Launch to win: High-tech tool protection woos judges at start-up contest in Chattanooga

photo People wait outside the Camp House on the Southside on Thursday before independent business entrepreneurs pitch their craft at the Launch Summer Showcase.

Forget about marking tools with tape or scratching them with something sharp to create unique identifiers.

ToolGard will permanently brand them with a laser - and the start-up company will come to you to do it.

With that pitch, ToolGard founder Brandon Tiede on Thursday won nonprofit organization Launch's first-ever pitch contest, earning $35,000 in prizes to help get his new business going.

"I went there expecting to make contacts and never expected to win the grand prize," said Tiede, 30, a father of three living in East Ridge.

Thirteen entrepreneurs vied for the top prize during the "Summer Showcase" pitch session at Camp House in Chattanooga's Southside. All are graduates of Launch's 10-week Business Entrepreneurship Academy. Launch is a Chattanooga incubator that aims to connect underserved people with the resources they need to start businesses. It focuses on micro-businesses with five or fewer employees.

Tiede, who was an auto technician for a dozen years, knows firsthand how easily an employee can steal. Last year, the sole person he'd hired to work for his repair company made off with about $8,000 of tools. "I realized changes needed to be made," Tiede said.

But he couldn't find a local company to permanently mark his tools for a reasonable price. He did find a company in Illinois and one in Alabama, but they wanted him to ship the tools. Between the cost of doing that and lost work time, it would have been a $2,500 expense. That's when he started thinking about getting his own laser machine.

"I definitely approached it as just an idea to protect my own equipment," he said. Then he "figured why not offer this service to someone who can use it?"

Tiede's $5,000 machine should arrive Monday. He estimates it will take about $7,000 to buy a van and build it out, creating "a full design shop on wheels," as he described it. By October, he hopes to be doing mobile laser engraving.

His prices -- part of what he presented to judges Thursday -- are tentatively structured like this: customers pay a one-time $25 set-up fee, which includes basic design work. He'll charge $1.85 per piece for under 50 pieces. Then prices go down in tiers. At the other end of the spectrum, he'll charge $1.10 per piece for more than 500 pieces. Tiede is projecting $80,000 to $90,000 in first-year sales. He anticipates monthly costs, excluding salaries and commission, will be $2,500.

Launch's competition had some other winners.

Wee Care Diaper Service, a mobile cloth diaper and cleaning service, placed second, getting a $1,500 prize package. Three Chattanooga dads founded the company: Matt Ashworth, Lee Gates and Jason Mitchell. Wee Care places specially outfitted trucks in key locations for parents to drop off used diapers and get clean ones.

And S&S Auto Service placed third winning a $750 prize package. Founder Sherman Suttles offers on-site auto appraisals for folks before they buy a car.

Foot-long hotdogs, mobile home-cooked meals, mobile fashion, financial consulting and on-site childcare were among other business pursuits presented.

The audience of about 150 had a hand in picking the winners. Their votes counted for 20 percent of the final tally.

The rest of the decision was left to a panel of judges: Stefanie Crowe, executive vice president of Capital Mark Bank; Brandon Ellis, founder of Local Motive; Tangela Johnson, president/CEO of North Georgia Center for Educational Excellence; Miller Welborn, a partner at Lamp Post Group, the venture incubator; and Donna Williams, administrator of Chattanooga's Office of Economic and Community Development.

Launch's Entrepreneurship Academy, now in its third year, has coached about 150 companies, said Hal Bowling, the nonprofit's co-founder. About 71 are up and running, employing 106 people, he said. All 150 or so companies were invited to apply for a spot at the pitch session, and 45 did.

The Entrepreneurship Academy costs $100 and is value at $5,000, Bowling said. Launch's help doesn't cut off after 10 weeks, the pitch session being a case in point. The next class starts Sept. 18. For more information, check

"We really want to see businesses start and have access to resources," Bowling said.

Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at or 423-757-6406.