published Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Tech event unites investors, startups

The mood in a room where eager investors and vigorous entrepreneurs meet for the first time is electrifying.

That’s the reason Chris Daly, director for technology development and transfer at The Enterprise Center, brings the two groups together each year at Chattanooga’s Technology Transfer Conference.

“We can feel the energy of the ecosystem we’re building downtown,” Daly said as investors murmured privately in the Tivoli Theatre auditorium.

Chattanooga has the ingredients to become the toast of the Southeast when it comes to investing and start-up businesses, Seattle-based entrepreneur Dave Parker told about 200 participants Friday at the conference.

The city has been stirred, not shaken, by the recession into a cocktail of know-how, investment-minded citizens and inter-organizational cooperation that’s rare for a city of its size, he said.

But he cautioned that the time to act is now, while the city retains its technological edge in broadband speed dominance.

“Six months from now, you’ll see if this is just talk or action,” Parker said. “You’ve got one shot, you have to actually make angel investments for this to work.”

In the spirit of immediacy, the recently launched Chattanooga Renaissance Fund joined about 20 other angel and venture capital investors in evaluating pitches by a half-dozen regional startups in a closed-door session.

Local start-up SecureWaters revealed the newest version of its product, which uses licensed technology from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to detect toxins in bodies of water, and other hopeful entrepreneurs pitched ideas ranging from cloud-based medical technology to online group communication tools.

Doug Johnson, chief technology officer of Chattanooga-based Mad Gravity, demonstrated a product that lets group leaders securely send and receive messages to members through text message, Facebook or email, but all replies come back in a single format.

Johnson is seeking $3 million to $5 million for YapTap, which is targeted specifically at the church youth group market.

Investors like David Belitz, chief financial officer for The Lupton Co. and general partner at the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, met after the presentations to discuss taking a leap of faith.

“We’re great supporters of what’s happening here,” Belitz said.

Chattanooga still faces challenges before it can become the next Silicon Valley, Parker noted.

The city still loses talent each semester to cities with research universities, and money often follows talent.

“If you let your brightest go, they’re not coming back,” Parker said. “It’s a global economy now, and innovation is the key to our competitive advantage.”

That’s why Robert Phillips, executive director of that Chattanooga Technology Council, has set his sights on education.

“At the fundamental level we need educated people to participate in this,” he said. “America is not the leader in that anymore.”

In spite of the challenges, Chattanooga is ahead of the curve when it comes to attracting risk takers, said Wayne Cropp, president and CEO of The Enterprise Center.

The city has beat Google in the race to develop the first citywide Internet service capable of delivering data at a gigabit-per-second speed.

Chattanooga also has a thriving medical industry and has retooled a newly energized manufacturing base, Cropp said.

“It takes many of these pieces fitting together, and you don’t know when that spark will light, but we’re doing it,” he said.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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