In the past decade and a half since he began working at the Hamilton County Business Development Center, Bill Lupia has seen scores of entrepreneurs "hatch" their ideas into successful businesses while being nurtured in the North Chattanooga business incubator.
"The incubator provides not only lower building and utility costs when businesses are getting started, it also brings together a diverse mix of entrepreneurs who learn from one another about building their businesses," says Lupia, who was promoted this summer to head the facility billed as the INCubator. "Our clients find their own mentors inside the building and I think the synergy of having so many startups and growing businesses in one place is one of the biggest assets we offer."
With 127,000 square feet of space for office or manufacturing work, the INCubator at Manufacturers Road and Cherokee Boulevard is the biggest business incubator in Tennessee and the third largest in the United States. Since its opening in the former 3M factory building in 1988, the Incubator has nurtured and grown more than 600 businesses across an array of industries.
From technology companies like the 3D printing and building company Branch Technologies to consumer product companies like CPR Wrap and Hoff & Pepper, the startup businesses and graduates of the INCubator on Chattanooga's North Shore are generating millions of dollars in sales and employing hundreds of local workers.
While the U.S. Small Business Administration says half of all business startups fail within their first five years, the INCubator created on Chattanooga's North Shore so far has achieved a 94% success and survival rate for businesses in the first five years. In its 33-year history, the INCubator has graduated 615 businesses that have moved on to their own offices or factories elsewhere in Chattanooga.
The INCubator is currently home to 43 businesses that share access to common meeting spaces and break rooms and enjoy below-market rental rates for office and factory space. Although the growth of remote work during the coronavirus pandemic reduced demand for office space at the INCubator as it did with most commercial offices, Lupia said demand for factory and warehouse space has remained strong at the INCubator.
INCubator at a glance
* Name: Hamilton County Business Development Center
* Location: 100 Cherokee Boulevard in North Chattanooga
* Size: 127,000 square feet of offices, manufacturing and warehouse space on three floors, the third biggest business incubator in the U.S.
* History: The former 3M building was renovated into a business incubator and opened with 10 initial tenants in 1988
* Owner: Hamilton County government
* Operator: Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce
* Amenities: Discounted rent, free utilities, shared meeting spaces, services of the Small Business Development Center
* Tenants: Currently 43 businesses
* Graduates: 615 over the incubator’s 33-year history
Source: Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce
"More startups are working from home now and the pandemic has been hard on many businesses," says Lupia, who adds that the INCubator has more than a dozen office space openings. "But the pandemic has also created lots of opportunities for new businesses that we are trying to help to grow in the INCubator."
Tony DiSanto, a mechanical and electrical engineer who is founder and co-CEO of One Off Robotics, has the distinction of working at the INCubator as long as anyone. Before starting his own business, DiSanto began working at Branch Technologies as a robotics engineer where he designed and built 3D printed buildings and equipment for everyone from NASA to the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union. A couple of years ago, DiSanto broke off from Branch to start his own 3D printing operation.
"The INCubator offers great space at affordable costs and you get tremendous support and encouragement from other tenants also trying to grow their businesses," DiSanto says "This is a great location that offers a lot of opportunities to interact with other people in a whole range of different businesses. We have a lot of great neighbors who help each other out and that help makes all of us more successful."
The INCubator offers below-market commercial building rates starting around $6 a square foot for some manufacturing space and $8 a square foot for office space, including utilities and access to common board rooms and other meeting areas. Rates rise the longer the clients stay, and businesses must move out of the INCubator within five years.
The INCubator houses both the local office of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center and the headquarters of Launch Chattanooga, two agencies that work to help entrepreneurs to start and grow their small businesses. The INCubator also complements other services offered in Chattanooga for startup companies in the downtown Innovation District, including the Company Lab, the Enterprise Center and the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce's Starting Block program.
Among the 615 companies that grew at the INCubator and moved into their own facilities in Chattanooga since 1988 are:
* Branch Technologies, a 3D printing company, builds materials that allow for creative designs and more insulation than conventional building approaches and has raised more than $22 million of equity capital to fund its continuing growth on Riverfront Parkway.
* RMJ Tactical manufactures a variety of elite military tactical gear, from hatchets to knives to the tomahawk, at its factory and warehouse on Hawthorne Street.
* CPR Lifewrap, which produces a patented CPR template used to guide non-medical responders to help those with heart attacks, choking or strokes, has grown into a business valued at $3 million after winning the pitch competition held by the Nashville Entrepreneur Center earlier this year.
* Manufacturing Repair and Overstock, Inc. (MRO), an industrial equipment repair shop that receives, inspects and fixes automated industrial parts from across the country, has grown to 50-employee firm on South Creek Road.
* Variable, Inc., developed a digital tool and app known as the NODE that uses color matching technology to scan and identify colors and then find matching palettes and products via the app. The company on Clay Street has five patents already and expects more in the future.
* Tennessee Moonshine cakes has expanded to include moonshine jams, honeys, hot sauce and barbecue sauces.
* Rustic House makes and sells hand poured luxury soy candles both online and in retail stores across the country
* BWY Transportation, a truckload carrier and agent of Greatwide Truckload Management, has expanded with offices in East Brainerd
* J&J Commercial Services is a sales and distribution company that services the bottling, food service equipment, lighting and multifamily and hospitality industries
"The support we have gotten from Tennessee was definitely a draw to bring us here and has really aided in our company's growth," says Platt Boyd, founder and CEO of Branch Technologies, which started in the INCubator as a three-person company and has grown to a 50-employee firm on Riverside Drive. "There is a real network of startups, a number of accelerator programs to help small businesses grow and the resources of places like ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) up the road to help us with new materials, designs and innovation."
Lupia, who was promoted to director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the INCubator after 17 years with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, says he hopes to develop programs for successful INCubator graduates like Branch Technologies to aid and mentor other local startups.
A native Texan, Lupia is a former U.S. Air Force sergeant with commendations for his Desert Shield and Desert Storm service. Lupia, an Eagle Scout, also serves as a leader and board member of the Boy Scouts of America Cherokee Area Council and serves on the board of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center.
"Bill, along with our team, offers years of experience to lift up entrepreneurs so they can keep innovating," says Christy Gillenwater, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.
"As a leader in our startup community in Chattanooga, Bill believes strongly in the importance of advancing the aspirations of entrepreneurs, especially through the many educational and support services he and our partners deliver. Our INCubator provides an easy-to-understand start-up shop all in one place."