As innovation districts pop up around the country, Chattanooga’s stands out among the crowd. It’s unique, it’s accessible, and the country is taking notice.
As a country, we’ve grown used to technological innovators finding their homes in sprawling suburban complexes and isolated research parks. We’re familiar with startup culture stereotypes like work-obsession, little sleep, and laser-sharp focus. These are scripts we know, and these are scripts we’ve followed with little deviation.
Until now. In a seminal report released by the Brookings Institution in May of 2014, economist Bruce Katz describes the shift technological innovation and entrepreneurial behavior are undergoing in the U.S. No longer does innovation look like work-obsessed individualism of yesteryear. The next generation of bright ideas, he argues, will spring from collaboration – but not just any kind of collaboration. Collaboration that occurs in what he calls “innovation districts.”
WHAT’S AN INNOVATION DISTRICT?
Innovation districts have sprung up around the country in major cities like Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago. Unlike the isolated corporate centers which preceded them, these districts are, according to the Brookings Institution, places where “leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with startups, business incubators, and accelerators.”
They are compact, transit-friendly, and wired. Designed for workers with a work-live-play value system, they also offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.
Cities now investing in innovation districts believe cultivating sense of place, collaboration, and work-life balance will benefit cities and companies alike – and with good reason. A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review chronicled how companies long associated with Silicon Valley—the Googles and the Amazons of the startup world—are now moving to urban areas. Eager to recruit the next generation of bright thinkers and position themselves in hotbeds of creativity, they’re courting locales where employees will have access to other entrepreneurs, public transportation, and a thriving downtown life.
HOW WE GOT ONE
It’s no secret that Chattanooga’s tech and startup culture has grown steadily since the introduction of “The Gig”—Chattanooga’s (EPB) gigabit-per-second Internet capability. In 2012, tech startups from around the world spent the summer in Chattanooga for the first GIGTANK competition. The overwhelming success of this first event and subsequent GIGTANKs made clear our community had enormous potential. Civic leaders felt that, with a little support, Chattanooga was poised for an innovation boom.
In 2013, Mayor Andy Berke introduced the Chattanooga Forward initiative, which included a task force focused on technology, the Gig, and entrepreneurship. He charged the task force with this question: how can we best cultivate and steward our city’s technological resources? Out of this initiative came the decision to launch an innovation district.
Of course, with no other mid-sized cities to imitate, Chattanooga’s Innovation District would be the first of its kind. But the task force believed an innovation district could both strengthen the Chattanooga tech community and improve our city’s economy and quality of life. It could make Chattanooga a better and stronger city—and so work began.
In his March 2014 “State of the City” address, Mayor Andy Berke charged The Enterprise Center, now under the leadership of president and CEO Ken Hays, to establish an Innovation District in Chattanooga. In January of the following year, Berke, along with Hays and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, announced the official launch of the Innovation District at a press conference.
Both The Enterprise Center and local business accelerator CO.LAB would relocate their headquarters to the Edney Building downtown to serve as the district’s “anchor tenants,” the officials said. The downtown Innovation Center, dubbed “The Edney,” would be the nucleus of the activity
Today, the Innovation District is defined as the 140 acres surrounding the Edney Building, or a quarter-mile walk in every direction. In September, the city painted the Innovation District’s mark on Market Street and hung streetlight banners – a visible indicator that the Innovation District had truly come to town.
WHY LOCATION MATTERS
Mayor Berke and others consistently point to the significance of a physical place where innovative Chattanoogans can work and gather. A hub can help move our entrepreneurial economy and ecosystem forward.
The Brookings Institution points to innovation districts in places like Boston and Detroit as success stories of the power of a place designated for entrepreneurship and innovation.
Since Boston charted out its own innovation district in 2010, more than 200 companies have joined the district and an estimated 5,000 jobs have been added to the area. Detroit also claims an innovation district with surprising growth. The home of Quicken Loans, the nation’s second largest mortgage lender since 2009, Detroit’s innovation district has been credited with the city’s midtown revival. Many believe if Detroit is saved from bankruptcy, it may be because of its innovation district’s success.
WHY IT FITS CHATTANOOGA
The nation has watched as innovation districts have sprung up in large cities like Boston, Detroit, Seattle, and New York. But is Chattanooga ready for such a large undertaking? To gauge our preparedness, local leaders looked at what Brookings calls the three key elements of innovation districts: economic assets, physical assets, and networking assets. They found Chattanooga’s culture and civic leadership had in fact prewired the city for success in each of these three areas.
The Chattanooga Forward task force also reviewed our city’s strengths and weaknesses to evaluate whether it was a fit. At the conclusion, it felt the city’s strengths – its spirit, high-fiber network, entrepreneurial culture, and deeply invested local and national partners – offered just the right mix.
A TASTE OF WHAT’S TO COME
What’s in store for Chattanooga’s innovative future? As Chattanooga’s Innovation District takes shape and continues to grow, research from the Brookings Institution suggests two outcomes: 1) density of the city’s entrepreneurs will continue to increase as more entrepreneurs make Chattanooga their home, and 2) the city’s economy will continue to improve for all Chattanooga citizens.
