Chattanooga small-business loan program grows, seeks applicants for Idea Leap grants

Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / Todd Fortner, president of the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, announces the start of the sixth annual Idea Leap competition Wednesday to provide grants for growing small businesses in the credit union's 17-county service region.

After awarding $300,000 in grants for small businesses in Chattanooga over the past five years, Chattanooga's biggest credit union is expanding its Idea Leap competition this year to provide more such grants with separate competitions in Chattanooga, Cleveland, Tennessee, and Dalton, Georgia.

The Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union kicked off its sixth annual grant competition Wednesday, inviting growing companies that have been in business for at least a year with under $2.5 million in annual revenues to apply for grant funding for their businesses. The credit union plans to give away $175,000 into the local small business ecosystem in 2023, including $75,000 in Chattanooga and $50,000 each in Cleveland and Dalton.

Businesses can begin the application process this week, leading up to the selection of finalists and a pitch competition for the final prizes in May, when companies may receive from $10,000 to $30,000 each.

"This is about investing in our community and making our entrepreneurial system a little bit stronger, which makes all of us stronger," credit union Vice President Tommy Nix said Wednesday during an announcement of the Chattanooga competition.

Since the credit union launched its Idea Leap initiative in 2016 to provide loans for startup businesses recommended by local business assistance organizations, nearly 200 companies have received loans to help build their businesses. From the proceeds of those loans, Nix said the credit union created its annual Idea Leap grants.

Last month, judges in the Idea Leap contest selected the coffee retailer Be Caffeinated as the top winner, awarding $50,000 to the Chattanooga firm. Christopher Wood, who launched the business four years ago in Red Bank and has since expanded Be Caffeinated to four drive-through outlets, said the prize money is allowing him to buy a commercial bagel-making oven, which he expects to soon put in operation to expand the bakery offerings at more of his coffee outlets.

Applications for the next round of prizes in the Idea Leap program will be taken through Dec. 16 and may be submitted online at

— Compiled by Dave Flessner