published Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Former entrepreneur John Wilson helping to build Chattanooga's Gig City

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    John Wilson is managing director for Gig Prizes.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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John Wilson helped develop flexible TV screens and electric vehicles before they were cool.

That's what he does: develop moneymaking ideas, sell them, then start over.

The life of an entrepreneur like Wilson is much like that of a gambler. For years, he made a living by putting everything on the line time and time again -- and through it all, he somehow generated enough winners to keep going.

Now, the Atlanta native has found a new tech startup -- the city of Chattanooga.

Wilson works to coordinate Chattanooga's many-faceted "Gig City" program, designed to link the Western Hemisphere's fastest Internet with high-speed jobs.

"Chattanooga is a very big startup, with a lot of first-of-a-kind things going on," Wilson said.

Day-to-day, he's talking to prospective investors and working with the leaders who conceived of "Gig City" at the Chattanooga-area Chamber of Commerce, Lamp Post Group, the Lyndhurst Foundation, EPB and the Company Lab.

He's a one-man startup accelerator, taking his lessons from previous ventures and applying them to Chattanooga.

"The role of an accelerator is to have the knowledge to help speed up and the ability to hold back," he said.

But he's surprisingly mum about the roles that brought him here.

Instead, he tells his stories through past business partners, their companies and the exciting technology they created together.

DARPA

For instance, Wilson began his work with electric vehicles in a 1993 project with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA.

DARPA's goal at the time was to quickly create hybrid-electric military vehicles in concert with commercial consortiums that could then use the technology in their own products.

Back then, there was no electric Ford Escape, Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf.

As part of the DARPA program, Wilson helped link up between 60 and 70 companies, national labs and universities to create fast chargers, better batteries and the microchips that tied everything together.

It was a monumental enterprise.

In the end, the result was about 200 separate projects costing $8 million per year to develop, ranging in size from "microchips to buses and locomotives," he said.

Videos on YouTube attest to his succcess. In one military test at a Universal Studios facility, a hybrid-electric Hummer easily outruns a standard diesel Hummer.

He smiles like a proud father as he pulls up the video on his phone. But he doesn't brag, and the video speaks for itself.

Le Mans

Like any entrepreneur, Wilson doesn't stay glued to any one enterprise for too long. After a few years, it was time to move on.

But with the excitement of a new project comes the danger of failure.

Don Panoz, founder of Elan Pharmaceuticals and owner of both Chateau Elan and Road Atlanta raceway, decided he wanted to race an electric car in the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Panoz built the car, then persuaded Mercedes-Benz to let him bring the technology to the U.S.

Wilson had a background in electric technology, so he joined the venture in 2000.

After 18 months of engineering and crash tests, Wilson thought the group had a good working prototype. It was so good, they decided to reveal it to the world.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he gave his presentation at the Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany.

After the presentation, he watched the destruction of the World Trade Center on TV. His project was doomed.

The disaster affected every aspect of the economy, especially consumer confidence.

"The car industry shrunk overnight," Wilson said.

Oled

He had to find a new venture.

"My first DARPA manager and I decided to partner up again, traveling around looking and looking at the national labs," he Wilson said. "We found this interesting flexible display technology at a Canadian university," he said.

The screen was one inch by three inches and barely glowed, but it seemed promising.

Wilson founded NanoLumens in Norcross, Ga., backed in part by Panoz, with the goal of building a product to compete with the primarily Asia-based TV industry.

The LED technology that the TVs use has been around for years, but never has been built in a flexible package, he said.

Making TVs in custom shapes was also unheard of, because the real money was in building millions of the same size in brown boxes, he said.

More importantly, the yield rate -- the number of produced units that are actually good enough to sell -- is typically too low. But his technology allowed for a higher yield rate as well as huge displays, starting at about 112 inches, that can be wrapped around walls, pillars and ceilings.

He also had to deal with power usage. TVs that use a lot of power get very hot, which can cause malfunctions if the screen isn't properly ventilated. So they put the flexible TVs on a diet, shrinking power usage to run on 110-volt circuits.

He's sold TVs for use in subways, malls and theme parks, but as the company started making more money, he again got the itch to move on to something else.

Chattanooga

That's when he rediscovered Chattanooga.

"What struck me as really interesting is here's the only community in the Western Hemisphere who built a gigabit Internet system, turned it on and is looking for business," he said.

No stranger to the town, his parents had lived on Signal Mountain in the 1970s and he had worked closely with CARTA and others in Chattanooga on electric bus projects in the 1990s.

Aside from that, the city's history drew him in. From polluted smog pit to model riverfront, Chattanooga appeared to be a community that could pull together when necessary.

"It's almost like watching a startup as a city, launching itself," he said.

Now instead of launching a traditional product like an electric car or a bendable television, he's helping to launch a "reinvented" community.

Wilson will use his skills to build a "portfolio of relationships" to help bring entrepreneurs with gigabit-speed business ideas and investors who want to fund those ideas to Chattanooga.

Under the guise of initiatives like Geek Hunt, Gig Prizes and Geek Move, the city is finding geeks and supporting their relocation to Chattanooga. The "Geek Tank" program includes classes and a 100-day contest, in which winners receive money as well as free room and board to develop gigabit applications in specially-designed labs here in the city.

"I'm not saying there won't be problems, those always happen with startups," he said.

Problems, however are good in that if handled correctly, they result in lessons learned. Wilson is simply hoping to help the city learn those lessons a bit faster, moving things along at an accelerated rate.

"What Chattanooga is doing to accelerate this process is very promising," he said. "I've never seen anything like this."

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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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