By Amy Blakely Photos by Adam Brimer
Tony Bova arrived at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with a product in mind. Rachel Scull had an idea but needed to polish up some skills to make it work. Taylor Adkins and Kevin White found inspiration from mentors and fellow students in the Entrepreneurship Living and Learning Community.
Bova, Scull, Adkins and White are just a few of the growing number of UT Volunteers honing their entrepreneurial skills while earning their degrees.
UT is perfectly positioned to be a launch pad for aspiring entrepreneurs. Its partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) provides access to cutting-edge research and technology, while the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business offers mentors and resources. The entrepreneurship minor, launched in 2015, is open to any undergraduate in any major. Meanwhile, the UT Research Foundation commercializes university researchers’ inventions ranging from disease-resistant soybeans to portable radiation detectors.
Scientists. Environmentalists. Entrepreneurs. Bova and Jeff Beegle qualify as all three.
Bova and Beegle are doctoral candidates at the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, which is run jointly by UT and ORNL. They have created a company called Grow Bioplastics that offers farmers and gardeners renewable, biodegradable products that keep oil-based plastics out of landfills.
Bova and Beegle, working with ORNL researchers, developed a process that turns lignin—a naturally occurring industry byproduct found in all trees and grasses—into a product that naturally degrades in soil.
“Lignin results in 50 million tons of waste a year in the paper industry alone,” Bova says. “Our process allows us to turn that lignin into a biodegradable plastic and turn it into the large rolls of mulch lm that farmers use to block weeds, retain moisture and soil temperature, and improve crop yield.” Not only does that reduce waste, but it provides cost savings to growers.
“Our product would be able to be plowed into farmers’ soils after harvest, where it would degrade naturally and save them all of the money they currently spend on removal and disposal,” Bova says “We hope to eliminate as much as eight tons of plastic waste from a single 100- acre farm, while keeping our product at the same price as our oil-based competitors—something other biodegradable alternatives can’t claim.”
Bova and Beegle have been harvesting a bountiful crop of awards in entrepreneurial contests in Tennessee and around the country. They won the 2016 Boyd Venture Challenge and the 2014 and 2016 Vol Court Pitch Competition at UT, the Charlotte Venture Challenge in North Carolina, and Launch TN University Venture Challenge, a statewide competition. They were a finalist in Rice University’s Business Plan Competition and placed second in the Megawatt Ventures Challenge in Florida. Most recently, they won the Green Business Plan competition hosted by the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute in Portland, Oregon, and were a finalist in the Department of Energy Cleantech University Prize Competition in Denver.
“If we have continued success, we’ll be looking to set up our own research and development lab soon and applying for Small Business Innovation Research grants to further fund our testing and product development,” Bova says. “Everything is happening so fast, and we’re still working on finishing our Ph.D.s, but it’s all so exciting.”
Bova says they could begin field testing prototypes as early as this summer, with full-scale field trials of their biodegradable plastics used on crops throughout Tennessee and other states in spring 2017.
Take Rachel Scull’s love of physical fitness. Add her love of cooking. Mix well and—voila!—you have the recipe for her new personal chef business called Personal Plate.
Scull, who lives in Knoxville but hails from Hendersonville, Tennessee, earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from UT Knoxville in 2009. She graduated from UT’s Culinary Program in April 2016 and launched her company a month later.
She’s been a personal trainer for eight years and was a group aerobics coordinator at Blount Memorial Hospital for three years. Her idea for Personal Plate grew out of what she saw on the job.
“Clients work really hard in the gym and then really struggle with their diet, making them unable to reach their fitness goals. I could help control their workouts, but I couldn’t control their food,” she says. “My passion is for food just as much as it is fitness. So my goal is to show people they can have some of their favorite dishes by keeping the same great taste without the aftereffect of a guilty gut.”
She consults with her Personal Plate clients about whether they are trying to lose weight, gain weight, adhere to a medical diet or simply don’t have time to cook for themselves. Then she provides them with a list of healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options.
Armed with her clients’ selections, Scull does the grocery shopping and goes to each client’s home to prepare the meals. She packages the meals into individual portions and loads them into the refrigerator. She cleans up the kitchen and leaves.
