Gig city seeks to catch Web geeks for Chattanooga startups

Gig city seeks to catch Web geeks for Chattanooga startups

February 19th, 2012 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region
Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Find geeks, bring them to Chattanooga, then pick their brains.

The best idea gets more than $100,000 and an equity investment.

That's the idea behind Chattanooga's emerging Gig City initiative, a handful of programs designed to bring three big elements together: the Internet, investors and ideas.

The third of those elements -- ideas -- has been the trickiest.

Chattanooga possesses America's fastest citywide Internet, at about one gigabit per second. That raw speed is available to anyone in town who can pony up the $350 per month.

A gigabit, or about 1,000 megabits per second, is 200 times faster than the average broadband connection. Uploads in Chattanooga zip along the fiber-optic cables at the same speed as downloads, which is perfect for HD gaming, video or other data-rich apps.

In the Western Hemisphere, gigabit-per-second Web connections are available only at selected sites, usually at research labs or universities, and Google is helping to build such Internet speed throughout Kansas City.

But through EPB's fiber-optic lines installed along its electric wires over the past three years, Chattanooga remains the only U.S. city to offer gig speed everywhere in town.

Aside from speed, Chattanooga's classic tale of industry town to Internet age also has sparked new interest from investors.

Venture capital groups and angel investors in the Scenic City rose out of dormancy over the last few years, with some even banding together to form what they call the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund.

Even so, the search for moneymaking ventures that play off Chattanooga's gigabit Internet has been difficult.

Organizers say the dearth of ideas is due to the relative newness of the technology. Internet speeds this fast on such a large scale simply don't exist anywhere in the U.S.

"Early on we thought we'd announce it and a bunch of companies would show up," said J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "That didn't happen."

Now a half-dozen local organizations have banded together to make sure that the city's much-touted broadband network becomes more than just a bullet on a PowerPoint slide.

CASH FOR CODE

The new plan is to offer a swap of cash for code, in the form of money and investments in return for entrepreneurs who develop their ideas here.

But city leaders want more than mere concepts; they want full-fledged businesses.

"Maybe more than any idea, we want them to start developing and we want them to do it here," Marston said.

So the Lyndhurst Foundation, Lamp Post Group, The Company Lab, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and EPB banded together to drive the "Gig City."

Part financial backers and part cheerleading section, the group has split its primary programs along two tracks:

One is targeted at students with "disruptive" ideas, and another is aimed squarely at developers who are ready to create the next Facebook, said Jack Studer, partner at the Lamp Post Group.

Using ideas cribbed from The Company Lab's pre-existing startup classes, entrepreneurs will start developing and testing their ideas in May, with an investor "pitch night" in August. College students will begin their program in June during summer break, working with the Lamp Post Group to develop new uses for "the gig."

"We want them to change the world," Studer said.

GIG CITY

To that end, local telecom EPB is constructing three specialized labs downtown that will serve as cloud-era playgrounds for students and entrepreneurs who are picked to participate.

By the start of the program May 14, EPB will have assembled new laboratories at The Company Lab, the Business Development Center and at the Lamp Post Group, using servers and screens jacked directly into one-gigabit fiber-optic cable.

Participants will also have free room and board, and a nationally recognized "business accelerator" called The Company Lab guiding them along.

Sheldon Grizzle, air traffic controller at The Company Lab, recognized that the lure of a world-class toy set alone isn't enough to draw the brightest minds in the world.

That's why he's also offering cash and investments.

"At the end of the day, entrepreneurs follow money," Grizzle said.

In addition to $15,000 equity investments, developers can receive as much as $100,000 cash for "the most disruptive idea," while students can take home $50,000 and win a chance to pitch their idea to venture capitalists and angel investors.

Some investors are even switching sides for the program, working directly with entrepreneurs to develop ideas and make a better impression on venture capitalists.

Charlie Brock, a mall advertising entrepreneur who later helped form the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, will spend part of his time this summer with developers, helping them to answer the questions he himself would ask.

"We're going to have more [venture capital] folks in Chattanooga on Aug. 9 than we've ever had before," Brock said.

GEEK HUNT

Before those programs get off the ground, however, the team has to lay the groundwork for a successful summer.

As the Gig City consortium learned when the gigabit was first launched, simply announcing the existence of a program or contest isn't enough. Without a plan, inertia takes over and nothing happens.

That's the idea behind Geek Hunt and Geek Move, which offer additional incentives for the friends and family of geeks to push them toward Chattanooga.

A friend who nominates a geek through social media to participate in the program gets $1,000 if that person is selected. A geek who buys a home in Chattanooga can receive $11,250 toward a new house, if he or she stays for five years.

Of course, a geek has to pass a battery of tests and a Skype interview to get the cash to prove his or her bona fides, but those are the type of fringe benefits that set Chattanooga apart as a destination for developers, said Abby Garrison, who is helping to oversee Geek Move.

"It's not just about having jobs; we have to create places for geeks to live," Garrison said.

The goal is not only to attract talent to the city, she said, but to create chic enclaves similar to the city's existing North Shore or Southside districts.

"We have to have great, hip, urban neighborhoods in Chattanooga," she said.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

With more than two dozen applicants already in the pipeline, the organizers are all smiles. It's a sign, they say, that the world's best and brightest are already bidding for a chance to pursue their dreams in the Gig City.

Even now, "professors in colleges are tracking down students and saying, 'You have to apply for this,'" Studer said.

As the March 1 deadline approaches, he expects to get an ever-increasing number of applications. The trickle could turn into a flood when students, entrepreneurs and programmers realize that despite Google's marketing blitz in Kansas City, there's still not a functional gigabit network there, Studer said.

"In Kansas City, you can talk about a gigabit, but if you actually want to work on it you've got to come here," he said.

Coordinating investors, developers, partners and programs is hard work, but building a movement based on the fastest fiber in the Western Hemisphere is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, said John Wilson, managing director of the prize program.

And the work is starting to pay off.

"We have people applying from as far away as Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom," Wilson said. "Money, prizes and goals get everybody moving in the same direction."