Grow Bioplastics Awarded NSF Grant

Grow Bioplastics

Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle, co-founders of Grow Bioplastics, with a sample of their lignin-based plastic. (Adam Brimer / University of Tennessee)


Grow Bioplastics, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, student startup, has received a $225,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The award will fund research and development work on lignin-biomass-based biodegradable plastics for agricultural applications, specifically plastic mulches.

Grow Bioplastics’ team, led by co-founders Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle, will use the SBIR funding to create new biodegradable plastics from lignin, a waste product of the paper and biofuel industries. Bova is an energy science and engineering PhD candidate in UT’s Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. Beegle, a recent graduate with a master’s degree in microbiology, also completed his studies in the Bredesen Center.

The company’s biodegradable product offers an alternative to plastic mulch films used by farmers nationwide. Current nondegradable plastics must be removed at the end of each growing season and cannot be recycled. Grow Bioplastics’ biodegradable film can be plowed into the soil after each use, offering a solution to the additional labor costs and environmental impact of current films.

“Being selected for this competitive award from the NSF is a huge step for our company,” said Bova, who serves as CEO. “This funding will help us validate the fundamental science behind our lignin-based plastic technology, allow us to hire our first employees here in East Tennessee, and bring us one step closer to realizing our vision for a socially and environmentally driven business model to support a circular economy.”

Bova and Beegle began Grow Bioplastics’ journey at UT when they pitched the business idea at Vol Court, a speaker series and pitch competition hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business.

“Working with the Anderson Center was the bridge between the science world and the business world,” said Beegle. “Tony and I were able to take an idea that originated from the lab and cultivate it into a business, with the help of the Anderson Center.”

The team’s Vol Court win was followed by seed funding from the Anderson Center’s Boyd Venture Challenge. The company went on to receive funding through several local, state, and national pitch competitions.

“It’s been remarkable to see Grow Bioplastics progress from concept stage to this incredible milestone,” said Lynn Youngs, executive director of the Anderson Center. “This is the type of success we hope to see when we work with student startups.”


In With the Old Advances in National Pitch Competition

UT student startup In With the Old was named a semifinalist in the national Student Startup Madness (SSM) competition. The social-media-based clothing retailer was selected from more than 200 startups from universities nationwide. Baker Donahue of Franklin, Tennessee, a senior communication studies major and entrepreneurship minor, founded the company.

Baker Donahue

Baker Donahue, founder, In With the Old

SSM is the only nationwide collegiate tournament focused on digital media startups. The competition began at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2012. In With the Old advanced from a field of 64 startups to reach the semifinal round. The top eight companies will pitch their businesses to investors and entrepreneurs in March at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

“The national exposure of SSM and SXSW is an incredible opportunity for startups,” says Lynn Youngs, executive director of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business. “We’re always excited to see our students progress to this level of competition.”

Donahue and his team repurpose and resell vintage collegiate apparel through online social auctions.

“In With the Old has participated in a number of local competitions, so we figured we’d try our hand at something national,” said Donahue. “It is encouraging to see how we stack up against companies across the nation.”

Donahue created the company in 2016 after noticing an interest in vintage UT apparel and a need for a centralized resource. He began with one Instagram account and $300 of vintage UT apparel. After giving the merchandise a little love via a wash, professional photographs and clever titles, Donahue turned his original investment into $1,500.

“I clearly remember not being able to sleep because I was too excited to sell more clothing the next day,” he said. “After a successful initial run of clothing I began to consider the scalability of In With the Old.”

Seeing the growth potential for his startup, he sought funding through business plan competitions hosted by the Anderson Center.

Using funds received in the Boyd Venture Challenge and Graves Business Plan Competition, he began to grow the company beyond the original UT focus. The In With the Old brand now includes six universities, and Donahue plans to continue the startup’s nationwide growth.

“Participating in UT’s pitch competitions has been an incredibly eye-opening experience. I have learned more about business and what investors look for in a company than I could have ever imagined,” said Donahue. “My company is now more suitable to scale thanks to the advice and mentorship I have received from the Anderson Center.”

Vol Court Begins January 31


UT students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the local community, are encouraged to pitch their business ideas at Vol Court, a semiannual pitch competition and speaker series run by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business.

The series begins January 31. Winners may receive up to $1,500 in prize money and space in the UT Research Foundation Business Incubator as well as legal and accounting services.

The series and competition are open to the public. There is no charge to participate in the event, and anyone interested in entrepreneurship is invited to attend.

Designed to introduce participants to entrepreneurship, the series provides a starting point to help advance business ideas into reality. The spring 2018 series includes five interactive entrepreneurial speaker sessions with local entrepreneurs and UT faculty.

