Chattanooga’s startup ecosystem advances 3D technology.
Greater Chattanooga enjoys a rich legacy in manufacturing and innovation, enhanced by a wealth of highly educated talent and the launch of 10-gigabit Internet service. The next chapter of that innovation legacy includes the fabled Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s largest national laboratory strengthened its ties to the region with the opening of a one-of-a-kind office in downtown Chattanooga’s Innovation District.
Jeff Cornett, Manager, Industrial and Economic Development at ORNL, says the driving force for opening the office was to create “a connection point” for companies, startups and industry to interact with the lab.” One of the first collaborations is with Branch Technology, which pre-fabricates custom modular wall panels or architectural components using freeform 3D printing. The matrices are then filled with other materials and assembled together to make, say, a house — like the 3D printed house that Branch plans to complete in partnership with Chattanooga State Community College, says company founder R. Platt Boyd IV.
Another Chattanooga 3D startup of note is 3D Ops, a health care-focused 3D printing company. 3D Ops’ technology uses MRIs and CT scans to 3D print patient-specific anatomy. Surgeons can study and hold the 3D model and plan and practice a surgery before going into the operating room.“Knowing this technology is now available, would you ever want a family member to have surgery without it?” asks Keith Campbell, 3D Ops president and CEO. “I think we’re going to have an amazing impact on countless people in the near future.”
3D Innovation in Chattanooga
Another 3D printing startup in the region marries the best of 3D printing and the best of plastic casting. Chattanooga-based Collider launched a proprietary technology that allows the additive manufacturing of production-grade plastics. Additive manufacturing growth has stimulated related new businesses, too. The Fab Cloud, which sprang from Chattanooga’s GIGTank, is an online marketplace for 3D printed industrial parts, connecting customers with designers and manufacturers of components for the automotive, construction, and aerospace industries.
From private companies to incubators and accelerators to educational institutions, innovation is woven into the region. Shaw Industries, one of the region’s largest employers, opened a MakerSpace at Shaw Plant 2 in Dalton, Ga., in 2016 that is stocked with wood and metal working tools, 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools that allow people to develop new ideas.
“The MakerSpace’s mission is to accelerate the pace of discovery on how we improve our processes, products and people,” says Ishmal Lewis, Shaw senior software engineer, computer integrated manufacturing. “Associates can collaborate to prove concepts, develop prototypes and experiment with new technology. Most importantly, the MakerSpace is a philosophy that promotes open collaboration over technical specialization. This philosophy is based on the principle that problems are best solved by the collaboration of individuals with diverse skills, backgrounds and experience.”
Other resources in the region include the Bradley Business Incubator in Cleveland, Tenn., which offers office and manufacturing/service space to startups in operation for less than 12 months. “The entrepreneurial ecosystem is very supportive of startups and there is a lot of energy around them,” says Boyd of Branch Technology, who moved his family to the region. “In our building there are four new 3D printing technologies that are being developed or used by startups. With funding structures in place to support other startups with either age-old capital or venture capital, Chattanooga is becoming a national center for 3D printing.”
It’s also an increasingly attractive region in which to live, Boyd says: “The Chattanooga area is a beautiful place to have a company and a great place to raise a family.”