Clients cover the cost of the groceries and pay Scull $25 an hour for her shopping, food preparation and clean-up services. The cost for full service—five meals a day, five days a week—is the grocery bill plus about $100 per week.
Scull is working on a website and has hired an accountant to do the necessary paperwork to expand her business. She estimates she’ll need 10 to 15 clients, depending on the size of their orders, to make Personal Plate a full-time job.
“Personal Plate brings convenience, health and economic benefits to your home,” Scull says. “Utilizing a personal chef is often healthier and even more economical than doing your own meal preparation because there is very little to no waste.”
When at first you don’t succeed, forget that idea and come up with a better one. That entrepreneurial mantra is finally paying off for Knoxville’s Taylor Adkins, who graduated in May 2016 with a degree in business analytics and is one of the forces behind SilkOps, an office management system for custom printing companies.
When Adkins arrived at UT as a freshman in 2012, he moved into the Entrepreneurship Living and Learning Community in Hess Hall and began cranking out business ideas. His first idea was for an electronic medical records database that would have allowed a person’s entire medical history to be stored on a card. The concept posed too many legal issues.
Next, Adkins and his roommate dreamed up an idea for a cooler that would keep ice frozen for three days and include cup holders, a blender and a music source.
Genius? Perhaps. But it never came to fruition.
Adkins kept coming up with ideas and running them by his mentors, including Tom Graves, senior lecturer in business management and the operations director of the Anderson Center.
“I’ve probably been through his office a hundred times,” Adkins says. “Even with the companies I didn’t get started, I learned something.”
Finally, as a senior, he and some friends from Virginia Tech found their niche with SilkOps. It’s a software system that allows users to take orders, invoice customers, manage clients, track tasks and production processes, and print shipping labels. Users download it from the Internet and pay for it on a monthly basis.
“A lot of our clients had trouble because they were running several different software products. It was costly, and the various systems weren’t integrated,” Adkins says. “We became that one software that can do everything.”
SilkOps claimed third place in the 2016 Graves Undergraduate Business Plan Competition sponsored by the Anderson Center. It also won $7,500 in the fall 2015 Boyd Venture Challenge and was a winner of the 2016 Launch TN University Venture Challenge.
Now SilkOps is up and running with 25 subscribing companies. Adkins and his partners have started touting SilkOps at trade shows around Tennessee. “We’ve learned that this industry is very word of mouth,” he says. “It’s hard to penetrate with marketing techniques that might work elsewhere.”
They may look at buying ads on Google and also promoting themselves more organically through search engine optimization—using words strategically so their website is the first to pop up when a potential customer searches for this type of software.
They’ve also started offering a smaller version of the software for free. “Once someone gets on a software they like, they won’t want to switch,” Adkins says.
When Kevin White was a junior majoring in business analytics and working as a resident assistant in Hess Hall, he frequently heard students complain that they had no way to get to out-of-town Vol football games.
That piqued his entrepreneurial interest. So, in football speak, he intercepted the pass and ran for the goal line.
In 2015, as a senior, White created Gameday Weekenders, an online company that lets fans plan and purchase away-game adventures. The company took fans to four Tennessee road games in the 2015 football season and is gearing up for the coming season.
“We do the basics such as transportation and lodging,” he says. “We also organize a breakfast and tailgate before and during the game with food, games, a large TV area, prizes and giveaways. We also connect fans to local areas where they can get discounts to go into local restaurants, bars and shops. Our goal is for someone to come on our trip and not have to worry about any planning. All they need to do is get on the bus and enjoy themselves.”
Prices vary according to game location. In April 2016, White and Gameday Weekenders claimed second place in the annual Vol Court competition. The next month, they won the lifestyle category in the Graves Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the Anderson Center.
White graduated in May 2016 and accepted a job with PepsiCo in the Pittsburgh area. He’s part of the company’s campus hire program that trains recent graduates in leadership to take on key roles within the organization.
Despite working full time with PepsiCo, White hopes to continue and expand Gameday Weekenders. “It takes a great deal of work and time, but it is all worth it when we have happy customers enjoying our trips,” he says. “Tennessee fans are amazing, and that’s what drives us each and every day.”