Gig Tank 2013 comes to a crescendo Aug. 6, with development teams presenting products ready for market, a chat with the founder of Ethernet, dancers interacting from separate stages miles away—and more.
This summer's Gig Tank is a little more real than last year's edition. Last year, the Gig Tank asked entrepreneurs, "What could you do with Chattanooga's gig of bandwidth?" and gave the best idea $100,000.
"It was literally a pitch competition," says Sheldon Grizzle, founder and co-director of CO.LAB, which runs the Gig Tank. "Hopefully, one of those ideas was a business, or could become a business, but the focus was more on winning the competition than on building a business. This year, we felt like it was more important to create real businesses—still using the Gig—by the end of the program than to have awesome ideas presented from the stage."
So this year, the $100,000 prize is gone, but each of seven development team has a shot at $150,000 of venture capital investment. This year's teams are:
FwdHealth (Chattanooga) integrates wellness apps into one user interface.
HutGrip (Bulgaria) integrates manufacturing sensors to predict problems.
Mira (Princeton, NJ) provides a dynamically modified retail shopping display.
Sensevery (India, Chattanooga) monitors health needs for the elderly.
Sisasa (Michigan, Massachusetts) helps young adults reach their savings goals.
Tidbit (Caymans, Atlanta) publishes training content via mobile devices.
WeCounsel (Chattanooga) connects mental health professionals and clients online.
Grizzle says at least five out of the seven teams have accomplished the goal of having a real product in the hands of customers or pilot users by the end of the program. The foundation of the whole process is creating a "minimum viable product" and getting feedback.
"That whole rolling imperfection process is so key to getting a new business off the ground," says Grizzle. "You're never gonna have it right coming out of gate. You've got to get it in front of customers as fast as you can, learn as much as you can, iterate with the information you have, give it back to them. It's a great process."
Here is another indicator of success. After the 2012 summer Gig Tank, one of the two winning teams, Banyan, moved to Chattanooga from Florida in January 2013, and the other, Iron Gamer, stayed in Chattanooga rather than follow the lure of investment capital that is more plentiful elsewhere.
This year, according to Grizzle, even before the grand finale at least four out of seven teams are making plans to make Chattanooga their home base, showing that the Gig Tank can attract entrepreneurs to Chattanooga.
CO.LAB's challenge now will be integrating these temporary business people into the entrepreneurial community by finding mentoring and investor support, helping them access first customers here, and helping secure affordable housing for entrepreneurs that are "pre-revenue earners."
In the last few years, Chattanooga's renaissance has been sprouting some new, entrepreneurial branches. Complementing the large and highly celebrated industries that have replanted here—Volkswagen, Alstom, Wacker and Amazon—a host of startups have been putting out shoots with funny names like Woople, QuickCue and Supplyhog.
Like the downtown revitalization that preceded it, this fledgling entrepreneurial comeback didn't start by accident, but by cultivating an ecosystem that would support a targeted result. The Gig Tank emerged from this cultivation effort, alongside a pretty serious sense of urgency about growing companies, rather than just recruiting them. This entrepreneurial renaissance has many players, but it's easier to see the workings of the ecosystem by looking at a few key organizations.
CO.LAB: Stirring the Pot
"The culture of entrepreneurship wasn't here," five years ago, says Sheldon Grizzle of CO.LAB, largely because people in Chattanooga generally had a low tolerance for risk and little day-to-day exposure to entrepreneurs.
CO.LAB began in 2008 as Springboard, an entrepreneur training program of CreateHere. That first program proliferated into a host of activities that began branding itself as CO.LAB in 2010, incubated 15 months within CreateHere, then graduated to independent status when CreateHere ignited its scheduled "supernova" on Dec. 31, 2011. CO.LAB now occupies CreateHere's old storefront offices on Main Street.
Springboard (which still exists and has now trained about 700 entrepreneurs) was joined by a series of Peer Roundtables for leaders of more established high-growth companies. Representatives of foundations and nonprofits, together with entrepreneurs and investors, met to review applications from high-growth startup companies that wanted to tap new incentives for them to relocate to Main Street.
CO.LAB became the "pot stirrer," according to Grizzle, "the people in town who were constantly saying 'This is important, how can we help, who can we help,' then making the connections happen that enable these new companies to be more successful."
Since nothing says pot stirring like a party, CO.LAB held a public business-plan competition called Will This Float? in November 2010, but Grizzle was floored when 250 people showed up to watch a entrepreneurs give PowerPoint presentations. In 2011, 48HourLaunch was added, with teams competing to create a company in a weekend, and both have become annual events.
Gig Tank began last year and is the 800-pound gorilla of pot-stirring, bringing teams and individuals here for a summer accelerator program.
The companies that emerge from this vigorously churning pot seldom grow in a straight line. Instead they wander like vines from one program to another.
Don't Forget the Money
The Chattanooga Renaissance Fund angel venture capital fund was created in 2011 by investors who’d been involved in some of the pot stirring to invest in and mentor new startups. The Lamp Post Group began in 2010 as a venture incubator, offering venture funding, but also bringing its startups into a common office, and providing business guidance to take them from planning to startup and rapid growth.
Chamber: Digital & Physical
Although recruiting high flyers like VW is its most high-profile activity, the Chamber's 12-year-old “Spirit of Innovation” was the first community innovation award in the nation to recognize innovative companies and its INCubator—the third-largest business incubator in the country—does a lot to help both digital and manufacturing startups grow.
Enterprise Center: Tech Transfer
The Enterprise Center's technology transfer program has a different angle on growing companies. Year-round and at two annual events—a business-plan competition and a technology transfer conference—it plays matchmaker between entrepreneurs and technologies developed by national laboratories and federal research programs, especially the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.