By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
A commitment that The Enterprise Center’s (TEC) President and Chief Executive Officer described as a “bold move” when it was made several years ago has become an important symbol of Chattanooga’s thriving innovation ecosystem.
“We’re 90 percent full after two years,” Ken Hays says of the 89,000-square foot Edney Innovation Center. “We have two floors of co-working space, and there are 150 to 160 meetings and events occurring each month in the collision space on Floor Five.”
The building, which once housed TVA offices, is now home to CO.LAB, the city’s start-up accelerator, as well as Society of Work, a number of start-ups, and Hays’ organization.
“We needed to densify an area where we could help the collisions occur,” he says. The Edney Center became that place, anchoring a 140-acre Innovation District that was announced three years ago.
“What we are trying to do with this building was happening in other communities all over the country,” Hays told us in a recent catch-up interview. “The question here was if people here would accept the idea. It is more than a real estate deal; we’re building a community and fueling an innovation ecosystem.”
“Because of our success, we’re ready to take the Innovation District to the next level,” he told us. During the latter part of 2017, TEC convened 20 to 25 focus group sessions and several public meetings to explore those next steps. An updated master plan will be unveiled in the first quarter of this year.
While specific strategies are still being finalized, it is clear that one component will be what Hays describes as the TEC’s role as a “convener and connector of the academic world and the community.” That strategy starts with the city’s gigabit network and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).
“UTC and (Chancellor) Steve Angle have really stepped-up to be strong supporters and emerging drivers of the Innovation District,” Hays says, citing a specific relationship with Reinhold Mann, a former Associate Lab Director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who now serves as Special Advisor to UTC’s Vice Chancellor for Research. “Angle has been awesome.”
A key building block in the overall research and application development priority is the recent acceptance of Chattanooga and UTC into the national MetroLab Network, a consortium of 41 cities, four counties and 55 universities that are focused on RD&D (research, development and deployment) projects that offer technological and analytically-based solutions to challenges facing urban areas.
Those goals align well with TEC’s digital equity efforts as well as two other likely strategies – using EPB’s gigabit network as a testbed for researchers from other communities and leveraging city plans to hire a SmartCity Director.
On the digital equity front, Hays describes a number of initiatives, particularly focused on public schools where technology demonstration projects are allowing students to have an educational experience not otherwise available to them. One of those initiatives is funded by a grant from Mozilla.
With EPB’s smart grid and the abundance of data available, the city is attracting a level of interest not imagined in the past. “We are making Chattanooga user-friendly to the research world,” Hays says.
When all is said and done, it’s about being a catalyst that helps cause things to happen.
“There’s a momentum here,” Hays says, adding that “it’s hard to quantify.” Those who have visited the city no doubt sense it, too.