Knoxville has a long history of innovation. In 1932, George Dempster invented the Dempster-Dumpster, the first waste container that could be mechanically emptied into a garbage truck. In 1940, Barney and Ally Hartman formulated Mountain Dew, a sweet soda to mix with moonshine. In 1963, Dr. Gene Overholt invented a flexible surgical scope with fiber optic technology that could see around curves inside the body. In 1983, Kelly Milam, Terry Douglass, Mike Crabtree, and Ronald Nutt founded CTI Molecular Imaging to produce and market PET scanners; in 2000, the company’s PET/CT scanner was named the medical invention of the year by Time magazine. In 2014, Jay Rogers’ Local Motors manufactured the world’s first 3D-printed electric car. Today, there are dozens of entrepreneurs with big ideas in Knoxville.
In our special Entrepreneurs Issue, we profile four early-stage companies that are innovating in agriculture, optics, e-commerce, and artificial intelligence.
Related coverage: S. Heather Duncan profiles Knoxville businessman Gordon Whitener, a co-founder of MANDT VR.
Tony Bova & Jeff Beegle of Grow Bioplastics
BIG IDEA: Take organic waste from the paper industry and turn it into a biodegradable mulch film for farming.
A standing-room-only crowd packed Scruffy City Hall on Market Square in February when Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle first pitched their idea to change the way we do agriculture. The two cofounders of Grow Bioplastics were presenting at the “What’s the Big Idea” 48-Hour Launch. The event was sponsored by the Development Corporation of Knox County, the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. Bova gave an intriguing pitch:
“Farmers in the United States use plastic mulch film to block weeds, retain soil moisture, and improve crop yields. They spend $250 million a year removing the plastic film after each growing season. We can save them that money. Grow Bioplastics makes biodegradable plastic from organic waste. After harvesting their crops, farmers can simply plow the biodegradable mulch film into the soil. We can replace petroleum-based plastics at a truly competitive price point and improve agriculture in the United States.”
Since that first presentation, Bova and Beegle have probably won more pitch competitions than anybody in Knoxville. To date, they’ve racked up a dozen wins totaling some $137,000 in prize money for their company. Having recently made the Final Four in the American Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge, they show no signs of slowing down.
“We’re just getting started,” Bova says over coffee before heading to his lab at the University of Tennessee. “We’re passionate about helping farmers save money, and helping to save the environment at the same time.”
Bova is the company’s co-founder and CEO, and a doctorate candidate in energy science and engineering at UT. Beegle is a co-founder and chief science officer, and is pursuing a graduate degree in microbiology at UT. Together, they’ve attracted another $100,000 in funding in addition to the prize money won from pitch competitions. Companies including Driscoll’s, one of the largest berry producers in the world, are lining up to participate in their pilot program.
If you’ve ever picked your own strawberries, you’ll recall the rows of plastic film that protect the fruit from invasive weeds and maintain the right level of moisture. Instead of having to dispose of all that plastic into landfill every season, Bova describes a future in which farmers would save both time and money by plowing a biodegradable version of the plastic into the ground.
The company’s first product, TerraFilm, uses a patented biodegradable polymer made from lignin, a natural material found in grass and trees. The paper and biofuel industries produce about 50 millions tons of lignin every year: plenty of industrial organic waste to produce TerraFilm. Bova says that TerraFilm “will not only save farmers from having to rip up and dispose of plastic mulch film, it will also keep thousands of tons of plastic out of landfills.” Plus, since TerraFilm is made from organic lignin, plowing it into fields at the end of the season can improve the quality of the soil for the next season.
Grow Bioplastics is the first tenant in the Sizzle TechStart incubator, a collaboration between Lenoir City manufacturer Proton Power, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, the Roane Chamber of Commerce, and Roane Alliance. In the coming years, Bova and Beegle aim to change more than the way we do agriculture. Their biodegradable plastic has additional applications including consumer goods packaging, automotive parts, and the $10 billion market for the plastic trash bags you use at home.
James Horey of Reviewbox
BIG IDEA: Monitor and aggregate consumers’ online product reviews across multiple sites like Amazon.com and other popular retail sites.
Before you click “Add to Cart” on Amazon, you read the reviews. A series of positive reviews gives you the confidence to purchase. A slate of negative reviews prompts you to look for alternatives. It’s no surprise that vendors take customer reviews very seriously. Reviews can spike sales or sink a product. James Horey, a computer science doctorate and former researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was surprised to find that there wasn’t a way for vendors to monitor their products’ reviews on Amazon and other major retail sites.
“Reviews are indispensable to online commerce. Studies frequently cite reviews and ratings as more important to buyers than other factors including price,” Horey says. “I talked with major retail vendors and discovered there was an unmet need so I started writing software to track online reviews.”
A participant in the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s CodeWorks accelerator program, Horey launched Reviewbox last year. Reviewbox monitors products on Amazon and other popular retail sites, notifying vendors of new reviews. It can also detect price violations, discover counterfeits, identify new brand competitors, and track search rankings. Horey utilizes his background in data analytics to provide additional value to his customers.
“We aggregate online reviews for companies like PetSafe, Thule, and Chapin to identify trends and spot market opportunities,” Horey says.
Melanie Grapes with Chapin, which sells a wide range of home and garden sprayers, says the software tool makes tracking its Amazon reviews much simpler.
“Daily emails list the reviews and links so you can follow up immediately, gather quality feedback, and provide a level of customer service that until now wasn’t possible,” Grapes says. “It is definitely changing the way we do business with our customers and with Amazon.”
