(EDITOR’S NOTE: This the third article in a four-part series spotlighting the plans for entrepreneur centers serving the eastern half of Tennessee.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
When we caught-up with Lindsey Cox seven months ago soon after she had assumed the top position at Chattanooga’s CO.LAB, the effervescent former resident of Nashville and graduate of Tennessee Tech University outlined her priorities through the end of 2021. For the most part, those priorities will continue in 2022 with a few additions at the organization that is part of Launch Tennessee’s network of entrepreneur centers.
“We will relaunch ‘GIGTANK’ as a year round mentor program in Q1, either in January or February,” Cox says. It will be a hybrid model that will draw on CO.LAB’s cadre of mentors along with the expertise that Christine DiPietro, the organization’s new Director of Programs, gained while managing the inaugural “Techstars Impact” and” Techstars Austin” programs.
“Our model will allow us to onboard companies whenever they are ready during the year, not just at specific times, not at specific times,” Cox said. “I’m excited about it.”
Also on the agenda are three other major programming initiatives. One is “Startup Week CHA” that CO.LAB coordinates for the city, the second is what Cox describes as “some version of the Consumer Products Accelerator” that the organization has offered recently, and the third will be a brand new accelerator.
“We had great results with ‘Startup Week’ this year,” she says of 2021, noting that more than 1,000 people attended the roughly 100 events. The 2022 weeklong celebration will be held the third week in October.
Current plans call for the “Consumer Products Accelerator” to be held near the end of the summer or early fall. “It will not be exactly how we have done it in the past,” Cox says, noting additional details will be forthcoming.
The new accelerator will be focused on the outdoors and companies offering those types of products or services. She notes the importance of outdoor activities to existing residents as well as all of the individuals that Chattanooga companies are trying to attract to the community.
“We’re looking for outside funding so we can offer amenities like lodging,” Cox explains, but quickly adds, “We will go forward with it regardless.”
Like other entrepreneur centers leaders, she always has access to capital as a top priority, and Cox says her plans are “starting to take shape in three buckets.” One category is helping promote start-ups raising funding, the second is increasing the pool of angels, and the third is developing a dedicated fund.
“We’re drawing on the Investable Memphis model,” Cox says in explaining how she wants to help start-ups that are planning to raise capital, are in the process of doing so, or have just completed a round. “I want to have 20 on the site before we go live” which she expects will happen in Q1 of 2022.
On the topic of angels, Cox has connected with Jay Shaffer, a fairly new resident of Chattanooga who is also a member of the Board of Directors of Atlanta Technology Angels. They have initiated discussions with a small group to answer the question, “What’s next for Chattanooga angel investors?” The working title for the effort is Chattanooga Cherubs.
“It’s a fresh call to the table, particularly for younger people who are interested in Blockchain and crypto and could become interested in angel investing,” Cox says.
Finally, CO.LAB has a nearly $300,000 grant announced in September 2020 under the “Build to Scale” initiative of the U.S. Economic Development Administration to launch the “Chattanooga Regional Catalyst Fund” (CRCF). The funding came during the time that Marcus Shaw led CO.LAB, but plans for how to best implement a fund have not been finalized. As originally conceived, the CRCF would be an evergreen fund focused on directly addressing the early stage funding gap in southeast Tennessee.
“Our goal would be to raise $5 million,” she says. Final plans are awaiting an announcement of decisions by the State of Tennessee on the deployment of its share of funding approved under Version 2 of the “State Small Business Credit Initiative” (SSBCI). The federal funding can be used for programs that fall into one of these categories – venture capital, loan participation, loan guarantees, collateral support, and capital access.
The State of Tennessee’s final proposal is due to be submitted to the U.S. Department of the Treasury on February 11, but no public announcement has been made as to how the funding for the Volunteer State will be managed or allocated.
“One way or another, having a local fund is a priority,” Cox says.