Much like the start-up companies he helps get off the ground, Eric Mathews is coming into his own — most recently as the newly appointed interim executive director of Emerge Memphis, a business and technology incubator that serves start-up companies in Memphis and the Mid-South.
Mathews has come a long way over the past 10 years. After graduating from Rhodes College in 2002 and a brief stint with the FedEx Institute of Technology, Mathews founded the start-up business accelerator, Launch Memphis, in 2007. (Launch Memphis has since become Launch Your City, which includes Launch Memphis, the Seed Hatchery, and Wolf River Angels.) We sat down to discuss what his new appointment means for Memphis' entrepreneurial ecosystem.
— Hannah Sayle
Flyer: Does your new position represent a merger of Launch Your City and Emerge Memphis?
Eric Mathews: It's not a merger, but it is definitely a collaboration. There's a synergy that the board at Emerge Memphis and my team feel can bring our two programs more intimately together. It's like a fence that has now been dissolved.
What was Launch Your City doing before this collaboration?
At Launch Your City, we've been focusing on people who have ideas before they have the resources or the sustainable revenue to be part of the incubator at Emerge Memphis.
So are you simply connecting the dots?
Basically, now it's just a continuum. We do discovery work at Launch Memphis. We do the delivery work with Seed Hatchery. We do the dollars work with the Wolf River Angels, and now we have the dwelling [of Emerge Memphis] as the fourth pillar in the continuum of support for our entrepreneurs.
What inspired the start of Launch Memphis?
We're developing all these great research products, but where are the tech start-ups? It's a statewide problem. We're in the top ten in the country as a state for research funding, but we're in the bottom 10 for commercialization. So we started chipping away at the infrastructure problems by starting Launch Memphis.
What were the infrastructure problems you saw?
When I first started, you had the incubator [at Emerge Memphis] and you had venture capital. In order to get to the incubator, you had to pay the rent. In order to get venture capital, you had to prove you didn't need the money. So if you were any stage below that, you were on your own. We said, let's flip the problem around and build the whole pipeline. Let's focus on having these great founders that do the initial work, and then they can get into the incubator.
So "discovery" is the first step at Launch Memphis, where an entrepreneur gets help honing an idea. What does the "delivery" phase at Seed Hatchery entail?
That's where you have to build real prototypes and get to dollar one. You have to figure out a strong business model that will enable you to raise money. Once we had the Seed Hatchery, we realized we need more risk capital in our market, so we built Wolf River Angels.
What does this do for Memphis Business?
It helps build a continuous culture and community. You have to build capacity at the early stages, and you have to have a lot of false starts and lessons learned as entrepreneurs. Once we have the capacity built, the start-ups move down the line. Then it will still take five to 10 years for them to have a liquidity event where they can actually become wealthy. Then they become the new mentors and angel investors in our ecosystem.
Where are we now in the development of that ecosystem?
We're building the enablers for entrepreneurship and removing all the obstacles. We've built the engine. Is it tuned perfectly? No. But now that we've got it built, we can start tuning it up and putting in more fuel, which is human capital and real capital.