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Making Space for Black Tech

ECE Alumni Create a Home for Collaboration and Learning in Atlanta

Atlanta, GA

At the beginning of 2020, right before the world changed irrevocably, an assembly of Black scientists, researchers, and developers gathered at the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (RCIE) in downtown Atlanta, intent on changing what felt like a fractured community. Among the core group were several alumni from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology: LaVonda Brown (M.S.E.E. ’12, Ph.D. ECE ’15), Troy Nunnally (M.S.E.E. ’09, Ph.D. ECE ’14), Nashlie Sephus (M.S.E.E. ’10, Ph.D. ECE ’14), and Ivan Walker (Ph.D. ECE). The goal was to bring Black tech talent together under two main pillars: access to resources and opportunities for collaboration.

Although Atlanta is home to a large minority population, a thriving tech ecosystem, and multiple universities and technology companies, individuals of color in the tech field felt fragmented. Adding to the sense of isolation was the lack of resources. As former students now pursuing their careers in the city, Brown, Nunnally, Sephus, and Walker were keenly aware not only of the lack of representation in Atlanta’s tech scene, but also the lack of the amazing resources that were so abundant at Georgia Tech. Going from a bustling campus that offered makerspaces, labs, bleeding edge equipment, mentorships, seed grants, and incubator programs was a huge loss for these budding innovators. The group could only imagine the challenges that minorities who never had such opportunities were facing.

As a first step to building a community and connecting Black tech talent, they started planning for a conference. But at one of the early planning meetings, someone said, “What we really need is a space!” The group quickly coalesced around the notion of a symbolic “home” for minority tech talent—physically embodied in a bricks and mortar location—a place to meet, brainstorm, learn, and collaborate.

Thus, KITT Labs was born. The acronym stands for Knowledge, Information, Technology, and Tools. Sephus defines it as a “co-development studio founded by Black technologists to assist the community with opportunities in S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math).”

In less than a year, the group of eight co-founders found a space, began adding members, and opened for business. Located in a converted warehouse overlooking the Westside Trail of the Atlanta Beltline, the 5,855-square-foot midtown space provides resources like hot desks, private offices, 3D printers, an electronics lab, a photo and video studio, a podcast recording studio, and event space. But the most important resource at KITT Labs is the network of talent. In addition to the co-founders, KITT Labs has 30 charter members and they plan to expand exponentially over the coming year.

The importance of the building and its inhabitants is underscored every day for Nunnally. “If I’m working on something and I need to brainstorm or ask for advice, all I have to do is give a shout or head over to someone’s desk to team up and share ideas,” said Nunnally.

That hive mind mentality means more creative problem-solving and the comradery that many members crave. It also means a ready network of tech talent with a wide variety of skills and specialties.

“When you’re looking for developers, it’s hard to find tech talent, especially minority tech talent. We wanted to find a way to collaborate more equitably. KITT Labs provides a growing list of members for networking,” said Nunnally.

When envisioning the membership of KITT Labs, its co-founders were intentional about their desire to promote diversity in all forms. Sephus, who is an applied science manager for Amazon Web Services said, “When people think of Black tech in Atlanta, they think of startups and entrepreneurs, but there are plenty of minorities who work in industry or academia. Whether you start your own company, conduct research at a university, or work for Google—you have a community.”

As such, membership at KITT Labs is open to anyone and everyone. Memberships come in tiers with different levels of benefits. For $150 per month a member can get a “hot desk” at KITT Labs. An additional $200 will secure a permanent desk. A private office costs $450. With all of these tiers comes 24/7 access to KITT Lab’s resources. During the pandemic KITT is also offering virtual memberships for $50 per month which give users access to online events, a job board, and a mentorship program.

 

When a Space Makes A Home

Troy Nunnally is co-founder of Brain Rain Solutions along with his twin brother Travis Nunnally (M.S. M.E. ’09), who is also a Georgia Tech alumnus. The company uses Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things to create engaging mobile and web applications for their clients. Brain Rain combines their unique talents – Troy the “Brainiac” handles the technical side of the business, while Travis the “Rainmaker,” acts as CEO and handles operations. In the early years, the duo worked out of a tiny house in Travis’s backyard. Now they share one of KITT Labs’ dedicated offices as their official business address.

Besides the obvious advantages of networking opportunities and physical resources at KITT Labs, are the more esoteric benefits of a physical address that lends legitimacy, stability, and practicality to a startup.

LaVonda Brown who earned her Ph.D. in Robotics from Georgia Tech in 2015, is now working on a startup called EyeGage which uses computer vision to determine a person’s drug and alcohol levels. Her technology will soon be undergoing human subject testing and that testing will take place at KITT Labs.

“If I didn’t have this space, it would be a huge hurdle. I feel like I have my lab back. I have what I need to build this business,” said Brown.

 

Beyond Business As Usual: A Tech Space For Techies

There are several Atlanta-based organizations that represent minorities in technology fields, but for some, they are too large and impersonal or too business-oriented. As Nunnally says, “They are more for the rainmakers—not the brainiacs. We want to be a tech space for techies.” Nunnally explains that the current location is mainly centered on software, but they plan to expand to another location that will focus on hardware and mechanical projects.

While the KITT Labs founders want to continue to build campuses and add more equipment and resources, they are mindful of not reinventing the wheel. That is where they hope to leverage strategic partnerships with corporations and other technology organizations so that members have access to other spaces and equipment not offered by KITT Labs.

 

First Atlanta, Next the World

When Nunnally is asked what his hopes are for the future of KITT Labs, he explains that for now a healthy pipeline of Atlanta members would mean success. But he envisions more campuses sprouting up in cities across America. And he doesn’t want it to stop there. “I want to see KITT Labs in other countries—a Cape Town campus, a Nairobi campus. In 10 years, we want to be a global network with a database of millions of members,” said Nunnally.

 

To learn more about KITT Labs, visit: https://kittlabs.io/

Additional Photos

Lavonda Brown

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Zach Farley

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Nashlie Sephus

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Last revised February 17, 2021