Venture fund expands as startup firms grow in Chattanooga area

Venture fund expands as startup firms grow in Chattanooga area

September 12th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Ryan Cox, CEO of HATponics, gets the microphone from Bogdana Rokova of HutGrip as they make presentations at Society of Work in downtown Chattanooga.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga's entrepreneurial community is gaining new capital.

The Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, a 3-year-old venture capital fund that has helped seed nearly two dozen business startups and the GigTank and other programs that spawned them, is launching a second funding round that could triple its initial investments in local startup ventures.

David Belitz, CEO of the Lupton Co., and one of the six original founders of the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, said the group is starting a second round of funding and is soliciting up to $10 million to make investments in local startup ventures.

"Chattanooga is a growing community and its entrepreneurial culture is expanding, but we're still doing this as partners on a volunteer basis," Belitz said. "We're trying to leverage our investments and help provide not only seed capital for promising businesses, but also provide our time and expertise for these entrepreneurs. We want to generate new wealth, foster innovation and promote entrepreneurship."

The announcement of the expanded Chattanooga

Renaissance Fund came Wednesday as two local startup firms, HATponics and Hutgroup, joined eight other promising new ventures in a statewide tour to pitch their ideas to angel investors and business partners. Chattanooga was the midpoint Wednesday in a week-long TENN Roadshow of the top 10 businesses picked from Tennessee's accelerator programs as the most promising new ventures.

The businesses are visiting investors and potential business partners at Fed Ex, First Tennessee, Hospital Corp., of America, Eastman Kodak and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, among others.

"We're really trying to get more corporate engagement across the entrepreneurial landscape - giving great feedback, making potential purchases and giving great advice or investment capital," said Charlie Brock, president of Launch Tennessee, the public-private partnership focused on developing high-growth companies in Tennessee. "These businesses wil be in front of 100 angel financiers this week, and the attention and networking that has gone on this week has been huge."

Brock noted that at least four new venture capital funds are being started or added across Tennessee this year to help provide seed and equity capital to high-growth ventures.

Such businesses are being aided by Launch Tennessee, which is sponsoring nine business assistance programs known as accelerator, including the Company Lab in Chattanooga. The 10 businesses participating in this week's road show were picked as the most promising ideas from the development program.

A Chattanooga cloud-based software company that helps manufacturing processes was added to the top 10 companies in the road show this week after a Memphis firm dropped out of the weeklong program. HutGrip is loooking for up to $500,000 in investment capital to promote and expand production of sensors used to collect and store data on a range of manufacturing equipment. By measuring temperature, humidity, speed, pressure, vibration and other factors, the sensors help factories detect equipment problems earlier and ensure better quality control. HutGrip worked with a half dozen local manufacturers this summer during the Chattanooga Gigtank program.

Bogdana Rakova, CEO for HutGrip, said the company has six employees "but we are poised for much more growth." The sensors and controllers developed by HutGrip are well suited to be tailored for small and medium-sized manufacturers, which account for 89 percent of U.S. manufacturing.

The other local firm among the top 10 - HATponics -has developed aquatic and other sustainable agricultural solutions to grow more food, especially in remote areas of the planet. Ryan Cox, the company's CEO, said the road show "has generated a lot of interest and advice" to help propel the business forward.

Cox said Heifer International, the global nonprofit agency devoted to ending hunger, plans to soon visit the company's Rossville, Ga., fish and vegetable farm. HATponics also is a finalist for the 2013 Georgia STEM Education award for its school program, competing against Microsoft, Alcatel Lucent and Texas Instruments.

"This little company from Chattanooga is competing with the big boys," Cox said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflesssner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.