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January 11, 2017 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Studer says “the sleeping giant has awakened”

CO.LAB(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a two-part series profiling Jack Studer, Interim Executive Director of Chattanooga’s CO.LAB, and the role the organization plays in the city’s vibrant ecosystem.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Jack Studer, Interim Executive Director of CO.LAB, describes Chattanooga as “an amazing city where, for three or four decades, the energy sat dormant.” That reality changed when the late Jack Lupton championed the Tennessee Aquarium, a catalytic accomplishment that has propelled so many other successes.

“The sleeping giant was awakened,” Studer says as he describes what has transpired in the slightly more than two decades since the Aquarium opened.

Today, the GIG CITY is recognized around the world for the first-of-its-kind gigabit network that EPB deployed. There’s now angel and venture funding available to start-ups in the community, thanks to the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund and The JumpFund. Individuals who moved away to go to college are returning to a vastly different community. Others who founded and exited successful enterprises are launching new ventures.

Two CO.LAB-inspired programs – “GIGTANK” and CO.STARTERS – draw national and international attention, further contributing to the reputation of the city’s brand.

Studer tells the story of a person from Vermont who had read about CO.LAB and called to ask about its secret sauce

“There’s not one,” he told the gentleman. “We fill in the gaps. Five years ago, UTC (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) wasn’t a player. Today, are they ever! We’re singing from the same songbook.”

CO.LAB is even offering a version of CO.STARTERS for researchers at UTC.

Studer credits Ken Hays, Executive Director of The Enterprise Center, with thinking about and advocating for many of the initiatives that now help define Chattanooga.

“Timing was a big deal,” he says.

As Interim Executive Director of CO.LAB, Studer readily shares two success elements that he first learned from his personal mentors. They are persistent hard work and a little luck.

“The two go together,” he says. “If you work hard for long enough, you get a few chances. That’s what I try to fold into my conversations with these companies. They’re creating their own chance of luck. We (the CO.LAB team) give them a few tools to be successful.”

Does Chattanooga have everything it needs? Studer clearly sees some challenges, the most important being public education.

“We can go toe-to-toe with Boulder and other tech hotspots for young, single talent,” Studer says. “Where we fall down is in education. Marrieds want the best education for their kids, and our competitive cost of living advantage is obliterated by private school tuition.”

Investment capital is always at or near the top of a community’s needs list, but the CO.LAB Executive Director sees a bright spot in this area.

“My mindset is less is better,” Studer says. “The fact that we don’t have readily available cash – $100 million – is healthy for ideas that compete with each other.” He compared it to breeding cattle, which he does, and the constant culling of the herd.

“Good companies will always find money, and capital will always find good companies,” Studer believes. That said, he hopes there will be a third Chattanooga Renaissance Fund and would love to see separate pools of monies dedicated to 3D printing and gig applications.

There are also societal challenges that he says must be addressed – ranging from gang violence to impoverished neighbors. Just across the street from the Edney Innovation Center, where CO.LAB is located, is Patten Towers, home to many low income individuals, some of whom were previously homeless.

“We have a social responsibility to see that our door is open to them,” Studer says. One tenant in Patten Towers was participating in a CO.LAB program, until she died recently and the organization recently organized a health fare for the residents. It’s the sort of thing that neighbors do to help others.

In the end, Studer is emboldened by the number of Millennials or slightly older former Chattanoogans who are electing to return home.

“The people in Chattanooga are here by choice,” he observes. “That drives community engagement.”

Such a reality also bodes very well for the city for years to come.

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