Knoxville’s Angel Capital Group invested in Reviewbox at the end of last year. Horey says the company is profitable and he’s preparing to hire his first employees.
“There are 480 million products on Amazon,” James says, “and there are hundreds of millions more listings on other major retail sites. We think there is a huge opportunity to modernize how vendors track reviews, product pricing, and search rankings to better serve their customers and gain a competitive edge.”
The next time you go online to Amazon and buy a bike rack or an Invisible Fence, you’ll know that Reviewbox is tracking the reviews you write to help the vendors understand your experience.
Jenna Johns & Bob Wilson of RDI Technologies
BIG IDEA: Create optical technology that measures deflection, displacement, movement, and vibration not visible to the human eye.
Jenna Johns took the stage in a studio at Scripps Networks Interactive last fall to deliver a presentation about RDI Technologies, the company she leads as chief operating officer. It was the culmination of The Works accelerator program sponsored by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.
The company has a patented non-contact optical technology that detects motion and respiration. What does that mean? Basically, RDI utilizes video camera technology in conjunction with its software and processing algorithms to measure deflection, displacement, movement, and vibration not visible to the human eye. It sees what otherwise can’t be seen.
For example, let’s say a car manufacturer wants to know the condition of a critical machine on the assembly line. The technician can’t see how the machine is running with the naked eye. The manufacturer doesn’t know if the machine is on the verge of failure or if it has years of useful life. If there is a failure, the technician might have to take the entire machine apart, or guess at a solution. Both options would cause significant downtime. By contrast, “RDI optical technology visualizes even the smallest vibrations which can help the technician literally see how the machine is operating,” Johns says. Companies can avert emergency by scheduling routine maintenance to keep the line moving at peak efficiency.
Fast-forward to this spring, and RDI stands as one of Knoxville’s most innovative startups.
“We’re profitable,” declares president Bob Wilson at the company’s office off Dutchtown Road. “It’s a huge market. We have defensible patents, and we’re building a strong sales channel. Now we execute on the plan.”
Wilson and Johns just sat down at the conference table when Dan Nower, vice president of business development, bounds into the room. “The call went great! We’re going to get the sale. That’s $35,000!” His energy is contagious. Johns smiles but contains her excitement.
“I run operations,” she says. “I’m happy about the deal; it’s a big win for us. I’ll really celebrate when the check clears the bank.” Spoken like a pragmatic COO.
Beyond condition assessment information on plant machinery, RDI also has applications in critical infrastructure, such as bridges.
“Want to know if a bridge is safe or if it’s on the verge of failure?” Wilson asks. “Just looking at it won’t tell you.” RDI technology enables non-contact bridge inspection so that you can see a bounce or sway before it causes catastrophe. Still more applications include baby monitoring and sleep apnea monitoring.
“Our technology can tell if a baby is breathing routinely or if the baby has stopped breathing,” Johns says. “We’ve partnered with First Alert on the award-winning Envirocam baby monitor which features our patented optical sensor. If a baby stops breathing, the monitor can immediately alert caregivers.”
The team at RDI is filing more patent applications and closing sales.
“It’s like having a superpower,” Wilson says. “We give customers the ability to see what they couldn’t see before. That’s why we adopted the motto ‘Seeing is Believing.’”
Michael McMillan of DreamCSX
BIG IDEA: Use machine learning to make customer-service phone calls more bearable.
When Michael McMillan moved to Knoxville, he immediately posted a message on LinkedIn: “Moving to Knoxville, TN from San Diego, CA. I just moved here (literally last night) and really want to start meeting some like-minded people in my new home.” That was in January. Four months later, Michael is launching a new startup in Knoxville called DreamCSX to help companies deliver better customer support.
According to Time magazine, you probably spent 13 hours on hold last year.
“Unfortunately, you probably found about half of the phone representatives to be unhelpful,” McMillan says. “That’s the industry average. The cost to business of this bad customer service is upwards of $41 billion a year in the United States alone. We’re working to fix that problem with a combination of great people and software.”
DreamCSX will provide customers with a range of customer service options including technical support, member services, distributor care, receptionist services, account management, customer surveys, order processing, and patient support services.
Behind the scenes, DreamCSX is developing software that leverages machine learning to power what McMillan calls behavior-based routing. Basically, the software identifies patterns like how many calls to expect in a given time period, how to successfully distribute certain types of calls, and which customer service representatives are best suited to handle specific issues or customers. The result is a streamlined experience for callers that reduces hold time, expedites quick resolution, and increases overall customer satisfaction. Plus, the software learns from the data and predicts future customer behavior so that companies can work faster and smarter.
“We want to make sure your brand is ready when customers demand high-quality customer service,” McMillan says. “Great service is the key to winning and retaining customers. It’s an enduring competitive advantage.”
McMillan has been in the call-center business since he was a kid. He remembers cold-calling the business listings in the Yellow Pages to qualify potential customers for his mother’s call-center business.
“If they were interested, I’d circle the name in the yellow pages and my mom would call them back to close the deal,” McMillan says. “We were a great one-two combo.”
Over the past decade, McMillan was hired by several investment firms to train the sales teams at their portfolio companies so sales would increase. At DreamCSX, he already has several enterprise customers in the pipeline. Meanwhile, he’s raising his seed round of investment.
“I’m really working to raise the capital right here in Knoxville,” McMillan says. “The community has already been so supportive of me, my family, and my new company. I’m going to work hard to make it a success.”
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