It’s not exactly saying “Welcome, Nerds” but an initiative in Chattanooga, TN, is at the crossroads of technology and quality of place as a strategy to attract entrepreneurs.
Though it is a metro region with just around 515,000 people, Chattanooga is thinking big in terms of innovation and knowledge companies, thanks to the nation’s first gigabit-per-second fiber optic network, installed by the municipally owned EPB utility and available to 150,000 homes and businesses in a 600-square-mile area.
As demographer Joel Kotkin notes in the 2012 Best Cities for Job Growth “new telecommunications technology serves to even the playing field for companies in smaller cities.”
It’s a strategy that is finding traction in a number of places. Kansas has promoted broadband as a key component of economic development strategy in the state’s rural communities. Northeast North Carolina sees broadband as a driver of economic development and a factor that can tilt business investment decisions.
To leverage the super-fast fiber network in Chattanooga, a coalition of business, academic and government organizations has launched Gig City, a series of competitions through the summer for students and entrepreneurs to come up with ideas and innovations that take advantage of the network’s speed.
Ten entrepreneur teams will be selected for residency in the Gig Tank, a business accelerator and “think tank,” where they will develop their ideas and test them in the market. The teams will be offered $15,000 in investment capital and be mentored by experienced entrepreneurs, venture capital executives and angel investors. The team that is judged to have “the best, most disruptive business plan” wins $100,000.
Cultivating entrepreneurial companies is a key focus of the region’s economic development strategy. Gig City organizers want the program to expose entrepreneurs to what Chattanooga can offer in terms of technology, support and lifestyle.
J. Ed Marston, vice president of communications at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce – a spearhead of the Gig City initiative -says a goal of the initiative is for the entrepreneurs to like what they see and experience and build their companies in Chattanooga.
What they’ll experience is a roster of resources that support innovative early-stage companies.
The Chattanooga chamber operates a business incubator that can hold up to 60 companies. Lamp Post Group describes itself as a private venture incubator that works with entrepreneurs to help take their ideas to market through financial investment and business guidance. The Company Lab (known as Co.Lab), which helps train and mentor entrepreneurs, was named a regional entrepreneurial accelerator as part of Tennessee’s statewide efforts to promote entrepreneurial companies. The Enterprise Center connects technology-based entrepreneurs, business and industry to national laboratories, research universities and federal research-oriented programs.
As one gig connectivity knocks down technological barriers to customer access, it allows Chattanooga to build its case that it is a highly desirable place to live and play up assets such as a thriving waterfront with attractions that include the Tennessee Aquarium, unique retail, a wealth of cultural attractions, the presence of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and ready access to spectacular outdoor recreation option. (Chattanooga was named to Outside Magazine’s Best Town Ever list in 2011)
One-gig connectivity coupled with what it offers in terms of lifestyle gives Chattanooga a strong pitch to entrepreneurs who want to work where they want to live, Marston says
“Location and logistics and cost matter,” he says, “but at the end of the day when all other factors are equal, quality of life matters.”