Cropp, EC lead Chattanooga and Hamilton County tech-based economic development initiatives
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
J. Wayne Cropp has devoted the past almost six years to heading The Enterprise Center (EC), an organization responsible for leading the City of Chattanooga’s and Hamilton County’s technology-based economic development initiatives.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the President and Chief Executive Officer reviewed EC’s evolution in a community regularly cited for its innovative initiatives, the most recent being the “Gig City” activity that was spotlighted by teknovation.biz on March 2.
“The biggest change is a new focus on technology-based economic development and the addition of a serious technology transfer initiative,” Cropp said. “Previously, we focused on our convener role, our Renewal Community program, and being a proponent of high speed rail, all of which are still important to us today.”
He cites SecureWaters, Inc., a licensee of technology from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), as a good example of the EC’s technology transfer efforts. EC facilitated initial interactions with ORNL that resulted in SecureWaters signing a license for the lab’s AquaSentinel technology that was developed to monitor the safety of water supplies.
“They are truly a start-up company,” Cropp said. Since its founding in 2010 by Ray Slatton, the Soddy Daisy-based company has aggressively pursued commercialization of the AquaSentinel technology. It won IBM’s “SmartCamp – Austin” in May 2011 and presented at the IBM global “SmartCamp” in late January.
While SecureWaters did not win the global finals, Cropp said that the company has developed “a very strong relationship with IBM” as a result of its winning the Austin portion of the competition.
Another important EC technology transfer initiative was a business plan competition launched in conjunction with the Y-12 National Security Complex (Y-12). The inaugural event was held in December 2011 with six different teams of entrepreneurs looking at between 12 and 15 Y-12 technologies.
“We think we’ll get good traction on one or two” of the business plans that were developed during the competition, Cropp said.
The EC is now working to support three new activities in its region – the Southeast Regional Accelerator (SRA) coordinated by the Company Lab in Chattanooga, the Southeast Tennessee STEM network, and the “Gig City” initiative that is focused on growing companies around the gig-a-second network available to any business location or home in the city.
“Our responsibilities (with the accelerator) are connecting to the rural counties throughout the SRA and emphasizing the technology aspect of entrepreneurship,” Cropp said. The local accelerator is one of nine groups funded by grants from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to stimulate commercialization of technologies.
In Cropp’s view, the SRA will benefit because of EC’s previous work connecting Chattanooga with technology assets in Oak Ridge/Knoxville and Huntsville, AL. EC has also connected the STEM group with Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
For the “Gig City” initiative, Cropp said that the EC is “a front door to the Electric Power Board’s bandwidth for universities around the country” that want to develop new applications based on the city’s gigabit network. He named Georgia Tech,OhioState, Vanderbilt andWisconsinas examples of universities with which EC is working.
Cropp also discussed EC’s role in a “Community Revitalization Program” focused on brownfield redevelopment and the creation of “green jobs” through environmental programs. “This is a big issue inChattanooga,” he said. “We have very diverse and scattered sites.”
Another unique activity is helping with a “food desert” initiative that is “trying to make sure there is affordable and available food – grocery stores and restaurants – in all sections of the city,” he explained.
EC is also maintaining its focus on one of its first initiatives – high-speed ground transportation linking Atlanta, Chattanooga and Nashville. Joe Ferguson, the inaugural EC President and CEO, leads this effort.
Cropp joined the EC from his position as President and owner of Aquaterra Engineering, an entrepreneurial endeavor from which he successfully exited when he sold the company in 2005. Formerly, he was Chairman of the Environmental Law Practice Group of the Chattanooga law firm of Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison, PLLC from 1990 to 1999. He began his career inChattanoogain 1977 as the staff attorney with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Board and was named director of the agency in 1979.
“I love it, I’m having a good time,” he says.