The organizers of an annual week-long showcase and celebration of Chattanooga's entrepreneurial community are moving Startup Week online and seeking event proposals for the revamped event.
"Across the country, we have seen historically large, in-person events quickly pivot to a virtual format," said Marcus Shaw, CEO of CO.LAB, a nonprofit organization that supports entrepreneurial growth in Southeast Tennessee. "It became clear in recent months that making the leap to virtual is a responsible step to ensuring the health and safety of our community."
Startup Week, which will be hosted virtually from Oct. 19 to 23, launched in 2014 with an average of 90 events and more than 3,000 attendees each year. It typically features a week of in-person panels, networking meetings, pitch competitions and awards ceremonies across the city.
While a virtual event will create a different environment from what attendees normally experience, Shaw said the online format will also offer new opportunities.
"In this year's event, we could see featured speakers that would normally not be able to come to Chattanooga, as well as more attendees from our region and beyond as this year's event will be more accessible than ever," Shaw said.
Startup Week goes online
Startup Week will be hosted virtually from Oct. 19 to 23. Applications for event proposals will be accepted through Tuesday, Aug. 25. Visit startupweekcha.com to submit an event proposal.
Over the last five months, CO.LAB has shifted nearly all of its programming from its home base in the Edney Building in downtown Chattanooga's Innovation District to online platforms, redefining the way it fulfills its place as a "front door to entrepreneurship" in the region, Program Manager Tim Moore said.
"Our foundation has always been our accessibility, including actual physical space," Moore said. "We've had to think about what that looks like in this new world."
The forced shift to virtual networking and programming has delivered some benefits that CO.LAB will likely keep in mind once this crisis passes, Moore said. For programs like the Health Tech Accelerator and the Consumer Goods Accelerator, which help high-growth startups scale their ideas, the all-online format has vastly expanded the scope of participants and expertise, he said.
"I still think we very much value in-person connection, however, I think the whole experience this year has showed us that programming in the future can be hybrid," Moore said. "It's going to shape our programs moving forward."
In addition to moving it online, CO.LAB has shifted to providing its Costarters program for free, he added. The program, which helps entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground, has typically cost participants about $250, Moore said.
"This whole crisis has brought hardships on people," he said. "When we saw how much this crisis has been affecting our business community, we decided it was really an opportunity to extend the Costarters program."
Shaw said one asset that will help produce a strong virtual Startup Week is the city's gigabit infrastructure through EPB, which has been a sponsor of the event since was founded. Given the challenges the business community has faced in the COVID-19 crisis, Shaw predicted a shift in the focus of the event to topics relevant to current needs as businesses scramble to adapt to a crisis that has affected nearly every aspect of the health and economy of the country.
In a virtual community meeting hosted at the end of July, some Startup Week attendees expressed interest in events focused on boosting digital presence for businesses, shifting to direct-to-consumer sales, and building a healthy work-at-home culture, he said.
Heightened conversations around racial justice this year also drove interest in creating events around diversity and inclusion in the workplace, Shaw said.
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