Greater Chattanooga thrives on ingenuity, teamwork and inclusion.
From electric vehicle production to smart streets to logistics breakthroughs, Greater Chattanooga weaves innovation throughout its key industry segments.
The region leverages its long legacy in sectors such as manufacturing and logistics with a network of resources that have created a dynamic and collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem that is sparking new technologies and breakout companies.
For Deb Socia, the secret ingredient for the innovation success enjoyed by the region is the widespread cooperation and collaboration between the public and private sectors. Socia moved to Chattanooga to serve as CEO of The Enterprise Center, a Chattanooga nonprofit that promotes the region as an innovation hub.
Getting the right players to the table can be difficult, but that isn’t an issue in Chattanooga, Socia says.
“I’m not going to say we do that perfectly all the time, but we do it way better than anybody I’ve ever seen,â€ says Socia, who took over The Enterprise Center in 2019.
Collaboration in Action
The center has partnered with other organizations, such as municipally owned utility EPB and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to facilitate grant applications to the National Science Foundation that have helped fund research initiatives at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC), one of the region’s innovation engines.
UTC’s Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) is a collective of professors and students across multiple disciplines who work together to research and problem solve urban challenges. The group works with the Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative (CSCC), comprised of the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, utility EPB, The Enterprise Center, UTC, the CO.LAB accelerator and Erlanger Health System.
The CUIP and CSCC created the MLK Smart Corridor on a heavily traveled 1.25-mile, 11-intersection stretch of downtown roadway. CUIP-placed sensors, cameras and audio track foot, bicycle, vehicle and transit traffic along the corridor. Team members analyze data on accidents, near misses, movement, air quality and other factors to give government policymakers information so they can better manage their resources and infrastructure.
“We don’t want to do research just for the sake of research,â€ says Mina Sartipi, Ph.D., CUIP director.
Greater Chattanooga’s strategic location has long made it a transportation hub. Tying together the city’s manufacturing history and innovation-focused future, Volkswagen has begun construction of a massive $800 million electric vehicle production facility that places the region at the epicenter of U.S. electric vehicle production. The new facility will continue to bring at least 1,000 new jobs to the area as VW will not only produce new cars, but also create an on-site electric battery production facility.
Outside the Box
Kenco Group, the nation’s largest woman-owned third-party logistics company, is one of the key players in the region’s critical mass of transportation and logistics expertise.The company in 2019 expanded its Innovation Lab into 10,000 square feet of space at its Chattanooga headquarters.
The lab serves as an incubator for customer-focused solutions, where the challenges of a real warehouse environment can be simulated to test everything from robotics and drones to shelving and safety devices, connecting Kenco customers and vendors to create new and efficient ways for them to do business.
“We’re not creating a new product. We’re innovating to upgrade our processes, upgrade our service levels and bring our customer’s product to market faster. The point is not to pick the best, but to pick the best for that particular customer,â€ says Kristi Montgomery, Kenco vice president of innovation, research and development.
In Rhea County, furniture manufacturer La-Z-Boy invested more than $18 million on a 70,000-square-foot innovation center at its manufacturing campus. The center serves as an innovation hub that takes products from design through commercialization. It allows employees to turn their ideas into a prototype, and if it’s successful, the item is essentially reverse engineered to see if the company can efficiently mass produce it.
“We want to get a physical prototype fast so that we can see if what we were dreaming about actually comes together right, looks beautiful and functions the way it’s supposed to,â€ says Gregg Schweir, La-Z-Boy vice president of research and development. “We’re trying to optimize every piece of material we use. Our lifeblood is to constantly be reinventing ourselves.”
Center of Collaboration
Chattanooga’s Enterprise Center is the rare entity that fills a number of roles across socioeconomic lines.
The center oversees Chattanooga’s Innovation District, a dense and walkable urban core where a mix of startups, incubators, accelerators and other innovation catalysts are in close proximity to amenities that promote collaboration.
And it is a partner in the Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative, which brings together academia, government, industry and community leaders to develop solutions around issues such as mobility, health and sustainability. The center also promotes the region as a “living laboratoryâ€ to leverage its digital assets, in particular its first-of-its-kind 10 gigabit broadband network.
Focused on changing economic disparities in the region, The Enterprise Center is also home to the grassroots Tech Goes Home initiative that has helped bridge the digital divide for more than 4,500 residents by providing technology training, as well as low-cost laptops and internet access.
Plus, thanks to a partnership between the EPB, The Enterprise Center, Hamilton County Schools, The City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, and the Smart City Venture Fund, Hamilton County Schools students who qualify for free and reduced lunch will receive 100Mbps of at-home internet service at no cost.
The breadth of work the center does is ambitious, but it ensures a wide swath of residents are served as the region continues to push the limits of what it means to be a smart community.
“We know in order for me to succeed, we have to succeed,â€ says Deb Socia, who arrived in Chattanooga in July 2019 after five years as CEO of the Washington, D.C.- based Next Century Cities.
“I can’t just look out for myself. In a community that wants to work on issues related to technology and innovation, we have to all succeed. We have to help each other. We have to be able to share our skills, share opportunities and work collaboratively. We’re not going to solve any of our issues overnight, but you never solve them if you don’t collaborate.”
If you’d like to learn more about the greater Chattanooga area, check out the latest edition of Chattanooga Region Economic Development.