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Ecosystem development / Events / Mobility / Transportation / US Southeast

Chattanooga wants to be a hub for how machines move. People too?

The US Southeast is booming, and this Tennessee city is in the club with an entrepreneurial focus on the future of mobility.

Co.Lab Executive Director Tasia Malakasis at the Co.Mobility Summit in Chattanooga, Tennessee, May 2024 (Christopher Wink/Technical.ly)

Among investors, what was briefly hailed as “transportation tech” is being rebranded as the more elegant “mobility.”

In this context,  mobility is too often used to refer only to machines — usually machines made by companies in which investors have stakes — rather than a broader vision of how humans move. At tech conferences today, “mobility” means electric vehicles, battery-powered scooters and delivery drones more than walkable corridors and bicycle paths. 

In mid-sized Chattanooga, entrepreneur resource nonprofit Co.Lab is attempting to strike a sustainable balance with its annual Co.Mobility Summit, which took place last week.

“We have something worth seeing,” said Co.Lab Executive Director Tasia Malakasis. That was back in early April when she asked me to come visit Southeast Tennessee. 

Leaning into local strengths, keeping rivalries at bay

Co.Lab’s confab is a masterclass in modern economic development courtship. The three-day conference brought 500 attendees to a set of buildings on the leafy University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus. 

Many were from Tennessee, the inland-most state of the fast-growing US Southeast. State leaders orchestrate a kind of economic coordination across its dispersed population centers via LaunchTennessee, a public-private partnership that operates a $70M investment fund and supports local entrepreneurship centers, including Chattanooga’s Co.Lab. LaunchTennessee hosts in September its own annual conference called 3686 (named after Nashville’s geographic coordinates, I’m told.) 

Malakasis shared her stage with LaunchTennessee CEO Lindsey Cox and the leaders from the state’s other entrepreneurship centers. US Senator Marsha Blackburn opened the conference with a video message, and former Senator Bob Corker moderated a session, with an audience that included other elected officials and staffers from Tennessee. But not all of Malakasis’s guests “talk Southern,” as she put it in her own Southern lilt. 

One of the conference’s key sponsors was Volkswagen, the German automaker that has a new $800 million EV car manufacturing plant and battery lab in Chattanooga. Last month, the plant’s workers voted “overwhelmingly” to unionize, which advocates cheered as a landmark decision in a union-resistant part of the country.

Volkswagen’s large and EV-focused presence is the biggest justification for Co.Lab’s mobility focus. Industry-related startups tend to cluster, Malakasis said, pointing to Chattanooga-founded supply-chain data provider FreightWaves, which in 2021 raised $16 million to fuel its expansion, and is one of 300 freight and logistics companies in the region.

Rather than fundamentally changing our lives in response to an existential threat, most of us want to live the same lives solved with technology

LaunchTennessee helps keep intrastate rivalries at bay, at least among entrepreneur-chasing economic development leaders, though there are natural comparisons — Nashville booms, while Memphis struggles, and Chattanooga is a natural peer of Knoxville (each about 180,000 people and a two-hour drive apart). 

Malakasis is an effective collaborator. She rattled off strengths of the state and her neighboring entrepreneurial ecosystems, while reinforcing Chattanooga’s differentiations.

“We have the exact right assets to support and recruit more innovation in the mobility space to lead the next revolution,” she crowed.

Dating back a decade, her city has boasted internet service among the country’s fastest, now topped with a 25 gigabit-per-second plan from the city’s municipal utility, the Electric Power Board. The city is courting quantum computing speciality too, with a small UTC research lab, nearby OakRidge National Laboratory and investments by academic spinout IonQ, which maintains a quantum lab in Maryland

But Malakasis’s conference is called the Co.Mobility Summit for a reason. Alabama bred, she had a big adtech job in Manhattan in the early 2000s before an acquisition brought her briefly to Philadelphia, which she feared would be a bore until a Washington Square apartment won her over. She’s familiar with how people move in both old dense cities and car-dependent sprawl.

This matters because everything mobility investors claim they hope to address (climate change, aging populations) is really about how people move. 

Make living affordable for entrepreneurs, and others will join them

In his influential 2013 book “Walkable City,” urbanist Jeff Speck criticized a peculiarly American response to climate change: Rather than fundamentally changing our lives in response to an existential threat, most of us want to live the same lives solved with technology. 

Herein lies the investment bet on mobility as a growth category. Yet, as wondrous as EVs are, their resource demands limit their green benefit — all that copper mining has its costs. As Speck argued a decade ago: living in a walkable community that reduces the number of trips you take in a gasoline-powered car can still use fewer resources than a car-dependent life, even while driving the most pristine EV. 

The Co.Mobility Summit included sessions on “micromobility,” an industry term used to describe scooters and bicycles, which can reduce car dependence. Some problems don’t need new technologies — back in 2017, analysts sneered at a fixed-schedule pilot from the rideshare company Lyft that sounded a lot like the bus.

What we build, where we live and how we work are issues at least as meaningful to progress on mobility as charging stations. 

The South is incorporating this wisdom. In oil rich Texas, sheer pragmatism related to that state’s surging population growth demands a serious if overdue conversation about infrastructure. A high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston is (slowly) moving forward. In booming Austin, housing costs declined over the last year with the straightforward intervention of increased supply and greater density. 

That is all about mobility, and strikes at the heart of entrepreneurship and economic engagement: Entrepreneurs don’t choose places to start companies, they choose places to live, and then start companies where they live. Make living affordable, with an ecosystem to join and partners that support, and you’ll help residents first and others will join them. 

If anyone can thread this needle for Chattanooga, Malakasis, two years into her tenure, should be able to get it done. 

She has help. 

At the conference, I shared a panel with Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Joe Kirgues, the cofounder of startup accelerator operator Gener8tor. Kelly struck a balance of refreshing humility for an elected official — eager to hear insight from other cities yet thoughtful to underscore Chattanooga’s strengths. Once a founder himself, Kelly returned to his hometown to make it the best it can be. 

Tax strategy to lure founders and investors, and heavy infrastructure investments to attract big business are standard fare among economic development leaders. But what about how people live, work and move?

Co.Lab conference organizers raffled off an electric bicycle, fitting for a city that hosted one of the country’s earliest bike-share programs. Yet, most of the attendees I asked saw it more as a novelty than a solution they’d use. Mobility for many Americans means traveling mostly the same as we did 20 years ago, but with a few more batteries. 

I kept thinking about a story I was told by one of the other conference organizers about how Malakasis got the job as Co.Lab executive director. Malakasis was walking through Chattanooga, saw the Co.Lab sign and was curious enough to follow up. Turns out there was an opening for the top job, and after learning more, she decided to apply.

That sounded too sweet a story to be true. On that call back in April, I asked her about the perfect little example of density and movement through space. 

Aside from a few details, Malakasis smiled at me: “That’s really how it started.”

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