By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Today marks the kick-off of Knoxville’s first-ever week-long celebration of entrepreneurship – “Innov865 Week,” and there are a number of events – some public, others by invitation – that focus on topics critical to the continued growth and success of the local start-up community.

One of the topics that is usually at the top of almost every list is the matter of access to capital. While we clearly don’t have anywhere near the level of capital needed – from seed to growth stage and everything in between, that’s a refrain you will hear from any region, even Silicon Valley.

What is important, I believe, is the progress we’ve made in the past five years, punctuated by the public unveiling today of Three Roots Capital, the region’s newest institutional investor. It is working to aggregate multiple pools of capital along a continuum, ranging from early-stage to later-stage, including both equity and debt. Grady Vanderhoofven, a long-time player in the local access to capital movement, leads the Three Roots team.

One only needs to look back about 13 years to remember that the cupboard was literally bare. A local fund named the Venture Alliance had just failed, so there was a sour feeling among investors in this risk averse region. Fortunately, Tech 2020 and Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation partnered – that’s an important concept – to launch the $12.5 million Southern Appalachian Fund (SAF). Its focus was on making equity investments in low income areas in Southern Appalachia, hence the name, and Vanderhoofven was named Assistant Fund Manager.

Four years later, Meritus Ventures, a $36.5 million fund, was launched by the same team behind SAF. Both funds are not doing new deals, although they are making follow-on investments in their remaining portfolio companies, and they have realized multiple exits from both portfolios.

More recently, Angel Capital Group, which has chapters across the country, relocated its headquarters to Knoxville, and The Lighthouse Fund, a new angel initiative, has been launched. In addition, Meritus Capital partnered with the Kirchner Group to secure U.S. Department of Agriculture designation as a Rural Business Investment Company (RBIC), and Meritus Capital and Innova Memphis have joined together to stand-up the TennesSeed Fund. The latter is a proof-of-concept, evergreen pool of capital to get nascent technologies to a point where there is a prototype and investable business.

So, what does Three Roots add to the local ecosystem? Vanderhoofven believes it helps to fill a critical missing ingredient.

“The name that we chose for this new financial institution recognizes three critical needs of young and small businesses – capital, connections, and expertise,” he says. Vanderhoofven has been a member of the boards of directors of portfolio companies in both SAF and Meritus Ventures, and those roles, along with non-financial support provided to portfolio companies, are representative of the level of engagement that he visualizes with Three Roots.

“Capital alone is usually not the only help that a young company or small business needs,” he says. “Connections and expertise are just as important to ensure that the dollars invested produce the desired results.”

To help in that regard, Three Roots has engaged Shawn Carson, a long-time mentor and teacher in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. Vanderhoofven sees Carson as helping make sure the entrepreneurs in which Three Roots invests are as well-prepared as possible to raise capital and to make wise use of the dollars. This strategy is consistent with the philosophy that SAF and Meritus followed when they collectively provided approximately $4 million of technical and operational assistance to companies in their portfolios.

Three Roots is co-sponsoring an invitation-only roundtable later today where investors, both individual and institutional, will discuss ways to further grow the availability of capital in the region and the critical role access to capital plays in the region. The discussion is symbolic of what is occurring more and more in the greater Knoxville ecosystem. Investors are working with other investors to bring deals together. Organizations are working with other organizations to support entrepreneurs, as evidenced by “Innov865 Week.”

Have we reached all of our goals? No, we haven’t, but we’ve made good progress in the past 13 years on the access to capital front and in the past four years on advancing the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Three Roots Capital is an important addition to the community.

As David Bradshaw, a local banker and Chair of the Board of Directors of Three Roots says, “We need angel investors, venture funds, private equity funds, non-bank lenders, and banks all working in a continuum to support the creation and growth of companies.

(NOTE: You can read the official news release announcing Three Roots Capital here – three-roots-announcement.)

(Note: This article appeared previously on, a web-based service that was launched to spotlight and celebrate “all things” related to technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in East Tennessee.)