Chattanooga State wants to add business activators

Chattanooga State wants to add business activators

June 13th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy in Business Around the Region

Jim Catanzaro

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

It's no wonder that Jim Catanzaro is pushing Chattanooga State into the city's thriving startup scene.

He's always preached the importance of technical education. And he's long been a proponent of moving beyond theory and providing students with practical skills.

Now, Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State Community College, is planning two new business activators to help incubate fledgling businesses on campus, a move that he says will help get students out of the classroom and into the workforce. And his goals -- as is Catanzaro's style -- are lofty. He hopes for the college to become not just a regional, but a national center for business startups.

"A lot of the future for students isn't just going to be going to work for a company," Catanzaro says. "It's going to be starting their own company. We want to be able to play that role. That's why we focus so much on entrepreneurship and starting up businesses."

This idea is Catanzaro's latest effort to better bridge business with higher education, all the while pushing against higher education norms.

He hopes to eventually open one business activator in or near Chatt State's Center for Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and another connected with the school's state-of-the-art Health Science Center that could help students start their own businesses while studying health disciplines such as nursing.

"We want this to be pervasive in the institution so that everybody understands that they have two choices when they graduate with an RN: they can go to work in a hospital, an insurance company," Catanzaro said. "Or they can start up. Maybe they've got an idea of some product or service they would like to develop into a company. We want to support them in doing that."

Chattanooga State already offers an entrepreneurial studies curriculum and runs the Small Business Development Center, an incubator for local businesses.

But the traditional educational system sometimes makes it difficult to spark new, entrepreneurial ideas.

John Morris, president and CEO of Tech 20/20, a regional business accelerator, said entrepreneurship requires hands-on experience, not the hypothetical classroom work that largely defines colleges and universities.

"Curriculum education tends to be proscribed," he said at a recent panel discussion of the Tennessee Valley Corridor. "Entrepreneurship is not defined by steps, you've got to define the next step. That's the only way you learn what the next steps are."

Though no formal agreements have been struck, Catanzaro said he's in talks with the Company Lab, a local incubator that helps new companies get off the ground.

Co.Lab Executive director Mike Bradshaw said he's enthused by Chattanooga State's interest. He said on-campus, hands-on experiences will give students a clear picture of what it's like to launch their own business -- well before they're out on their own.

The Co.Lab is behind many of the events that have helped shape Chattanooga's entrepreneurial scene, 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 summer-long program aimed at launching high-growth tech companies.

And Bradshaw said there can't be too much work around entrepreneurship.

"There's so much work to be done. Its' such an important space," he said. "You find out that really the mission far exceeds the capability of a single organization to serve it."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.