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theCO: Co-Operative effort

Most entrepreneurs don’t need a lot of room early on. Garages, dorm rooms … the idea factory often is, in fact, quite small. But if someone in the Jackson, TN, area has a big idea that needs plenty of elbow room, theCO stands ready to help.

“We’ve got a 10,000-square-foot facility here, and it’s split up into co-working space, a maker’s space, an event facility, conference area … and we utilize all those to help our members grow their businesses,” says Ben Ferguson, CO:founder and CEO. “We also have a strong outward focus, because a lot of area businesses use our space for events and meet-ups, as well as partner with us on workshops.”

That collaboration is on full view most every Tuesday, when the facility hosts events that cater to all of the various types of people theCO caters to. The goal is to tap into the community’s entrepreneurial vibe by reaching out to makers, programming professionals, the creative community, business professionals and even white-hat hackers, Ferguson says.

“The hackers are a great group of co-conspirators,” he explains. “They just tear things apart and put them back together; we’re not breaking any laws, just having some fun, and a lot of solid ideas come out of those gatherings.”

Integrating with local schools

The accelerator also is working on its outward reach by partnering with area high schools, both public and private, with its CO:de Catalyst program.

“We’re working with a company called Treehouse, and using their web-based education platform to teach front-end development,” Ferguson says. “It is helping these students go from little or no experience in coding and developing to being a junior developer on the front-end side.”

In 2014, 87 students participated across three public high schools, with the top students getting a trip to San Francisco and a tour of Google, Stanford University and other tech meccas. This year Ferguson looks to have more than 200 students on board, a number he wants to see rose to 500 during 2016.

Providing basic skill sets

Creating that kind of startup mentality through education is a main driver for theCO, because the area it serves is fairly rural, and so doesn’t have a huge groundswell of startups ready for a regular accelerator program. It does offer the CO.STARTERS program three times a year, but makes that nine-week effort as generic as possible to provide business savvy vs. a venture-capital track.”

“We just don’t have the economy of scale in any one vertical to service just that area,” Ferguson explains. “So we’re trying to provide the resources to help any business that comes through the doors. We give them the tools and advice to get to the next step. We’re seeing a lot of lifestyle companies in the area, people who are opening local, small businesses, and those are creating jobs just as much as a venture-ready company. We do see some startups that have venture potential, however, mostly in the medical area, so we engage in a meaningful way with them as it makes sense for us.”

As an example, he points out the area’s regional public hospital group, which has resulted in around 5,000 medical practitioners in the local economy. theCO partnered with the Global Center for Medical Innovation out of Atlanta, as well as area chambers of commerce and West Tennessee Healthcare, to create a non-traditional accelerator for doctors, nurses or anyone else working on a device.

“GCMI came in and helped them scope out the commercial viability, and then worked with them through prototyping and animal testing, and also prepared them for the regulatory and reimbursement issues,” Ferguson says. “And all that was of no cost or loss of equity to the person who owned the idea.”

Three ideas were born of the endeavor, one of which is a pediatric intubation device that’s now on its fifth iteration and has a lot of promise, he says.

“There was another one for MRI patients who are hearing impaired, and the third was a process for attaching properties to polymers that would create an alternative to lead-based protective clothing,” he says.

Get on the bus

And proving that innovation knows no boundaries, theCO will pound the pavement in their CO:mobile, a donated bus they are working to retrofit into a mobile innovation lab for entrepreneurship on the road.

“We’ll take our 3-D printers and other equipment, along with a small computer lab, so that we can do coding education on site and some building as well,” Ferguson says. “We’ll take it to local festivals, schools, anywhere we can promote innovation in our region, and show students and adults some careers that are available to them that they may not know about — yet.”

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