Welcome to the “New Tech Cities” series at OSTraining.
In this series we’re talking about cities that were rundown but are re-inventing themselves, as using technology to do so. We’re trying to get to the bottom of the questions, “What does it take to turn around a struggling city?” and “Can technology help?”
Our initial focus is on the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see links to all the articles in this series.
In this fifth interview, Tia Capps talks about The Company Lab and GIGTank, two vitally important pieces in Chattanooga’s start-up ecoystem.
Welcome Tia. Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Tia Capps and I serve as the communications director for The Company Lab (CO.LAB). We help launch and sustain early-stage companies of all kinds, from lifestyle businesses to startups with high growth potential.
Our organization is perhaps most widely known for hosting GIGTANK, a national startup accelerator that invites entrepreneurs to innovate on Chattanooga’s gigabit network. I lead the media and marketing strategy for this program as well. Because GIGTANK is a global brand with a vast number of audiences, it requires an enormous amount of communications support. So, in my world, juggling responsibilities for both CO.LAB and GIGTANK can sometimes feel like two jobs in one. Fortunately, I love what I do and it keeps me on my toes.
How are you involved in the tech scene in Chattanooga?
CO.LAB exists to increase the viability of startups in our region, and many of the companies we serve are tech oriented. New technologies drive entrepreneurial opportunity. We’re here to help people tap in to that potential.
Programs like GIGTANK and the CO.LAB Accelerator are particularly attractive tech startups because many of those companies have scalable business models. We help guide them through the process of attracting the capital and connections needed to expand into the broader marketplace.
As an individual, my role in the tech scene is to share stories about the people and culture that are driving it forward. When new trends or quiet successes fly under the radar, my job is to bring them to light. The same goes for the challenges and problems we are trying to solve.
On a broader front, I also work to connect our experiences as a tech and startup community to the national picture. Pitching those stories to wider audiences across the U.S. is something I absolutely love to do, especially because I get to collaborate with some stellar local partners to get the word out. I feel very lucky for the opportunity to learn from these people.
Chattanooga appears to have rebuilt itself. What changes have you experienced?
Chattanooga has undergone quite the transformation in the last few years, especially in terms of its appeal to young professionals, like me. I’m a native of this area. When I left Chattanooga for college and my first job, I had no intention of returning. At that time, I assumed that interesting job prospects would be low and that access to diverse people and cultural interests would be minimal.
When I finally did return to Chattanooga, this place had changed pretty drastically from the one I remembered. In a relatively short period of time, I stumbled into an incredible work opportunity, a community of entrepreneurs, technologists and artists in my own age group, and a place to grow as a person and a professional.
Oftentimes when people talk about the Chattanooga story, they’re referring to the downtown revitalization that began decades ago. The culture of collaboration and sense of urgency that drove that transformation forward has persisted here for years. I believe it’s responsible for the resurgence of tech and entrepreneurship in Chattanooga today.
It’s incredible to see the values that shaped the city of my childhood survive and continue to transform Chattanooga in my adulthood. It’s even cooler to be one of many people here who are working to carrying it forward for the next generation.
Tell us something about the Gig Tank. What the heck is it?
GIGTANK is a boutique startup accelerator that invites entrepreneurs to test next-generation business models on Chattanooga’s gigabit network. The program launched in 2012, and it has evolved pretty dramatically since. Originally, our goal was bring top thinkers in business and academia to Chattanooga to answer the question, What would you do if bandwidth were no barrier?
As we have continued to investigate those possibilities, we’ve also added other focus areas into the mix. In 2013, we challenged entrepreneurs to explore bandwidth-intensive business opportunities in healthcare. The following year, we added verticals for additive manufacturing (otherwise known as 3D printing) and smart grid development. As we move into 2015, we’re reemphasizing our original question.
Thanks to Google Fiber, national attention on gigabit networks has reached an all-time high. A number of U.S. cities are currently installing their own gigabit networks right now, many with the help of major telecom providers like AT&T and Comcast. We think the moment has arrived for startups to begin creating investable, scalable business models for these markets. Entrepreneurs who want to get a jump-start on this space can come test their ideas on Chattanooga’s fiber optic network through GIGTANK.