“We’re excited to introduce fresh topics and new speakers this semester,” Shawn Carson, Vol Court director, said. “The spring lineup is packed with opportunities to learn from experienced entrepreneurs.”

New sessions include “Funding Continuum for Startups” and “The Art of Entrepreneurial Storytelling.” Participants will learn how funding sources change during the different stages of a growing business and how to effectively share information about a new business.

The program culminates on March 7 in a pitch competition where attendees put what they’ve learned into practice. All pitch competition participants are eligible for cash prizes awarded to first-, second-, and third-place winners.

Vol Court meets from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. weekly from January 31 through March 7 in the Haslam Business Building, 1000 Volunteer Blvd. All meetings will be held in Room 104.

Anyone who plans to participate in the March 7 pitch competition must attend four of the five speaker sessions listed below:

January 31: Opportunity Identification and Validation

February 7: Getting to Your Market

February 13: The Funding Continuum

February 21: The Art of Entrepreneurial Storytelling

February 28: Preparing Your Pitch

Vol Court is made possible by donated funds and services from sponsors including PYA, Morehous Legal Group, 3 Roots Capital, the UT Research Foundation, and other local businesses.

Boyd Venture Challenge Awards Funds to EasyWhip and Campus Car

Two businesses owned by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, students were recently awarded a total of $25,000 in the fall 2017 Boyd Venture Challenge. The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business hosted the seed fund grant competition.

EasyWhip, a surgical tool, and Campus Car, a ridesharing company, were selected from a group of eight finalists. A panel of four judges determined the funding awards.

“The judges saw an impressive group of finalists this semester and provided insightful feedback,” said Tom Graves, operations director of the Anderson Center. “We’re pleased to offer this opportunity to help our student entrepreneurs move their businesses forward.”

EasyWhip, founded by Lia Winter, was awarded $12,500. Winter created the surgical tool to decrease the time and costs associated with certain orthopedic reconstruction procedures. With the funds received, she will seek a full patent for EasyWhip and optimize the tool’s design.

“The Boyd Venture Challenge was an amazing and exciting experience. I was able to apply the concepts that I’m learning in my business classes to my innovative biomedical engineering idea to develop a comprehensive and feasible business plan,” said Winter. “I also made connections with mentors in the Anderson Center who encouraged me and helped me achieve my goals. I think the Anderson Center is an invaluable resource that students should take advantage of during their time here at UT.”

Winter, from Pittsburgh, is an MBA candidate in the Haslam College of Business and a graduate student in the biomedical engineering program in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering.

Campus Car, a campus-based ridesharing company, was awarded $12,500. Ryan Cunningham of Collierville, Tennessee, a junior supply chain management major and entrepreneurship minor, founded the company.

Cunningham launched the flat-rate ride-sharing company in October after using funds from a previous Boyd Venture Challenge to build the Campus Car cell phone application. The company hires UT-affiliated individuals as independent contractors to provide low-cost transportation to and from campus in downtown Knoxville, Fort Sanders, and the campus area.

“The funds received this semester will allow me to expand the Campus Car service area and continue to serve UT and the Knoxville community,” said Cunningham. “I am very thankful for the opportunities provided by the Boyd Venture Challenge.”

The Boyd Venture Challenge is made possible by the generosity of Randy Boyd, founder and executive chairman of Radio Systems Corporation, makers of PetSafe, Invisible Fence, and SportDog brands.

The Boyd Venture Challenge is administered each fall and spring semester. It is open to UT undergraduate and graduate students from any field of study. An outside panel of judges from the business community decides the funding awards. Since the fund’s inception in 2011, 39 student-owned companies have been awarded a total of $337,000 in seed capital to advance their businesses.

Healthcare Innovation EasyWhip Wins Fall 2017 Vol Court Pitch Competition

A time-saving surgical tool created by UT graduate student Lia Winter took home the top prize at this semester’s Vol Court Pitch Competition. Winter pitched the device, EasyWhip, to beat a record 23 competitors.

Vol Court is hosted twice a year by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business.

EasyWhip is designed to help improve the speed and consistency of certain orthopedic surgical procedures.

“An individual orthopedic surgery can cost more than $50,000,” said Winter. “Costs associated with orthopedic surgical procedures can be reduced by decreasing the time that each surgery takes or by reducing the surgery revision rate.”

Winter, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is both an MBA candidate in the Haslam College of Business and an MS candidate in the UT Institute for Biomedical Engineering. She won $1,500 along with a sponsored prize package, which included free office space in the UT Research Foundation Business Incubator, consulting services courtesy of PYA, legal advice from Morehous Legal Group, and design services from Innovative Design Inc.