Hints of the Innovation District’s bright future can be seen in the continued national attention Chattanooga’s startup scene has garnered. During the city’s Startup Week in October, a celebration of our entrepreneurial community, Startup Angels—a national organization of investors and startup leaders—held its 2015 AngelSummit US conference in Chattanooga. This brought more than 200 entrepreneurial leaders to the city. Other AngelSummits have been held in larger cities like Dallas, Texas, and Madrid, Spain.
Key leaders of the Innovation District, including Ken Hays, president of the Enterprise Center, and Mike Bradshaw, director of the CO.LAB, point to an emphasis on growing digital equity. If Chattanooga’s Innovation District is going to benefit the whole city, then innovation needs to benefit all Chattanoogans. The Enterprise Center is working on an initiative called Tech Goes Home Chattanooga. It is a program designed to equip men and women with little or no exposure to the Internet with the tools to learn how to use a computer, own a computer, and gain access to a low-cost Internet service.
Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, visited Chattanooga in the fall and noted the city is “inventing a distinctive version of an innovation district that builds on their high quality of life, unique competitive advantages, and collaborative culture. The more traditional innovation districts have a lot to learn from the Gig City.” Read on for conversations with Ken Hays and Mike Bradshaw, two of Chattanooga’s leading voices of innovation.
A Conversation with Ken Hays
Ken Hays is the president and CEO of the Enterprise Center. He served as co-chair of Chattanooga Forward’s technology, gig, and entrepreneurship task force along with Sydney Crisp at Unum and David Belitz of The Lupton Company.
WHAT ARE THE DRIVING VALUES OF THE INNOVATION DISTRICT?
You can find a great description of our values in the Chattanooga Forward task force report we put together. As a city, we believe information technology and innovation are driving the new global economy, we believe in working together collaboratively, we believe equity and inclusion must be hallmarks of our work, and we believe Chattanooga’s unique character and spirit are key advantages for a leap into the new economy.
HOW IS CHATTANOOGA IN A UNIQUE POSITION TO HOUSE AN INNOVATION DISTRICT
One of the biggest words you hear coming out of top universities and think tanks is collaboration. We live in a collaborative society. I think Chattanooga stepped into the whole world of collaboration way before it gained its reputation as a tool for moving communities forward. And collaboration is a lot easier here because we’re a scalable community. The beauty of Chattanooga right now is we always have great stuff happening, and every year it gets greater and greater.
WHAT MAKES THE CONCENTRATION OF CHATTANOOGA’S INNOVATION WORKFORCE SO IMPORTANT
It all goes back to collaboration. We’re giving people the opportunity to bump into someone and solve problems together. Research shows if you’re concentrated in one area, the exponential growth of your innovation economy will happen much quicker and more naturally.
What is your long-term vision for the innovation district?
I hope to see a denser city and exponential growth in the number of these wickedly smart kids who just love downtown Chattanooga. I’d love it to be where they are starting their businesses, but also where they are living. Placemaking is so crucial for this, because to attract this innovation economy workforce, you’ve got to offer them a great place to live and work. We’ve got that piece of the Innovation District humming well—you can look at our bike-share program, our electric buses, our public places, and our entertainment opportunities. I also hope to see more success stories like Quickcue and Access America. I want more startups to succeed, because their success is a success for the whole community, and will ultimately make Chattanooga a better place to live, work, and play.
A Conversation with Mike Bradshaw
Mike Bradshaw directs the Company Lab (CO.LAB) and was one of the original members of the Chattanooga Forward task force charged with thinking through the future of Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial economy.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH CHATTANOOGA’S INNOVATION DISTRICT
I was asked to participate in the Chattanooga Forward task force convened by the Mayor. Through that conclave, we realized a fire had lit within our entrepreneurial ecosystem. To flame it could benefit not only entrepreneurial types, but the wider economy as well. It was at this same time Brookings Institution was doing research on innovation districts in major cities, and it seemed like a trend worthy of our close attention. Brookings revealed to us the impact an area with a high density of creative people could have on a downtown area.
HOW HAS CHATTANOOGA’S STARTUP COMMUNITY EVOLVED?
It’s developed in this really organic way. All along it’s been backed by different forward thinkers, including many from our local foundations, but no one was trying to grow it by compulsion. It just happened from the ground up. So you could say Chattanooga’s culture allowed us to get it right. And now, after years of natural development, we’re looking for ways to coalesce all this startup activity. From CO.LAB’s perspective, the Innovation District has the potential to take it to the next level. For one, it’s the first physical marker of the startup community’s existence.
WHY IS A PHYSICAL SPACE FOR INNOVATION IMPORTANT
Entrepreneurship is too often a lonely profession when a support network can make a drastic difference in a business’s success. Entrepreneurs now have that network here in Chattanooga. This district is a place where innovative minds can run into each other daily, sometimes by happenstance. You might see someone at a coffee shop, or strike up a conversation on a street corner, and that chance meeting will turn out to bear a lot of fruit. CO.LAB was asked to move from the Southside to be an anchor tenant of the Innovation District. Already, we’ve seen the advantages of being in a central location. In just a few weeks, we were running into more people and having more people drop by our offices. And much of this was even before we put up a sign.