Anyone who’s spent time in Chattanooga or read about it in the news likely knows two main things about this city: we’re really into the outdoors, and we’re really into startups.

And no wonder – Chattanooga is surrounded by beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers, and trails. We also have an amazing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Put that all together and BAM – you’re bound to have some really fantastic ideas from passionate entrepreneurs about how to combine what they love most.

That’s why we picked Outdoor Recreation & Sustainability as the theme for our fifth annual Will This Float pitch competition. We wanted to give entrepreneurs a chance to pitch ideas that leverage two of our region’s greatest strengths. When we issued our call for applications last month, we were optimistic about the prospects. But the ideas that came through surpassed our expectations on multiple fronts.

It was tough selecting just 10 entrepreneurs to present, but each and every one of them wowed the standing room-only audience of 350 attendees at this year’s event. Before they took the stage, Jonathan Taplin from the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab helped kick off the evening with opening remarks. As a close observer of the Chattanooga area, Taplin commented on the region’s emergence as “an astonishing place for entrepreneurship” and credited our advanced broadband infrastructure with leveling the playing field for great ideas. It was the perfect preface for the pitches, which linked Chattanooga’s innovation culture to entrepreneurial opportunities in the natural world. In the process, we encountered new visions for our region that raised fun and interesting questions like:

– What if hospitals didn’t have to pour liquid medical waste down the drain?

– What if you could meet other young professionals by playing sports and drinking before the game, after the game…and DURING the game?

– What if you could brew coffee on the trail without carrying a heavy French press?

– What if you turned construction waste into construction materials?

– What if your home was affordable AND portable?

– What if you could work out at any gym, dance studio, tennis club, or trampoline park in town?

– What if you could introduce your children to a love of the outdoors with special adventure guidebooks?

– What if you could change your baby’s diaper in the car with ease?

– What if every time you played a fun game, a nonprofit got a much-needed donation?

– What if we made treehouses for adults?

The audience cheered on our contestants as they pitched their business concepts to a panel of judges and defended their ideas during the Q&A session. MayFly coffee brewed a cup of joe using their new QuickBrew system while they were pitching. Attendees raised a glass when Chattanooga Sports Leagues asked if they liked the idea of a facility that was part bar, part athletic complex. They devoured a mountain of nachos made by Dish T’ Pass while imagining themselves living in tiny homes on wheels and vacationing in the canopy of 100-year-old oak trees.

Collectively, this year’s pitches inspired a host of entirely new questions about their potential when combined – could you, say, make a tiny house from Wind River Custom Homes out of bricks from RamRocks’ recycled mining materials? What would it be like to use The Baby Flat to clean up a toddler after going on an adventure with a Your Outdoor Family guidebook? Or what if you could to donate to a nonprofit while playing a game…like one that involves dashing from a CrossFit box to a yoga studio using Amplify’s monthly fitness pass?

Once all the finalists finished presenting, the audience weighed in on their favorites ideas using Click Click Boom’s mobile vote-by-text service. Then, when the judges finished deliberating, we learned the winners for each prize category were:

The Baby Flat for Best General Business Idea, Chattanooga Sports Leagues for Best Outdoor/Sustainability Idea, and Innovasan Corporation for Best Idea Overall. Each of the prize packages included a combination of cash and business services to help the winners move their startups into the next stage of development.

And while the weather may have been wintry outside WTF 2014, those harsh conditions made the coziness of our venue on the 4th Floor of the Chattanooga Public Library all the more hospitable. Between the amazing camping-themed decor (complete with sleeping bags and faux camp fires!), the Chattanooga Whiskey cocktails, the s’mores bar, the heat our startups brought to their pitches, and the love the audience brought to our presenters, we definitely left with a case of the warm fuzzies after this year’s event.

We can’t wait to see what each of our finalists accomplish in the next year, and we hope you’re just as excited as we are to follow their progress.


 

Before we sign out, we want to thank the incredible partners and sponsors who made Will This Float 2014 such a wonderful success. Our special appreciation goes out to:

Outdoor/Sustainability Edition Title Sponsor

Footprint Foundation

Prize Sponsors

Baker Donelson // Chambliss Startup Group // Click Click Boom // green|spaces // Henderson, Hutcherson & McCullough // Huisman Law Firm

CO.LAB Sustaining Sponsors 

Benwood Foundation // BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee // Chambliss Startup Group // Launch Tennessee // Lyndhurst Foundation // NovaCopy

CO.LAB Featured Sponsors 

Decosimo // First Tennessee // Henderson, Hutcherson & McCullough // Miller & Martin // Lamp Post Group


We also want to thank our five JUDGES for volunteering their time and know-how to our event:

Lisa Flint, Footprint Foundation

Thomas Lee, Goodhew

Mark McKnight, Rock/Creek Outfitters + RootsRated

Conner Scott, Granola

Alexis Willis, Natural Beautiful Me


 

And last but not least, we were incredibly lucky to have James Chapman – founder of Change ‘N’ Go & EIR at Causeway – as our emcee. Even though he knocked over all our awards during the event, we forgive him because he kept all of us VERY entertained and informed throughout the evening. James Chapman, we salute you.

To check out reactions from Will This Float? 2014, hop on Twitter and search #wtfCHA.