: Health care services company Intermedix to R1 (2018)
$34 million: Mobile health records company Entrada to Quality Systems (2017)
$20 million: IT consulting firm Zycron to BG Staffing (2017)
Where to Talk Shop
Conduct your first interview with coffee at 7 a.m. and finish your last sales meeting over cocktails as late as 1 a.m. at Pinewood Social. The restaurant-coffee-shop-craft-bar-workspace's round tables are big enough for meetings, and semiprivate rooms are ideal for poaching talent. Then again, there's always bowling--and swimming.
Across the street from Belmont University, students hatch startups at Bongo Java, known as Nashville's oldest coffeehouse.
August marks the debut of Nashville Is, a weeklong festival that combines health care and tech startup events with an annual music series. Founders can enter pitch competitions or speed-date with investors.
Companies to Watch
Salesforce is an investor in Crystal, which analyzes every crumb of a person's public digital presence to produce a personality profile for recruiters and salespeople. Software engineer Drew D'Agostino originally created Crystal for his own use.
When James Peisker and Chris Carter couldn't find quality cuts for their catering business, they launched high-end meat purveyor Porter Road Butcher. The local favorite just took VC money to launch its national e-commerce business.
Nashville Entrepreneur Center's classes and accelerator-like programs include two for the city's hottest verticals--health care and music.
The maker spaces and education programs at Wond'ry serve the Vanderbilt community and other creatives and aspiring entrepreneurs. Recent ventures started there include Leaf, which uses blockchain to help refugees move their money, and a VR company fighting opioid addiction.
Serial entrepreneur John Wark launched Nashville Software School to pump developer talent into local firms. The nonprofit provides "opportunity tuition" for half its students, which includes deferral of most fees until after they are employed. Its unusually diverse student body includes veterans, waiters, and musicians.