Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, Double Cola back contests to aid Chattanooga startups

Startup Week shifting from this fall to next spring

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tommy Nix, left, vice president of Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, talks to Double Cola CEO Alnoor Dhanani at the Miller Plaza Waterhouse Pavilion on Wednesday. The Chattanooga companies are sponsoring "Idea Leap" and "Will It Float?" competitions this fall to aid startup businesses.

Chattanooga's Startup Week is shifting from this fall to next spring as its main sponsor, the Company Lab, develops plans for what officials say will be a bigger weeklong celebration and training for startup businesses next year.

But the pitch competitions that have often been the highlight of Startup Week will continue in October to help propel business ideas and startup ventures.

To help celebrate its 100-year anniversary this year, Double Cola will sponsor pitch competitions for both youth and adults in the annual "Will This Float?" competition, which has helped recognize and launch business ideas since the "Shark Tank"-like event began in 2010.

At the same time, Chattanooga's biggest credit union, the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, is expanding its "Idea Leap" program this year to provide a total of $100,000 in grants to startup businesses judged to be the most promising for growth.

"As Co.Lab takes a season off from Startup Week CHA and how it's been done traditionally, we wanted to refocus on a couple of really important and impactful events," Co.Lab CEO Tasia Malakasis said Wednesday during a news conference at Miller Plaza. "We've created opportunities for young entrepreneurs this year, adding even more value."

Last year, Startup Week drew more than 1,000 participants to nearly 100 different training, networking and award in-person events after the previous year in which all of the events shifted online during the pandemic.

Malakasis, who was recently named to head the Company Lab, said her team is "in the process of building a bigger and better Co.Lab, which means we will be building a bigger and better Startup Week" next year. But Malakasis said the pitch competitions are important to continue this fall to showcase promising business ideas and growing startup businesses.

The "Will This Float?" pitch competition will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 17 and will focus on consumer packaged goods. Alnoor Dhanani, CEO of Double Cola, said his company is sponsoring the pitch competition this year for both adult founders and students. The soft drink company is offering $5,000 of prize money for the winners.

"Innovation has long been one of the hallmarks of the Chattanooga ethos," Dhanani said during Wednesday's announcement of the event. "It is something we identify with, and it is an integral part of who we are. That's why we are so proud to back Co.Lab. and 'Will This Float?'."

Founders who win the "Will This Float?" competition will win not only a cash prize, but they will also receive quarterly consulting guidance and free passes to next year's 36|86 Entrepreneurial Festival in Nashville.

Student participants will be awarded consulting services from local experts, including Malakasis, who scaled and sold artisan goat cheese company Belle Chevre before joining the Co.Lab.

Register to compete in the "Will This Float?" competition

On Oct. 18, the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union will host its fifth annual Idea Leap grant pitch among the top 10 finalists selected from among the 150 businesses that applied this spring. The competition will culminate with five entrepreneurs winning a total of $100,000 in grant funds, including $50,000 for the top company, $20,000 to the runner-up and $10,000 grants to three other businesses.

The Idea Leap grant is an extension of the credit union's small business loan initiative created in 2016. To date, the credit union has funded more than $4.2 million in loans to more than 175 entrepreneurs through that program. Additionally, the credit union has awarded nearly $200,000 in Idea Leap grants to dozens of local businesses since the program's inception in 2018.

Past winners include The Hot Chocolatier, Hutton & Smith Brewing Co., Chatt Taste Food Tours, Locals Only Gifts & Goods and Mad Priest Coffee Roasters.

"These grants have made a huge difference for these businesses, and I think out of all of our selected businesses, all of them are still in business except one, and most of them have continued to grow," Tommy Nix, vice president of business and commercial services at the credit union, said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I think this program has been phenomenally successful. We're excited to continually invest in the communities we serve."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter at @dflessner1