(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a three-part series spotlighting plans for the Entrepreneur Centers in the eastern half of Tennessee.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Marcus Shaw has just started his second full year as Chief Executive Officer of Chattanooga’s CO.LAB and has a full plate of activities and opportunities – some continuations from previous years and others relatively new.
No one would dispute that the Gig City’s entrepreneurial community is vibrant, thanks in no small part to the brand that is known far and wide as a result of the infrastructure investments made by EPB. Those dollars will be leveraged a good deal through programming planned in 2019.
“We will offer four accelerator programs focused on high-growth markets and talent,” Shaw told us, describing them as part of the organization’s core focus. One – the long-standing GIGTANK initiative – will continue in addition to the consumer goods program that was started in 2018. There will also be two additions for 2019.
As previously reported, CO.LAB, Erlanger Health System and Unum are joining forces to launch a healthcare-focused, 10-week accelerator this spring. Applications opened in January for entrepreneurs interested in working with large-scale leaders in healthcare and the employee benefits market.
“We are also planning to pilot a logistics and transportation initiative,” Shaw says. “Those four will give us a full complement of programs.”
The 2019 plans, however, do not stop there.
Like many of the entrepreneur centers, Shaw says that CO.LAB is exploring the best strategies to help Chattanooga capitalize on the new federal Opportunity Zones (O-Zones). Part of the tax reform package passed in late 2017 by the U.S. Congress, the program is designed as a tax incentive for investors to re-invest their unrealized capital gains into Opportunity Funds that are dedicated to investing in O-Zones
“We are part of a lot of discussions in the community,” he says, adding that much of the interest is truly civic-minded. “Investors are very interested in deals here, and we will help facilitate those conversations.”
Shaw visualizes CO.LAB playing several roles including helping connect those doing real estate deals – one of the two O-Zones areas of emphasis – with prospective tenants from the start-up community. The other O-Zone focus is on operational funding that could come to a start-up.
He says it is important that “those entrepreneurs understand where they want their business to be before talking about an investment under the (O-Zone) program. We also want to help entrepreneurs who take the investment remain compliant with the rules.”
CO.LAB is also a key partner in the recently announced “Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative” that also includes EPB, Erlanger, City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, The Enterprise Center, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).
Shaw says that involvement has brought his organization closer to the other partners and provided new opportunities to leverage those relationships. One he cited in particular is UTC and is students, faculty and staff.
“By working with UTC, we also get exposure to the entire UT system,” Shaw explains, something that plays on a fourth priority – talent recruitment and retention.
“Those are the big three,” he says, but there’s another very important topic. Shaw describes it as a “place where we want to plug-in and be impactful.”
What is it? If you haven’t guessed by now, it is at the top of any innovation-focused community – talent.
In that vein, CO.LAB launched its own Fellowship Program last year, modelled after the Venture for America initiative that places top college graduates in start-ups in participating cities. Think of it as a recruitment program.
“We trying to find top young talent that can accelerate their career though immersion in Chattanooga’s startup ecosystem,” Shaw explains. In the next few years, he’s hoping to attract as many as 10 to 15 high-potential young professionals to come to Chattanooga and join the local start-up ecosystem.
One example is Jackson Davis, a Vanderbilt University graduate who completed his Fellowship in December and is now an Associate at Solas BioVentures, remaining in Chattanooga. Another example is Anthony Maina, also a Vanderbilt University graduate, who joined Bellhops last August as a Senior Software Developer. Bellhops recently announced a $31.4 million equity raise.