#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Charlton Cunningham, Executive Director of Startup Atlanta
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
Atlanta is quickly becoming a premier cultural and economic hub of the Southeast. The city’s startup ecosystem has benefited from this growth, leveraging the presence of major universities and an engaged local government. Charlton Cunningham of Startup Atlanta explained some of these changes Atlanta is undergoing and how startups can become an essential part of the city’s future.
What’s your personal role in the Atlanta startup ecosystem? How did you get involved working with startups in Atlanta?
I’m currently the Executive Director of Startup Atlanta, a non-profit that works to grow and connect the city’s startup ecosystem. About five years ago, I saw a lot of my friends who had ideas to start businesses making no progress. I decided to start a networking group that sought to create a community of people and ideas to help entrepreneurs grow and move forward.
Part of this was inspired by a trip to Chattanooga where I saw all of the exciting things happening in their startup seen and realized there was nothing comparable or readily accessible in Atlanta. The group I started became Hive ATL, which put on networking events and invited leaders from the startup world to come speak. That’s how I got connected to people I work with today.
What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the Atlanta ecosystem in the last year?
We’ve seen an increase in corporate involvement and investment in our ecosystem. There’s a program run by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce called Backed By ATL, where a number of different corporate partners come together to help scale startups. There’s also a state-backed fund called Engage that has a similar group of corporations who serve as mentors and initial investors for startups.
Many of the large companies based here are giving back to the ecosystem. Just a few weeks ago, Mercedes Benz announced that they’re launching an innovation lab here, the first one in the U.S. Coca Cola also recently started the Bridge Community, a commercialization program for startups.
We also launched the CEO pledge back in 2015. The idea was to get corporate executives to make a commitment to the ecosystem and help some of these companies’ executives join startup boards. Atlanta is a big hub for corporate headquarters and we wanted to leverage that to the benefit of our ecosystem.
What makes Atlanta an ideal place to start a company?
We have the busiest airport in the country, connecting you to anywhere you want to go.
Low cost of living. Money stretches further here as compared to other ecosystems.
What is the biggest challenge the Atlanta ecosystem still faces?
Funding is always a challenge for us. We have a good base of investors here but they need to be educated about where and how to invest. A lot of the money here came out of real estate and many of them are learning how to properly assess a tech startup and approach that investment.
We also just need more wins and big exits to prove our worth to the world.
What industries have historically thrived in Atlanta? How has this shaped the ecosystem there?
Right outside of Atlanta is Alpharetta, which is known as the fintech capital of the South; we are also called “Transaction Alley” because 70 percent of payments processed worldwide pass through the many payments technology companies here. We see a lot of FinTech, cybersecurity, SaaS, and marketing tech startups. Companies like Pindrop and Pardot, which was bought by Salesforce.
Atlanta is most known for its culture; you can’t go anywhere without hearing a song produced by an Atlanta artist. The technology side of this is now developing and a number of music tech startups are coming up. Film is also a major industry in Atlanta, and our digital media and gaming industries are seeing the benefits of that talent.
I think we’re really poised to figure out this culture and technology piece. Musicians and athletes are getting interested in investing and our ecosystem can capture that.
What role do the major universities based in Atlanta play?
Georgia Tech, one of the best technical universities in the country, has baked entrepreneurship into their curriculum and student-led groups. What’s more, Georgia Tech research results in a number of startup spinouts and their students often become independently active with the Atlanta ecosystem.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen other universities start entrepreneurship programs, set up co-working spaces, and even create co-living dorms for students working on startups. At Emory University, specifically, there’s a program where students are investing themselves and learning about how to evaluate companies and deals. Morehouse University has a Director of Entrepreneurship and partners with a local startup hub.
Are there specific public policies or government initiatives that have enabled startup growth in Atlanta?
The City of Atlanta is actively contributing to the ecosystem. It runs a Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative which provides coworking spaces, mentorship and other resources to a cohort of female entrepreneurs.
Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic arm, has an “opportunity zone” program where startups in designated areas receive tax credits for each employee they have. They are also launching a new program called Students2Startups, an internship program which subsidizes ⅔ of the costs for a startup to get a paid intern, allowing for more students to get exposed to the startup community. A lot of students are unable to work for startups because they lack the funds to pay them — this program opens up and diversifies the pool of applicants.
How involved are your government representatives in the Atlanta startup space?
On the city scale, council members as well as the mayor are involved in the startup scene and show up to our events. They do try to understand what challenges the Atlanta ecosystem faces, which is promising to see. Our former Mayor Kasim Reed just got an office at the co-working space that I’m based out of.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
The cost of business licenses and other records are burdensome for startups. I would like to find some ways to cut back on a lot of these bureaucratic hurdles, startups don’t have the capacity to get those sorts of things in line.
We should also look at how to can increase the number of pilots involving startups. Our city is exploring “smart city” and Internet of Things initiatives and I think it would be awesome to increase the pipeline of startups using the city and its infrastructure as these things develop. There is a lot of money in a government contract and it would be great to see some of it allocated to younger companies.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of Atlanta?
Landing Lion - A team of developers who created a platform for easily making custom landing pages.
Gather - An event management software platform for restaurants and venues with extra available space.
Goodr - Mobile application that picks up leftover food from events and drop it off at local food banks and shelters.