“Its an extreme validation.”
Eight Chattanooga area startups culled from more than 60 entries are finalists for $100,000 from a seed fund headed by entrepreneur and AOL co-founder Steve Case. On Thursday, Case and the Rise of the Rest seed fund tour will come to Chattanooga, listen to company officials make their pitches and pick a winner for the $100,000.
Jennifer Skjellum was heavily involved with the business startup scene in Birmingham, and she likes what she sees in Chattanooga now that she has moved here.
"It's welcoming from a startup perspective," she said about Chattanooga, noting that the Scenic City and Birmingham are each on stops for AOL founder Steve Case's Rise of the Rest seed fund tour this week.
Skjellum and others said that the tour, during which one Chattanooga company will land $100,000 in new investment, is a stamp of approval on efforts to grow the local innovation ecosystem over the past decade.
"It's an extreme validation," said Ken Hays, head of Chattanooga's Enterprise Center. "It's a testament to the work the community is supporting."
Tia Capps, chief communications officer for The Company Lab business accelerator in the city, said Rise of the Rest is "very much a defining moment" for Chattanooga in terms of entrepreneurship.
"So many people have come together to put resources in place to make starting a business easier for folks," she said.
While in Alabama, Skjellum was president of TechBirmingham, which is aimed at promoting technology companies and helps to recruit and retain talent and entrepreneurs. She moved to the Scenic City after her husband, Tony, was named as director of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's SimCenter
Skjellum, who is working in Chattanooga for an anti-cyber attack company called ThreatAdvice, cited the emergence of the Gig in Chattanooga as a "cutting edge" advantage for the city.
With the help of an $111 million federal stimulus grant to EBP in 2010 to build its smart grid, the power distributor set up what city officials and analysts said was the first and fastest high-speed internet services in the United States.
In 2014, The New York Times featured the city and the Gig, calling fast internet "Chattanooga's new locamotive" and alluding to the city's past as a key rail hub.
Hays said the Gig infrastructure is "a huge tool in the toolbox" in growing the city's innovation economy.
"Chattanooga was the first mover in that," he said, noting it clearly attracts attention nationally and internationally and woos a lot talent to the city.
"That's a competitive advantage for our city," said Hays.
Capps said the Gig has been instrumental in helping people tell the story of Chattanooga's entrepreneurial efforts.
While the city is still pursuing businesses which can utilize the Gig, there are other sectors for startups which are doing well, such as in the logistics and consumer goods space, she said.
Chattanooga has a history as a hot spot in logistics, Capps said. Also, there's a lot of legacy on the consumer goods side.
"Our entrepreneurs are diverse," Capps said. "We're looking to draw upon the strengths of larger legacy companies and create an environment for companies to spring up."
In 2015, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke proposed creation of an Innovation District in the heart of downtown to also help spur entrepreneurship.
The aim was to develop a place where entrepreneurs, tech-based startups, and business incubators can mesh and create the innovation ecosystem. The Edney Building at Market and East 11th streets was renovated and turned into a hub for the district in the effort to grow the city's knowledge economy.
Just last month, a new vision for the 140-acre district called for a better UTC presence downtown, adding affordable housing and modern office space and using the area as a test bed for research.
Hays, who left a local development firm to change up the Enterprise Center's mission to focus more on growing the city's innovation economy, said communities need to focus in that area or be left behind.
The district helps to maximize Chattanooga's potential, he said.
Case's Rise of the Rest campaign is designed to promote entrepreneurship outside of California's Silicon Valley. In its fourth year, the bus tour is powered by the investment firm Revolution, of which Case is CEO. The tour showcases founders in emerging startup ecosystems across the U.S.
The other cities on this month's stop in addition to Chattanooga and Birmingham are Memphis, Dallas, and Louisville.
Since the tour launched, Case and that team have traveled more than 8,000 miles on a bus to visit 33 cities and invest in local startups. The tour stopped in Nashville in 2014.
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.