With a new team on board and more than a decade in the books, the nonprofit small-business booster the Company Lab is refreshing, well, pretty much everything.
"It's just kind of time," says CEO Lindsey Cox, who took the helm in April, becoming the fifth person to lead the organization in its 11-year history. "We've always been a leader in this space, so being a leader in reinvention is natural for us."
Right out of the gate, the Company Lab, also known as CO.LAB, will jettison some dormant programming, double down on what works, and add new areas of focus that align with Chattanooga's outdoor offerings. Further down the road, Cox hopes to launch a fund that will give CO.LAB the ability to invest financially in companies that come through its programs and go on to do big things, Cox says.
"We are now seeing these companies that came through CO.LAB in '14, '15, '16 that have gone on to be incredibly successful," Cox says, citing examples including Bellhop, Branch Technology and Variable.
"All those companies have raised money, and none have exited yet, but we know they will eventually," she says. "Imagine if we have been able to invest money in those companies. I don't want us to miss out on that."
The top priority for her team of six now, though, is to "reset the clock" on programming, Cox says. A new director of programs, Christine DiPietro, joined the team in August, coming from Austin, Texas, where she worked on Techstars, an international business accelerator that supports 500 companies a year with mentoring and funding.
One of her goals in the new role at CO.LAB is to shift resources from optics-oriented activities like pitch competitions to the deeper work it takes to grow a company, DiPietro says.
"I love a good pitch competition, but pitching isn't an entrepreneurial skill," DiPietro says. "Making things happen, closing deals, is. So many people are focused on pitch competitions, but they are a huge distraction from building products."
One big change happening immediately is to CO.LAB's Gig Tank program, which had been a summer program to give technology-enabled startups access to mentors and funding. That program will become a year-round offering, and will have an increased focus on female founders, thanks to $50,000 in funding from the Small Business Administration.
"The year-round model allows the technology and the business to develop in tandem," Cox says. "When you shove tech companies into a 10- or 12-week program, your technology can take longer to develop."
CO.LAB is pulling the plug on other programs that had gone dormant, including the Health Tech Accelerator, Cox says.
"Not that they didn't do a fabulous job running it, but it isn't something we need to redo," she says. "The year-'round Gig Tank will work better for supporting that work."
CO.LAB by the numbers
* Since it was established in September 2010, CO. LAB has accelerated more than 650 businesses through structured programming.
* About 46% of those businesses were woman-led or had a woman in a founding team or c-suite.
* CO.LAB also has 79 individuals serving in a mentor network, with 30% being female.
A new program that capitalizes on Chattanooga's natural attractions is also in the offing, hoping to create a density of industry around the outdoors, Cox says.
"The other program we are running down hard right now is launching an outdoor recreation accelerator — we're super-excited about that," she says. "We're hoping to use Reflection Riding as a test bed for technology."
CO.LAB was born in 2010 from predecessor organization CreateHere, and it has evolved significantly over the years, sharpening its focus on supporting women and minority founders as well as developing a thriving consumer goods segment.
The organization's most recent past CEO, Marcus Shaw, left in the first quarter of 2021 after not quite four years at the helm of the organization that has been a catalyst for Chattanooga's growing startup culture. After stepping into the role in April, Cox oversaw a restructuring of the organization that emphasized programming and communication.
The team now has just two members who were there when Cox arrived: Zac Beker, grants and programs manager, who joined CO.LAB in December, 2015, and Kirk Burton, director of operations, who has been with CO.LAB since March 2020.
The team is rebooting CO.LAB while also grappling with the fallout of a pandemic that upended the inherently in-person, collaborative spirit of the organization, Cox says. But with a recently wrapped Startup Week 2021 in the books — most of it executed in person and largely outdoors — Cox says she feels optimistic that the efforts will jumpstart a nascent but promising entrepreneurial scene that had recently lost some momentum.
"Other places have caught up with us," she says. "We were early, and that's not the case any more."
The high-speed internet that continues to be a major selling point of the Scenic City isn't as unique as it once was, and Chattanooga's startup scene will have to find other ways to differentiate itself, Cox says.
"It makes perfect sense that we would be leveraging the learnings of our own organization, and observing what others have accomplished, and taking all of those things and producing the best organization we can," she says.
The CO.LAB team has returned to its physical home in the Edney building at the corner of 11th and Market streets, and is seeing members of the public by appointment, Cox says.
"We have not made some big announcement that we're open for business, but you can call and schedule with us and we'll meet you in person or virtual," she says. "We're definitely more open than we were when I arrived."
Online at colab.co
Consumer Goods Accelerator:
* What: 10-week incubator in partnership with restaurant booster Proof
* Who: Helps entrepreneurs who have a physical product and want help getting to the next level
* Curriculum: includes finance, operations, branding, marketing, distribution, fundraising
* Previous grads: ChatterBox Café, Chattanooga Sports League , Sequatchie Cove Creamery, Cocoa Asante, ChattTaste
* What: Crowdfunding capital platform that offers zero-interest loan up to $15,000
* Who: Focus on underserved communities, companies who aren’t able to get a traditional loan
* By the Numbers: 23 companies funded since 2018; $133,500 in loans given over those 3 years
* What: Year-round mentoring program
* Who: Tech-enabled companies
* What: New program aimed at helping grow businesses that will thrive in an outdoors city
* Who: People with startup ideas connected to the outdoors
* What: Program that takes entrepreneurs from idea on a napkin to business plan
* Who: Early stage entrepreneurs
* Successes: Taqueria Jalisco, Creekside Flower Farm
Wayfinding and Office Hours
* What: Ways for individuals to get one-on-one help
* Who: Wayfinding is for anyone who has questions about local entrepreneurship and is at the very beginning of their journey. CO.LAB points them to resources, including resources beyond CO.LAB such as the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, the INCubator, Launch Tennessee or Launch Chattanooga
Office hours are for individuals to meet with experts who can help them in specific areas, such as accounting, real estate, software, marketing, legal
The Edney building is the anchor of the city's Innovation District, a half-mile radius around Miller Park established in 2014 by then-Mayor Andy Berke to create a home base for support for entrepreneurs in the area.
The pandemic has made it tough to foster the interactions that were at the heart of the district's success, but there is a tentative return to something like normal, says Kevin Love, director of Innovation District programs for the city's Enterprise Center, which is also housed in the Edney.
In October, Startup Week and HipHop Week energized the district, as did the return of the summer Nightfall concert series and the opening of the newly redesigned and renamed Patten Square, Love says.
"We're getting back to that working-living-and-playing aspect of the district," he says. "We're definitely putting it out that the district is back and active."