Second-place winner Matthew Young pitched his technology-enabled mirror business, Smart Mirrors. Originally built as a gift for his father, Young’s product delivers information to users directly on the mirror’s surface.

“I’ve been showing people the finished product, and it surprised me how many people gave the advice to make more and start selling them,” said Young. “I’m going to make the mirror the best it can be, using touch screen and voice command technology.”

Young, a senior in finance from Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, won $1,000 and the sponsored prize package.

Third place and $500 went to Quantum Lock, a technology that enhances the security of smart lock technology in private homes. Erica Grant of Richmond, Virginia, a PhD candidate in the UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, founded the company.

“Quantum Lock leapfrogs the current smart lock generation by using a property of quantum physics to block out any hacking and provide maximum protection to a home without sacrificing any of the convenience,” said Grant.

“Vol Court has become one of the fastest-growing pitch competitions in the area,” said Shawn Carson, Vol Court director. “As the number of participants increases, we continue to see great pitches from people who are passionate about growing their idea into a viable business.”

The Vol Court Pitch Competition was the final event of the fall 2017 Vol Court Speaker Series. Prior to the competition, participants attended five entrepreneurial lectures covering topics like customer discovery and legal structure for businesses.

Vol Court is a free event hosted by the Anderson Center each fall and spring semester. It is open to UT students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the local community. Sponsors for the fall competition included the UT Research Foundation, PYA, Morehous Legal Group, Three Roots Capital, Funding Sage, and Innovative Design Inc.

Anderson Center Business Accelerator to Boost Startups

Student entrepreneurs and members and friends of the university community gathered Friday to open the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Business Accelerator, a new entrepreneurial initiative of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business.

“The ACEI Business Accelerator adds to the already rich continuum of development and support of entrepreneurs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville,” said Lynn Youngs, executive director of the Anderson Center. “Student businesses in the ACEI Business Accelerator will experience support customized to meet their specific needs as they move through acceleration toward investment.”

Entrepreneurs-in-residence, along with Anderson Center faculty, will provide coaching and mentorship to guide participants through the program. Students will have access to a shared working space designed to facilitate collaboration among students, faculty, staff, and investors, and to a rich network of entrepreneurial resources.

“The Anderson Center Business Accelerator will play an integral role in UT’s push, under Chancellor Beverly Davenport’s leadership, to become a much more active player in the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem of the region,” said Stephen Mangum, dean and Stokely Foundation Leadership Chair of the Haslam College of Business. “That the business accelerator’s grand opening was attended by so many students, past and present, who have launched or who are in the process of exploring the launch of their own enterprises speaks to its great potential.”

A gift from David Stevens (’75), a private equity investor, funded the newly renovated space. Stevens spoke to students gathered for the grand opening event.

“I’m really excited to be here today, and the most exciting part is that the human assets are in the room,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is provide a platform to help you take your dreams to real businesses.”

In addition to donor gifts, support from the Haslam College of Business and the UT Research Foundation helped provide the new program for student entrepreneurs.

The ACEI Business Accelerator is located on the first floor of the UT Research Foundation Business Incubator on the UT Institute of Agriculture campus.


Boyd Venture Challenge Application Deadline Nov. 2


The application period for the Boyd Venture Challenge, a seed-fund grant that awards up to $20,000 to student-owned startup companies each fall and spring semester, opens October 11. The competition is sponsored by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business.

The challenge is open to any early-stage company owned by a UT student. Eligible companies must be legally established, and the student owner(s) must be enrolled in a UT Knoxville or UT Institute of Agriculture undergraduate, master’s, or PhD degree program at the time of application.

To apply, students must submit an application to the Anderson Center by midnight Thursday, November 2. Applications should consist of an executive summary, requested funds, and milestones that will be accomplished with the funds if awarded. Full application instructions and eligibility details are on the Boyd Venture Challenge website.

Teams that advance to the presentation round will pitch to a panel of local business professionals Friday, November 17.

“The Boyd Venture Challenge is an exciting opportunity for early-stage ventures,” said Tom Graves, Anderson Center director of operations and director of the competition. “We are pleased to be able to offer opportunities for funding at this level.”

The Boyd Venture Challenge is made possible by the generosity of Randy Boyd, founder and executive chairman of Radio Systems Corporation, makers of PetSafe, Invisible Fence, and SportDog brands.

Since 2011, the endowed fund has awarded $312,000 to 34 student-owned startups.