While working with microbusiness founders through the SpringBoard program, the biggest barriers to successful launch emerged in the areas of customer-focused development and scalability. To meet this need, The Company Lab developed CO.STARTERS, a new curriculum taking the best of SpringBoard and combining it with proven startup methodologies for the high-growth community. Launched in Fall 2013 after several pilot classes and revisions, CO.STARTERS is now poised to help startup communities nationwide.
On the heels of the successful GIGTANK summer accelerator, The Company Lab formally launched a Regional Accelerator for local startups. The inaugural cohort of five teams with high-growth potential concepts participated in a 100-day program where they received coworking space, intensive mentoring, and preparation for pitching to investors.
The Company Lab kicked off its first official accelerator program in May through GIGTANK 2012. Eight entrepreneurial teams from across the U.S. moved to Chattanooga to participate in the experience, where they developed concepts ranging from mobile campus security to gaming applications. In August, Team Banyan won a $100,000 prize in front of a Demo Day audience of more than 400 people, and the Gig City received attention from investors, researchers, and leaders from around the world, who are interested in leveraging fiber to the home.
In cooperation with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC), The Company Lab launched a bi-monthly seminar series designed to continue to support and educate startups. The free lunch and evening sessions feature local entrepreneurs who share their business stories and tips that lead to success.
In 2010, Chattanooga became America’s first “Gig City” by completing a community-wide fiber network connecting more than 150,000 homes and businesses in a 600-square-mile area. As a cooperative effort to draw tech talent to the area, The Gig City announced the 2012 GIGTANK summer accelerator—an opportunity for startups to come and build next-generation business utilizing Chattanooga’s 1 gigabit-per-second Internet grid.
CreateHere’s five-year initiative underwent its dramatic supernova in December 2011, dissolving the organization. However, just as the luminous explosion of a supernova triggers the formation of new stars, CreateHere’s big bang was only the beginning for the exciting community initiatives it generated. Many of the programs live on today through the efforts of The Company Lab.
As a part of Governor Haslam’s Jobs4TN initiative, The Company Lab was chosen as Southeast Tennessee’s Regional Accelerator. At the same time, the nation’s first and only statewide accelerator network formed as a public-private partnership under the name Launch Tennessee.
Filling the last missing piece in Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, a group of Chattanooga business leaders launched a formalized angel capital fund aimed at encouraging local entrepreneurship and fueling economic growth.
The Company Lab launched by organizing Chattanooga’s first community-wide pitch competition, which celebrated the entrepreneurial community and connected the wider public to Chattanooga’s emerging startup scene. Rural entrepreneur Nathan Derrick took the top prize at the first Will This Float? with his “Amazon for the construction industry” concept, which is today known as the successful company SupplyHog.
After months of talking with successful entrepreneurs and looking at other models for supporting high-growth startups, certain themes began to emerge: the importance of mentorship, the need for access to capital at all stages of growth, and a demand for talented specialists. The Company Lab (CO.LAB) was launched to take CreateHere’s existing entrepreneurial programs and combine them with a mentorship-driven startup accelerator, enabling high-growth potential companies to determine the next steps for growth.
The pace of entrepreneurial development in the Chattanooga region needed acceleration. CreateHere Fellow Sheldon Grizzle led a business startup weekend to bring bright minds together for an intensive period of community-building, planning, incubation, and launching. The inaugural weekend startup event took place in conjunction with Global Entrepreneurship Week. Since then, 48Hour Launch has become an annual event and has expanded to other cities.
SpringBoard developed Peer Roundtables—a series of 12 monthly meetings for CEOs of businesses—to drive innovation, hone decision-making, and improve business performance. At each Peer Roundtable, a facilitator guided 10–12 local CEOs from different industries in discussing their experiences and insights in a confidential setting.
SpringBoard turned its attention to another group of promising entrepreneurs: high school students. The Youth Entrepreneurship Competition asked targeted questions to get students thinking about the creative economy in tangible ways, giving them tools to act on their ambitions.
InnovateHere was an incentive program designed to attract and retain promising ventures with strong prospects of growth to locate their headquarters on Main Street. The program was funded by the Lyndhurst foundation and provided up to $150,000 per company in forgivable loans. InnovateHere was the first organized vehicle for seed capital in the area and provided a forum for local business and community leaders to collaborate on building the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Business leaders recognized the need for a network of capital and mentors to encourage, support and sustain Chattanooga’s next wave of entrepreneurs. Seeds were planted for what would later become InnovateHere and the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund.
Chattanooga, though bursting with ideas and ambition, was notably lacking an entrepreneurial culture. Emerging entrepreneurs were frustrated by an inability to sustain and grow their ventures, and needed support to get projects off the ground and make them thrive. SpringBoard’s first class launched with 20 participants ranging from potters to furniture makers to hammered dulcimer players. To date, more than 1350 individuals have graduated the program, which became CO.STARTERS in 2013.
Chattanooga’s art scene had primarily focused on institutions, while individual creatives were not offered the same level of support. The MakeWork arts grant program, open to artists and artisans within a 50-mile radius of Chattanooga, stimulated the creative economy and helped retain and sustain local talent by giving them tools to grow. Since 2008, MakeWork has awarded more than $1,000,000 to 101 local artists and creatives.
Chattanooga was losing its local creatives to other cities, and needed to actively reengage in attracting and retaining talent while simultaneously rebuilding density in the urban core. Through the ArtsMove program, 30 working artists purchased properties in Chattanooga’s downtown, infusing over $4 million in residential sales into the city and also enriching it with cultural diversity and the spirit of innovation.
An increasingly vibrant Southside district was bursting with potential and needed an event to channel that energy and strengthen the neighborhood.
Today, the MAINx24 annual 14-hour festival–featuring food, music and culture–has become one of Chattanooga’s most celebrated local events, with 5,000+ annual participants and over 80 individual events packed onto Main Street every year.
Beginning in the 1980s, civic revival in Chattanooga was underway. But by the 2000s, some of this dynamic energy and innovative determination had dwindles. The city was leaking its talent to other cities once again.
In response, two inspired citizens–Helen Johnson and Josh McManus–started a bold initiative called CreateHere, a nonprofit project to infuse cultural and economic life back into the city of Chattanooga by supporting the arts and creative enterprises–or, more specifically, the people behind them.
One hundred years ago, Chattanooga was the entrepreneurial hub of the South. Located on the Tennessee River near several major Southern cities, it was an ideal place for businesses to launch and thrive. Yet in the 60s and 70s, Chattanooga’s reputation for enterprise faltered after a period of post-industrial decline left the former manufacturing city in search of a new identity.
(Photo courtesy Chattanooga Public Library Digital Collection. Used with permission.)