Tennessee’s Proptech Scene Grows With Government, Logistics Help

Volunteer State’s startups have little trouble recruiting talent too

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Tennessee’s growing reputation as a hotbed of technology has proptech entrepreneurs signing up to start their companies in the Volunteer State.

As a result of Tennessee’s location, logistics, and governmental goodies — in the form of tax breaks and incentives — the state’s proptech cohort is growing across the nation, the world and, maybe someday, to the moon.

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“There is kind of a nexus here,” Platt Boyd, founder and CEO at Branch Technology, a Chattanooga-based 3D-printed fabrication technology for real estate, said of the state. “It’s not just proptech. We’ve ended up doing a lot with [outer] space because of Huntsville.”

Located about a 45-minute drive from Chattanooga, Huntsville, Ala., is home to NASA’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which is a Smithsonian affiliate and the official visitor center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, explained Boyd.

The Space & Rocket Center is also the home of Space Camp, where a couple of months ago Branch Technology finished fabricating a facade that looks like the moon’s surface, Boyd said. “And we’re just now kicking off 3D printing of a full-size space shuttle for them and recladding a historical artifact from their original shuttle program back in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Under contract from NASA, Branch Technology is working with Stanford University on material science, and with London-based Foster + Partners on the design side, to create a 3D habitat on the moon, he said.

“We did a demonstration of that and had Stanford, Foster and NASA all in Chattanooga in November of last year to demonstrate a couple pods that we made using in-situ material from the moon, and a biologically bound soil composite that uses a protein binder in lieu of a cement to make concrete-strength materials,” Boyd said. “So it’s very advanced materials science and design vocabulary in order to one day have a 3D-printed habitat on the moon.”

Back on Earth, Tennessee has other factors making it a tech and proptech hub.

%name Tennessee’s Proptech Scene Grows With Government, Logistics Help
Branch Technology’s Chattanooga office. Photo: Courtesy of Branch Technology

As a robotics company that requires highly skilled engineering and other talent, Branch Technology moved from Montgomery, Ala., where it started in 2014, to Chattanooga the following year because of the manufacturing environment and state incentives, said Boyd.

The state is a regional manufacturing and logistics hub with companies such as Tennessee Rand, Tesla and Volkswagen having major facilities there, while some 20 different logistics companies are also in Tennessee.

“It’s got a tech ecosystem here,” Boyd said. “That’s really what first drew us. In 2014, they had the first 3D printing business accelerator in the nation, with a program called GigTank here in Chattanooga. We came up here and saw about 12 startups pitching 3D printing ideas with an audience of 1,000 people, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is my community.’ So we moved here in 2015 and went through that accelerator.”

Branch Technology concentrates on multifamily residential projects, typically working with commercial construction companies and architects, said Boyd.

“We’ve done commercial construction because we passed all the building code-compliant tests that are required, which is a very high bar for entry technically,” he said. “You have to go through all this third-party testing and certification to meet commercial construction codes, and we’ve done that.”

Getting talent to move to Chattanooga has not been an issue for Branch Technology, which has 27 full-time employees, supplemented by 18 industrial robots, said Boyd. “We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve recruited people from all over the U.S., from Boston, New York, Seattle, Portland, Texas, Louisiana.

“They come here because what we’re doing is pretty unique. It’s different from a lot of software companies. We have a software aspect to it, but we have hardware, materials science, robotics, a lot of things integrated into one. So we’ve been able to hire talent from all over.”

Chattanooga’s quality of life is a great attraction, too. The city has about 182,000 residents, averages less than 4 inches of snow a year, and Realto.com pegs the median home sale price at $272,500 — about what half a studio apartment might go for in bigger proptech hubs such as San Francisco, D.C. and New York.

“They come here and see the place and have a sense of the community,” Boyd said of recruits. “I’ve heard people say that it’s like Austin was 10 or 15 years ago, a very good environment. It’s a beautiful environment and a wonderful place to have a family. You can get out and within 15 minutes, probably be on 20 to 50 different trails. There’s all kinds of outdoor activities.”

The financial incentives offered by the State of Tennessee don’t hurt, either.

“Through an organization called Launch Tennessee, which is very entrepreneurial friendly, they provided an incentive package for us to locate here,” said Boyd. “And then there’s been other state funding mechanisms that have helped match investor dollars and SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] program dollars. We’ve worked with Launch Tennessee, and they have a network of, I think, eight different entrepreneurship centers in different cities throughout the state. Our local one is called Co.Lab, and they’re a great entrepreneurial ecosystem here in Chattanooga.”

The enticements for entrepreneurs extend to the municipal level, as well.

Having begun laying fiber-optic cable in 2009, Chattanooga now boasts the best broadband connectivity in the U.S.: a city-owned network that provides a fastest broadband connection of 10 gigabits per second, speedy enough to download a two-hour high-definition movie in three seconds. A starter level offers 300 megabits per second for less than $60 a month.

In addition, the Nashville Entrepreneur Center is a nonprofit that connects entrepreneurs with resources to create, launch and grow businesses, including Nashville-based proptech startups like Built Technologies, a construction lending and risk management platform, and PASKR, a contech software company.

Similar to other emerging regional U.S. proptech hubs, Tennessee’s tech ecosystem has attracted a number of startups. Among them are Knoxville-based Hager Environmental & Atmospheric Technologies (HEAT), a remote emissions detecting system; Hendersonville-based PaintJet, a robotics commercial painting company; Franklin-based SeeSnap, a visual workplace management platform; and Murfreesboro-based simpliHŌM, designed to help homebuyers and sellers with real-time information and concierge service.

For Tennessee proptech, the next stop could be the moon.

Philip Russo can be reached at prusso@commercialobserver.com.