We believe our prospects for 2015 are very promising, which is why we are already hard at work on the program. We’ll be inviting folks to throw their hats in the ring at the end of January, when we open applications. In the meantime, stay tuned! You can follow our updates at www.thegigtank.com.
True or False: Chattanooga is the coolest city in the South.
True, but I am biased on this one. Chattanooga is my hometown, and I can’t help but be proud of how much it continues to change. Every major achievement we make tends to elicit surprise from outsiders, particularly those in much bigger cities than our own. Breaking expectations is fun, and it’s cool to live in a city that makes a habit of doing so.
Chattanooga has a real underdog quality to it, and I think that resonates with a lot of people. Don’t get me wrong – Chattanooga definitely isn’t perfect. We still have a long way to go in a number of areas. But I’m optimistic about our prospects, especially in the forward-facing, all-hands-in moment of growth we’re experiencing right now.
Atlanta’s tech community has grown significantly in recent years. What are start-ups and tekkies missing by not coming to Chattanooga instead?
Let me start off by saying I think Atlanta is a great city, and I’m thrilled its startup scene is enjoying so much growth.
As far as Chattanooga’s advantages go, we offer some pretty legit perks. The cost of living is low, but the quality of life is very high. That’s important when you’re trying to bootstrap a business – every dollar counts, and so does every minute of your free time after you’re done burning the midnight oil. Chattanooga is surrounded by gorgeous mountains and sits astride the Tennessee River. We are a mecca for outdoor activity.
Being a big fish in a small pond is a competitive business advantage, especially in the unwieldy world of startup survival. We have less bureaucracy to wade through on a day-to-day basis. Our moderate size keeps us nimble and able to accomplish things quickly … kind of like a startup. Startups also find it easy to get plugged into the community and access critical business resources in Chattanooga.
Like Atlanta, our startup scene is making the charts. We fall right up there with some of the biggest cities, but we’re doing so with far fewer resources at our disposal. If I were an entrepreneur trying to decide where to locate my startup, I’d take a close look Chattanooga – a city that knows how to cut through the noise with less. That’s what startups must do to survive.
Chattanoogans have gotten very good at this, and a lot of them are funneling that expertise directly into our startup community right now.
What’s your favorite Chattanooga success story?
To be honest, my favorite Chattanooga success stories are the very small ones that often occur behind the scenes. We all love pointing to major wins, like a lucrative buyout or a local brand going mainstream, but that’s because those milestones are easy to recognize. The small victories – like a startup acknowledging when its time to change course and pivot – are what really hook me.
I get to see these moments up close and personal at CO.LAB. In the span of just a few hours, an entrepreneur might walk through our doors looking totally dejected and ready throw in the hat. Then, after begrudgingly attending a pre-scheduled mentor session, that same person may walk out with an entirely new perspective on their challenges and decide to keep pushing.
These types of experiences add up for people. They’re substantive and they’re what big wins are made of – whether they’re glamorous or not. So, in my mind, Chattanooga’s biggest success story is that we’ve created an environment where these little wins are increasingly possible. I think that’s something to be pretty proud of.
What’s next for Chattanooga and what would it take hit those goals?
Chattanooga has a very bright future ahead. In terms of our startup scene, I’d like to see our gigabit potential fully realized. We’re pursuing that possibility now by inviting entrepreneurs to innovate on Chattanooga’s gigabit network through GIGTANK 2015. The stronger the players we can bring to the table, the closer we’ll get to goalpost this time around.
Another thing that is especially important to me is expanding entrepreneurial opportunity to more diverse populations in our region. To do this, we need to make sure our resources are accessible to a variety of demographics, and we also need to connect with them to develop a more meaningful understanding of their needs. From there, we can work with our partners to ensure customized programs and services are more readily available to the people who need them most.
How do you hope to contribute to that achievement?
I plan to learn as much as I can and continue sharing the stories that need to be told.
Hey, who knows? I may even start my own business or organization one day. If it can happen anywhere, I’m guessing it will be here.