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Creative Coast broadens its community with new place, goals

  • An attendee of Innovation Day at the Creative Coast’s Bull Street Labs tries out some virtual reality gear. (Photos courtesy of the Creative Coast)
  • Patrick Bentley talks with Erik Reagan of Focus Labs during a recent Startup Grind event at the Creative Coast’s Bull Street Labs. Startup Grind is one of the dozens of monthly entrepreneurial events.
  • Creative Coast community manager, Coco Papy, and director Blake Ellis. In its tenth year, the nonprofit is continuing to provide local startup businesses and entrepreneurs with resources and community outreach.

For the last 10 years, the Creative Coast has worked to cultivate a creative and innovative environment where Savannah’s entrepreneurs from medical startups and web developers to clothing design companies have access to resources and mentoring to put their companies and Savannah on the map.

And now it’s looking at the future through a new community lens with a decade of experience.

“Savannah is a natural fit for a number of creative and innovative entrepreneurial efforts: media, logistics, medical devices, but this stuff can’t happen in a vacuum,” said Coco Papy, who took over as community manager for the nonprofit in June.

“These businesses need access to capital and access to smart, connected talent. TCC is continually creating a community in which these connections can occur. And we’re working hard to communicate all this locally so that our brightest students have an option to stay here for work.”

The nonprofit — which was founded in 2007 by Chris Miller after he merged his Creative Coast Initiative and cBETA, a group that offered support services such as professional development and networking to existing businesses — has undergone its share of changes, most recently with new staff and a new headquarters at Bull Street Labs, 2222 Bull St.

Papy said the recent changes have put the organization in a unique position where they’re able to step back and evaluate their focus.

“While it sometimes feels like drinking from a fire hose it’s always really exciting to be in this energy because you can always feel it building,” she said.

Murem Sharpe, chief marketing officer for Micro C Imaging, a local medical tech startup, who has been involved with the organization since its early days, said she simply can’t imagine Savannah today without the guidance the Creative Coast has given to startups, nonprofits and civic movements from its early days.

“The Creative Coast was one of the initial and most prominent organizations I encountered in my business and professional life here in Savannah. I would add that it has also greatly enhanced my personal life through friendships and cultural experiences,” she said.

“… The Creative Coast offers a tech-creative balance that makes it a uniquely Savannah resource.”

Programs, a new base

The organization continues to play host to numerous weekly and monthly programs as well as larger annual conferences like FastPitch and the annual Geekend conference, which launched in 2009 and brings together developers, marketers, entrepreneurs and others for two days of workshops, lectures and panels.

“When you’re looking at entrepreneurship, especially startups, it’s really important for a region to have an annual conference of some kind that attracts people to the city and kind of puts you on the map…,” said director, Blake Ellis.

“It is interesting that Savannah got off the ground with an annual conference really early in our evolution as a creative area, so Geekend is of vital importance in that respect.”

On the newer end of the events spectrum is One Million Cups – a free, national program that features different speakers each Wednesday presenting their companies or ideas. Other groups that hold ongoing events include the Advanced Technology Development Center at Georgia Tech, Open Savannah and the Game Makers meetup group, which attracts various interested attendees from Savannah College of Art and Design students to coders to board game makers.

“The group will sit and talk about games and sometimes they’ll play some of the prototypes and give feedback to the creator, so it’s a really neat thing that happens,” Ellis said of the group.

Ellis said the organization’s new location in the growing Starland District is itself a huge tool in generating the community connections.

“You can look at our board and every week there’s a dozen events here, some are small, some are big, but it creates these connections with people who didn’t even know each other,” he said.

Ellis when the group first moved into the new space it operated in beta mode, so that visitors had a chance to check out all the space had to offer and provide feedback.

In August it started offering paid membership plans for people who need workspace. The Community Plan, which is $45 a month, offers co-working space, access to conference rooms and free Wi-Fi.

“If you are like most of the creative, thoughtful, smart people I know ,you’re probably broke and you’re trying to grow something. When you have to worry about overhead that’s a huge stress added on, so it’s a way for people to come in at an accessible cost and work on their thing without having to worry about rent or utilities,” Papy said.

A new future

Both public and private sponsors along with more than $100,000 in grants from the City of Savannah and the Savannah Economic Development Authority help keep the lights on and programs running at the organization and now it’s working on a strategic plan for the next five to 10 years to keep that momentum going.

Ellis said the plan will focus on the three areas that the organizations many programs promote: cultivating a creative economy for entrepreneurship and creative and technology jobs to thrive, promoting and advocating for those businesses that are in that segment of the economy, and workforce development so entrepreneurs have people to hire.

“Tech people need the PR people, PR people need the tech people and arts people need the business people, so I’m really excited to start making those connections and seeing how we can just keep Savannah thriving,” Papy said.

“I think our role right now is to be facilitators of great stuff. … We’re trying to basically grow that net wider and wider, so that when people need help with something we know exactly who to send them to. … We’re eager to say yes and even if we can’t help you with what you need we’ll try and find you someone who can.”

And things are definitely moving in the right direction, according to Ellis.

“Savannah has come a long way on the fundraising component. Even just three to four years ago it was very difficult to make the rounds and talk with angel investors and get serious investment here if you were a local company,” he said, adding that in 2016 startups that came through the organization had garnered roughly $3 million from angel investors, which are individuals who fund capital for startups in exchange for ownership equity.

“…Here if you need some seed money to build a prototype, you can definitely do that here, so that’s definitely progress,” he said.

“I think in Savannah our greatest asset is people,” Papy said. “This town is chock-full of brilliant, innovative, creative people who really want to grow something and not only grow something different, but something equitable, whether that’s a living wage job or something that creates a more beautiful culture in Savannah.”

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