published Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Chattanooga's Co.Lab shifting to 'next stage'

Mike Bradshaw, second from left, talks to a table of entrepreneurs in Co.Lab during GigTank 2013. Bradshaw is the new executive director of Co.Lab, replacing Sheldon Grizzle.
Mike Bradshaw, second from left, talks to a table of entrepreneurs in Co.Lab during GigTank 2013. Bradshaw is the new executive director of Co.Lab, replacing Sheldon Grizzle.
Photo by Tim Barber.

CO.LAB IMPACT BY THE NUMBERS

*Co.Starters

1,350+ course graduates since 2008

1,008 active businesses

2,752 estimated jobs created

17 locations across the United States

52 percent of graduates are women

Source: Co.Lab

*48Hour Launch

56 projects launched

150 participants in 2013

1 company acquired for $11.5 million

Source: Co.Lab

*Co.Lab since 2010

250+ mentors engaged

27 companies accelerated (Co.Lab Accelerator and GigTank)

9,000+ annual attendees at Co.Lab events

Source: Co.Lab

Four years ago, Co.Lab was barely more than an idea: just a couple of guys running around the city, hosting events and talking about entrepreneurship.

One of them was Sheldon Grizzle. And over the years, he's taken Co.Lab from a nebulous cheerleader for Chattanooga's entrepreneurs to a real-world, results-creating resource and accelerator -- a major player in the entrepreneurial scene it helped create.

The Co.Lab is behind many of the events that have helped Chattanooga's entrepreneurial ecosystem blossom, like 48Hour Launch, when teams of aspiring entrepreneurs come in on a Friday and have a business plan by Sunday. Or GigTank, which is a summerlong program aimed at launching high-growth tech companies.

The Co.Lab's biggest win was Quickcue, a platform that digitizes the restaurant seating process. Born out of Co.Lab's 48Hour Launch in 2011, Quickcue sold for $11.5 million in late 2013.

"My hope with something like Co.Lab existing in Chattanooga was to help create the playground I wanted to play in as an entrepreneur," Grizzle said.

Mission accomplished, says Co.Lab's Mike Bradshaw.

"The startup and entrepreneurial platform now exists," he said. "It's been established. There's a lot of energy out there. My goal is to use my experience to help Co.Lab develop into the next stage of its own life cycle."

Bradshaw is Co.Lab's new executive director, taking Grizzle's spot at the helm. Bradshaw has been involved with the accelerator for about two years, starting as a volunteer and then working as co-director with Grizzle throughout 2013.

Now, he hopes to help Co.Lab seize and leverage its now-established spot at the center of Chattanooga's startup world. As the Co.Lab gained traction, traditional organizations -- like Chattanooga State or the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce -- have started to jump on board, Bradshaw said.

They're organizations that are very unlike Co.Lab.

"Co.Lab, like a lot of startups, has to be allowed to have its almost chaotic nature," Bradshaw said. "It's an emergent phenomenon, very difficult to command or control. But yet there are larger institutions who have a real interest in what we're doing and the success of it. How can you retain your identity as a crazy bunch of startup people and engage with institutions in the community?"

That's the gap he plans to bridge in the next year or two at Co.Lab, which is in its last year of a three-year $250,000 grant from the state, and its $750,000 budget is mostly funded by the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations.

Grizzle, meanwhile, is heading up a new branch of Spartan Systems, a web development company that recently relocated its headquarters to Chattanooga. He'll be in charge of Spartan Ventures, a division the company is using to create its own products in-house and invest in local startups in exchange for equity.

The first in-house product is called ReadyCart. The online tool allows content creators -- bloggers, YouTube celebrities, photographers -- to add a button to their content that allows readers to buy a cart-full of goods with one click. So a blogger who posts directions on how to make a greeting card can include a ReadyCart that links to every supply the reader needs to actually make the card.

Spartan Ventures is in testing with the product, but has already partnered with Amazon. The tool is free to content creators, and both content creators and ReadyCart receive a commission from retailers on any sales made through the tool.

"There are hundreds of millions of pieces of new content created every day," Grizzle said. "And the supply is outstripping the demand for advertising. The revenue model breaks down. So how do you monetize content? Our theory is you monetize content by selling meaningful things that people want."

Co.Lab's GigTank 2014 kicks off in May with 11 startup companies, and will culminate in a day-long pitch in July. Bradshaw said he's excited to lead the accelerator.

"I walked in that back door the first and I just felt this energy that was unexpected," he said. "I fell in the love with the place and never looked back."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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