By Ayumi Fukuda Bennett, founder of Startup Southerner

It’s hard to think about Knoxville without conjuring an image of the Sunsphere.

While some may simply see this structure as a relic of the city’s past, the reason for its existence in the first place is very much tied to what Knoxville has been and is about:  innovation.  Built by a local architectural firm, the Sunsphere was the theme structure for the 1982 World’s Fair, an event that was like attending the CES of that time. 11 million visitors were in Knoxville to see the numerous new products and artifacts at various countries’ pavilion spaces, but none caught more attention than this one homegrown product: a touchscreen developed by Elographics. This invention still makes several sites’ lists as one of the most significant inventions ever debuted at the World’s Fair.

But what may be even more impressive is that two years after the World’s Fair, Elographics was recognized by Inc. magazine as one of country’s 500 fastest growing companies. Scalability is a prized aspect of startups now, but East Tennessee has been practicing this for years.

Garnet Carter, a native of Sweetwater, Tennessee, became the first person to patent the game of mini-golf in 1927. Known then as ‘Tom Thumb Golf,’ Carter scaled up his patented course and was able to built thousands of courses within a few years. (Carter also was instrumental in the opening of Rock City, and the ‘See Rock City’ signage.)

What we also see with these scalable inventions from East Tennessee is that their disruptions in the market have durability.  For instance, has a garbage truck come by your home recently to pick up trash? Thank Knoxvillian George Dempster for that invention.

In 1935, his company created the Dempster-Dumpster, the first large-scale waste container that could be mechanically emptied into a garbage truck.  In 1937, Knoxville became known as the first ‘Dumpster City’ by purchasing the country’s first dumpster truck and several dumpsters. As the early adopters of this invention, the city was able to cut its spending on garbage collection. And other cities soon followed.

In a region that is holding its week-long celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship for the first time, the tradition itself of creating scalable, durable products has been part of Knoxville for generations. Institutions like Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee have had international recognition as well as global impact. But companies such as PYA have also had its startup beginnings in Knoxville. And with newer startups like Cirrus InsightsAvrio AnalyticsReviewBoxChildren’s Media Studio and Audiohand calling Knoxville home, that structure in the skyline may be the most appropriate symbol of the culture of innovation that continues to define East Tennessee.

In the coming weeks, we are excited to bring you a little insight into this area as we hope you make plans to attend Innov865 Week in September.


The Innov865 Alliance has partnered with Startup Southerner, who will bring you stories of innovation born in East Tennessee prior to #Innov865 Week, September 19-23.  This inclusive media platform explores the dynamics of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the South. From community-contributed posts to in-depth articles, it strives to make information about participating in the new economy accessible to everyone.