JetAire Group's Chief Operating Officer Kristina Williams accepts first prize and $15,000 for her winning Metro Export Challenge pitch. Credit: South Atlanta Photography / Metro Atlanta Chamber

Maybe it was the promise of the return on investment that catapulted JetAire Group into the winner’s circle on pitch day for the Atlanta Metro Export Challenge. 

To hear Chief Operating Officer Kristina Williams tell it, the reach of the $15,000 first prize could go almost unimaginably far. 

“If JetAire were awarded the additional funds, it could easily contribute to economic impacts in the state of Georgia in excess of $50 million,” Ms. Williams told a panel of five judges and a room full of international trade proponents Friday evening. 

Operating with the motto “safety under your wings,” the Fayetteville-based manufacturer makes a patented foam system, known as Invicta, used to suppress sparks in aircraft fuel tanks. 

And it’s no longer just a nice-to-have: The Federal Aviation Administration and regulators in many other countries have mandated that owners of many Airbus and Boeing planes meet certain standards within three years, creating a huge potential upside for JetAire, founded in 1984. 

“With a compliance requirement of 2026, we have identified more than 1,000 aircraft conservatively across 20-plus countries that will require fuel tank flammability compliance,” Ms. Williams said in her pitch, framing the company’s plans as a continuation of work it kick-started with an initial MEC grant. 

In 2021, JetAire received $5,000 that it used to develop the Invicta brand and create international marketing materials. Another $15,000, she promised, would be put toward a methodical three-year plan that would create awareness through digital marketing, train JetAire technicians and manufacturing staff on installation and production techniques, then execute on the resulting sales opportunities.

After all six companies made their pitches on the rooftop of the Savannah College of Art & Design’s new 40 building in Atlanta, JetAire emerged as the consensus pick, edging out Safely, an insurance provider for short-term property rentals, for the top slot. Safely won $10,000 for second place, while Urban Tea Party took home $5,000 in third.

It might seem fitting for a company in aerospace, Georgia’s largest export category with more than $8 billion in annual international sales, to take home a prize focused on fueling export impact for the metro area.

But the diversity of the contestants showed yet again that exporters in the Atlanta region come from a range of sectors with widely divergent plans for global business development.

Safely is a good example. A service provider rather than a goods producer, the company has pursued its “exports” by working to open the European Union market through the Netherlands

Using the $5,000 and export counseling from a previous MEC grant win, Safely set up an office in Amsterdam, moving its top employee to the city to work on getting approvals to offer its insurance policies in the EU market. 

That approval is about three weeks away, CEO Andrew Bate said in his pitch. 

Safely has capitalized on two insurance innovations to grow fivefold to $20 million from 2021, when it first interacted with the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Unlike many annual policies, Safely’s coverage is only in use during the time the homeowner is renting out the property — and it sells mainly through digital reservation systems used by property managers. 

Safely CEO Andrew Bate rises to accept the company’s second prize and $10,000. Credit: South Atlanta Photography / Metro Atlanta Chamber

“What that means is we can insure any reservation or direct booking from, from Airbnb, from Vrbo. All of those reservations come into the master calendar, and we can instantly evaluate the risk attached and assign the right insurance policy to it at the right place for the right length of time — and this all happens instantly,” Mr. Bate said. 

He added that the company has built out a guest risk profiling mechanism to identify the “14 percent of guests who are causing 70 percent of the bad stays.”

Safely estimates that it has 1 percent of the market for short-term rentals, working with 18,000 homes out of the 1.8 million listed online. Pursuing licenses simultaneously in the EU, Australia, Canada and the U.K., Mr. Bate says the company foresees international matching its current $20 million in U.S. revenue within three years.

Stricter privacy laws and lower perceived need for insurance in less litigious countries outside the U.S. haven’t dampened the company’s plans, he said. 

“Guess what? Guests still destroy homes. We probably buy 50 pairs of bed sheets every single day. Because people do things to their sheets,” Mr. Bate said to laughter from the audience.

Rather than the consumers that have powered its growth so far, Urban Tea Party, meanwhile, is starting to work with hotels and restaurants in a new way.

A self-proclaimed wellness company purveying high-end loose-leaf teas, the company saw a gap in the market for tea-infused simple syrup that bar tenders can mix into high-end cocktails. 

Sherolyn Sellers, the company’s owner, said Urban Tea Party has started to test in Canada and plans to launch internationally there, powered by market research enabled an initial $5,000 MEC grant and assistance from the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Montreal office.  

Urban Tea Party will eventually back into its original export plans, delayed by the pandemic, to take its mainline teas into strategic markets like Africa later this year — all from a headquarters it is soon to purchase on Edgewood Avenue. 

“When Urban Tea Party goes global, you can all say ‘I saw her pitch way back when before she elevated the tea game,’” said Ms. Sellers, who plans to use the new infusion of $5,000 to work on packaging and formulations to improve shelf life.

Sherolyn Sellers claims her $5,000 check and chats with Dina Molaison a judge and export mentor from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Atlanta office. Credit: South Atlanta Photography / Metro Atlanta Chamber

The Atlanta Metro Export Challenge launched as a collaborative economic development effort in 2016, spurred by a private effort JPMorgan Chase funded with the Brookings Institution to promote metro-area exports.

Since 2016, more than 130 local companies have taken home in excess of $700,000 in reimbursable grants aimed at powering their international sales, which boosters said help drive resiliency and growth. 

According to the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which coordinates the initiative along with a group of partner organizations, companies that export tend to pay more, grow faster and file for more patents than non-exporting firms.

Funding partners include the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, Partnership Gwinnett, Select Cobb, Select Fulton, and NRW.Global Business. The Metro Atlanta Chamber also kicks in funds generated by issuing certificates of origin.

The pitch competition was open to winners of the first-round grants in cohorts awarded since the pandemic. Participants were tasked with explaining what they’d done with the initial grant and how they’d use the additional funds. 

Two of the winners — Safely and JetAire — were part of the 2021 cohort, while Urban Tea Party was among nine companies that won in 2022. In addition to $5,000 grants, the companies received airfare vouchers from Delta Air Lines Inc. and tailored mentoring in partnership with the Georgia District Export Council. Winners at Pitch Day got an additional voucher from Delta, as did a few lucky audience members who stayed until the end of the event.  

Other pitch-day contestants, all from the 2022 cohort, included:  

  • Enolytics, which provides data analytics solutions to the wine and spirits industry.
  • Metric Mate, a patented platform allows beginners and experts to turn any strength training equipment into SMART equipment. 
  • Spectrum International, which exports optical technology from the USA that restores sight and changes the lives of patients in more than 60 countries. 

The sold-out event was the first time the pitch competition had been held since the 2019 year. 

“Reaching international markets requires dedication and determination, and the Metro Export Challenge helps innovative Georgia companies build the partnerships and connections that will help them succeed,” said Mary Waters, deputy commissioner for International trade at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, who served on a panel along with the following judges: 

  • Zaheer Faruqi – CEO, Aventure Aviation
  • Mario Gonzalez – International Trade Specialist, Small Business Development Center
  • Mary Piercy – General Manager, Southeast, Flexport Inc.
  • Dina Molaison – Sr. International Trade Specialist, U.S. Commercial Service Atlanta

The 2023-24 challenge opened today for applications. Learn more and apply here through Oct. 15. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...