What guides Rad Harrell in his role as Savannah’s Startup Catalyst with Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center?
He’s not afraid to tell you that your baby is ugly.
“It’s tongue in cheek, but so incredibly valuable to tell entrepreneurs the truth,” said Harrell, who has been coaching and mentoring area startups in his position since August 2019. “It helps to have someone from the outside point out what you’re up against. I’m as close to a neutral party as you can get — other than I’m a fan of you succeeding at whatever you put your hand to.”
Tough love and all, the affable and encouraging Harrell is a key part of ATDC’s mission to help startups scale and grow. Georgia Tech’s technology incubator combines curriculum, coaching, connections, and community to achieve results for companies accepted into its program, which now includes 200 graduated businesses boasting a 90% success rate after five years. Harrell, a seasoned entrepreneur who most recently served as CEO of TalentSoup.com, uses his extensive background to provide soup-to-nuts, one-on-one coaching. His role as Startup Catalyst formalizes the free advice and mentorship he has provided to area entrepreneurs since relocating to Savannah from Atlanta in 2009.
“I’ve been around the Lowcountry startup community directly and indirectly for years, so I thought, why not operate under a brand and have a broader reach?” Harrell said. “Whether the companies I’m working with are in funding mode, partnership mode, resource mode or wherever, the overarching responsibility is all about developing, finding or discovering startups and drawing them closer to the ATDC system, where there’s a bounty of deep experiential and resource-laden people.”
Companies get matched with Harrell as they progress through the ATDC funnel, which is open to any paying members at the entry Educate level, then requires certain criteria as companies advance. (Learn more about the stages here.) Harrell says his title as “Catalyst” may be a misnomer — “I’m not creating the spark,” he said. “ATDC is more like jet fuel. You’ve got to have a little fire burning already.”
He’ll typically juggle around five companies at different stages of development in his portfolio. Currently, those range from a VR training platform for healthcare credentialing to a naval stores chemical business built by a fifth-generation pine tree farmer in Waycross, Georgia, to a cryptocurrency wallet. Harrell builds a relationship with founders where no question is out of bounds — and there are a million questions that can crop up when starting a tech business.
With the naval stores chemical business, for example, Harrell started by poring over every document and supporting research produced by the founder, who is working on building an automated resin collection product. Then he sent back dozens of tailored questions specific to the market, processing, post-production, distribution, and more. The dialogue will continue as the owner works through the beta product stage, with Harrell there standing shoulder to shoulder to find solutions at every part of the journey.
Along the way, there’s that ugly baby metaphor again: Harrell makes sure to tell it straight, which has earned him the good-natured nickname of “dream crusher.” But, as Harrell notes, most entrepreneurs pivot somewhere along the way. Instead of
coddling them, he sees the straight talk as essential for would-be founders to find new market opportunities.
With a local startup scene filled with characters, Harrell said he hopes to help even more people chase their big ideas. Now is the time for entrepreneurial-minded folks to shine, he said.
“I want to encourage anybody who has an idea bouncing around in their head that might seem intimidating to not set it aside,” he said. “Instead, call me! There are so many people in Savannah who are rooting for you and your idea. You’ve just got to take a step.”
ATDC is a community partner of the Creative Coast. To get in touch with ATDC’s Startup Catalyst Radford “Rad” Harrell, click here.
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