Entrepreneur Jay Rogers may have selected Knoxville as the home of his innovative automotive company, but he has visions of global domination.
The maker of the world’s first 3D-printed car, Local Motors is much more than an additive manufacturing operation. It is a cutting-edge designer that seeks to transform the way people view transportation and everyday living.
In an interview, company founder and CEO Rogers expounded on his vision for Local Motors and the importance that a Knoxville location plays in his firm’s growth.
Why did you select Knoxville as the location for Local Motors?
ROGERS: We selected Knoxville to be the home of our next micro-factory because this community offers three main ingredients. The first is a great population that can support both sides of what we do — our customers and our co-creators — people who have a great interest in what we do. It is a willing population, with the University of Tennessee and other schools, and that creates a very robust ecosystem for supporting a Local Motors micro-factory.
Secondly, we look for a willing technology relationship that can be helpful for us in these early locations. We have that with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee and others. And we will announce another partner soon.
Thirdly, we found willing investment partners who can help us do the heavy lifting to get going. They wanted to support us. We found a willing nexus of stakeholders, including the chamber, here in Knoxville. A great support infrastructure is here.
How would you describe the business climate in East Tennessee?
ROGERS: East Tennessee has a history, a now and a future. It was traditionally poor. It had a real surge in identity around the creation of the national lab. It has attracted Regal Cinemas, Clayton Homes, TVA, Alcoa and Pilot Flying J. There is also a good ecosystem of small businesses. There is a strong culture of tourism, and Market Square is good. There is a can-do attitude. Plus, East Tennessee is a logistics hub.
It has some natural boundaries in terms of geography. There is an ever-growing network of can-do people. We are pursuing a lot more materials companies to come in and join us. Entrepreneurship is big in East Tennessee. Knoxville is located in the middle of Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville. There is a pull to want to come to Knoxville.
Work on autonomous vehicles is being done here as well. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the can-do spirit here can make that stuff real. They are focused on what they can be. I felt that from the mayors of Knoxville and Oak Ridge and the governor.
What do you like best about the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley workforce?
ROGERS: You can find great depth here. Material scientists, machinists and good mechanical engineers are all here. For hardware companies, there is a very strong legacy here. That is one of East Tennessee’s best assets.
What are your expansion plans for your business?
ROGERS: Our expansion plan is clear: 200 factory jobs will be added. We will tie in tightly with the lab at ORNL. We will open this year and be a very strong community actor. Knoxville will be known as the place that makes its own locally relevant vehicles with the highest technology.
What are the factors driving the growth of your company right now?
ROGERS: It is really driven by demand. We make what we can sell, as opposed to selling what we can make. Vehicle innovations for us will grow.
I look at incorporating people who currently don’t own a car. We look at technology development. The question is — how do we finance hardware innovation? We know how we finance software innovation. What we don’t know as a country is how do we finance hardware innovation. Vendors, demand and access to capital are our three biggest factors.
Our global community is the heart and soul of what we do.
What would you like business leaders from other states to know about the Knoxville area?
ROGERS: I want people to know that in all of the cities and countries I have lived, Knoxville is a place that is ready to do amazing things in hardware. All of this is happening in Knoxville right now. It may soon become America’s leading producer of carbon fiber. The future is pointing to Knoxville in hardware innovation.