Idea Leap program expands to aid Chattanooga startup businesses

Chattanooga's biggest credit union will mark the start of National Small Business Week next week by opening up applications for an expanded grant program to help capitalize growing startup businesses.

In its 5th year, the Idea Leap program launched by the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union (TVFCU) is being doubled in size to provide $100,000 of grants this year to help propel five local companies judged by a panel of experts to offer the most potential for growth and service. Businesses in the 13 counties in the Chattanooga area served by TVFCU that have been in business for at least one year and have fewer than 25 employees will be eligible to apply for the grants, which will be awarded during Chattanooga's Startup Week this fall.

"We're upping our ante this year," TVFCU President Todd Fortner said Friday in an announcement of the expanded Idea Leap program. "In the past, we've awarded $50,000 a year and we're doubling that amount this year."

Since the credit union launched its Idea Leap initiative in 2016 to provide loans for startup businesses recommended by local business assistance organizations, more than 175 local companies have collectively received more than $4 million in loans to help build their businesses. From the proceeds of those loans, TVFCU created its annual Idea Leap grants, which have awarded more than $220,000 already to startup ventures in the past four years.

Cynthia Evans, who started Champion Christian Learning Academy in Brainerd in 2017, won a $15,000 grant last year from the Idea Leap program to allow her to add and equip another classroom last year and help expand her school to a current enrollment of 103 students,

"I had a long waiting list and this really help me to expand and provide the services to help get kids ready for school, which I think is so critical in our community," Evans said.

Bryant Hawkins, owner of Wild Violet Permeculture LLC on Signal Mountain, won a $10,000 grant last year to help build a nursery to help grow more of its own plants for its sustainable agricultural business.

"This gave us a little bit of liquidity to help grow our business and free up more of our time," he said.

TVFCU works with local startup business groups like CoLab, Launch Chattanooga, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, Brightbridge Capital and the Tennessee Small Business Development District, among other groups, to help identify and aid new business ventures.

Tommy Nix, vice president of business and commercial services at TVFCU, said the Idea Leap program "is a big part of our commitment to our community" to help small businesses to grow and flourish. From among the applicants who apply for the next round of grants through June 3, an independent panel of judges from across the community will review the proposals and select finalists for participation in the pitch competitions during Startup Week in October.

"As a community-owned credit union, we realize that a rising tide lifts all boats and we're eager to help grow Chattanooga's startup community," Nix said in an announcement of the grant program on Friday.

Businesses may find out more about the program and apply at

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.