published Sunday, August 4th, 2013

Chattanooga's Gig Tank entrepreneurs ready to tout their businesses

Toni Gemayel, TJ Weigel and Cheryl Abu Moussa, clockwise from left, with Banyan, work Wednesday in the Gig Tank.
Toni Gemayel, TJ Weigel and Cheryl Abu Moussa, clockwise from left, with Banyan, work Wednesday in the Gig Tank.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Eighty-five days of work will end in a make-or-break seven minute pitch for a group of budding entrepreneurs Tuesday.

Each startup in the Co.Lab’s second-annual Gig Tank business accelerator will have just seven minutes to pitch their business idea to 100 out-of-town big wigs and investors during Gig Tank’s Demo Day on Tuesday.

Seven minutes to either bolster the chance of survival or spell the beginning of the end.

There’s no guaranteed prize, but area investors have already set aside the money for Gig Tank grads — if they earn it. Each company could walk out with as much as $100,000 or leave penniless.

The entrepreneurs are making last-minute preparations for Tuesday’s pitch, polishing presentations and reflecting on the summer’s progress. One startup, Hut Grip, is a cloud-based software and network of sensors that helps manufacturers avoid problems by collecting and analyzing real-time data.

Bulgarian founders Bogdana Rakova and Ivan Dragoev started the program with $75,000 in investment money and a prototype. Now they’ve turned that prototype into a working product and are in the middle of several pilots.

“We have started five pilot projects with manufacturers working in very different industries, including food production, winemaking, carpet, printing, packaging and power supplies,” Rakova said.

The pair are hoping to use Chattanooga as the company’s U.S. headquarters even after Gig Tank ends, which is good news for the accelerator, said Sheldon Grizzle, Co.Lab’s air traffic controller. The program was created to foster new businesses that can capitalize on Chattanooga’s gigabit-per-second Internet speed and to attract entrepreneurs to The Scenic City.

“As someone who cares both for the entrepreneur and the community, it’s one of those things you hope for you but you don’t mandate,” he said. “There are no strings attached to the program. But it’s encouraging to see them, of their own desire, set up camp here after Demo Day.”

Demo Day is really a two-day event this year, with a wide range of startup-oriented events starting Monday. U.S. Ignite, a non-profit kickstarted by a White House initiative that focuses on ultra-high speed broadband, will hold its board meeting in Chattanooga Monday night, Grizzle said.

And later that night four recipients of the Thiel Fellowship will discuss their projects during a public event at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. The fellowship, funded by PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, gives $100,000 grants to fellows who chose to forgo college in order to work on a big idea.

Presentations, panel discussions and lectures will continue Tuesday, and the public can watch live on the Chattanooga Library’s Fourth Floor. The day will wrap up with the pitches from Gig Tank’s entrepreneurs.

A year ago, eight other Gig Tank startups went through the same pitch. And 365 days later, only two are still surviving — some never got off the ground, others merged, some have been reinvented.

Two out of eight isn’t a bad statistic for a business accelerator like Gig Tank, said Sheldon Grizzle, Co.Lab’s air traffic controller.

“In the world we live in, in terms of technology-enabled new businesses, you’ll never hit 100 percent,” Grizzle said. “So to have two come out of our first class and raise a combined total of over 1 million dollars in their first 10 months is a very impressive statistic.”

Last year’s winner, Banyan — an online platform to allow scientists to collaborate and share large amounts of data — has raised $465,000 in capital, employs 5 people and is adding two more employees. The company moved from Tampa Bay, Fla., to Chattanooga and expects to launch their enterprise-level product in the next couple months.

“In Gig Tank, everything is very focused and you have a clear road map of what to do,” said CEO and co-founder Toni Gemayel. “After that, it becomes much more difficult, and you have to figure out how to innovate.”

This year’s program was different from the inaugural year, Grizzle said. Last year, the winner was guaranteed a $100,000 investment; this year it’s a pool of money with no guaranteed prize. Last year, the focus was on gig-reliant ideas; this year, it’s about capitalizing on ubiquitous Internet.

He said those changes led to a high level of collaboration between companies and added that he thinks this year’s startups are better positioned to enter the real world than last year’s.

“I can’t prophesy exactly what’s going to happen,” he said, “but I imagine next year at the same time we’ll have more companies that will still be in existence, with more capital raised and more revenue generated, and more of those companies having locations in Chattanooga.”

Gig Tank participant Harrison Tyner, cofounder of WeCounsel, an online platform that facilitates virtual counseling sessions, said he’s confident his company will survive. The Chattanooga natives are in negotiations for full funding, have a completed minimum viable product, are in pilot testing and are planning to hire additional staff before the end of the year.

He said Co.Lab was an important part of the progress the company has made so far.

“I really feel like it’s all connected,” he said.”It was a great, amazing experience and we’re really happy we got the opportunity.”

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury joined the Times Free Press as a business reporter in January 2013, after starting with the paper as a general assignment intern in July 2012. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint Hill Times. Outside the newsroom, Shelly enjoys ...

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