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CO.LAB: Revolving door

Chattanooga sees itself as a welcoming house for entrepreneurs to live in, and acting as its “front door” has served The Company Lab very well.

“We help aspiring startups figure out what to do in terms of what their next available steps are,” says Mike Bradshaw, executive director. “We do that in a lot of ways. They come to us with big dreams and big visions, and they want to get moving, but they have found out pretty quickly that there’s a lot to figure out. Our job is to get them plugged into a peer-based learning environment so they are surrounded with other startups whose efforts are taking many different forms. They are all struggling, but here they are struggling together — and they learn from each other.”

Bradshaw credits that CO.LAB approach, which has seen multiple successful exits, as helping “mentors and founders make their way through this thicket that often gets them stuck in the early stages.” Success has come through many different programs:

  • Three structured cohorts per year, each running between three and four months.
  • Will This Float? A business-pitch competition that puts a group of aspiring entrepreneurs in front of as many as 500 interested parties to present their startup ideas — in three minutes. Audience and judges vote for the best, which gets some cash and services to take it to the next level.
  • The 48Hour Launch, a weekend program that brings together entrepreneurs and mentors from the community to transform a startup concept into a viable business model or prototype, all in the course of a weekend.
  • CO.STARTERS, a nine-week “boot camp” of sorts for entrepreneurs to help them lay the groundwork for starting, and continuing, business operations. This program, like others CO.LAB has launched, has been so successful that versions of it are popping up in other LaunchTN accelerator sties, as well as other entrepreneurial hubs nationwide.
  • And then there’s GIGTANK, which is unique to CO.LAB in that it’s an accelerator primarily for startups working on broadband-based ideas. It exists because of Chattanooga’s 1Gpbs metro broadband service, and is a huge draw every summer.

“All these programs help entrepreneurs in different ways,” Bradshaw says. “Will This Float? and 48Hour Launch force people to focus in their intentions, and are really effective at keeping founders’ minds focused on their goals while they are getting encouragement from the community. It’s a lonely enterprise, launching a business, and we have put together a lot of ways that people can enter a whole new world and be successful.”

Capitalizing on unique strengths

Having something like GIGTANK, which literally cannot be replicated elsewhere, also helps CO.LAB stay on the cutting edge, Bradshaw notes.

“The question was, ‘If you had the world’s fastest Internet, what would you do with it? We have that in Chattanooga, and since 2012 we’ve been able to help new companies in a way that’s counter to the market,” Bradshaw says. “The visions we see are for products that there is no market for yet, because of the speed they need to operate, but we know those markets are coming. Cities around the country are coming to Chattanooga to see how the network grid is set up, and angel investors are coming by here to see what our entrepreneurs are coming up with to operate on it. Major companies are working on products and applications for this level of speed, but it’s our startups who understand how this works, and how to penetrate that market.”

And lest anyone think that the high-tech startups are absorbing all of CO.LAB’s oxygen, Bradshaw quickly points out the accelerator’s “all comers” policy.

“We have people working in a variety of different businesses, and the one thing they all have in common is solid growth prospects,” he says. “Our job is to expose those ideas to scrutiny, evaluation and testing, all done in a real marketplace. We tell them to get out there and sell something — get in front of customers as soon as you can. We serve as the front door, and we keep that door open wide so they can get it, but also so they can quickly get right back out.”

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