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Knoxville startup company Grow Bioplastics was selected as one of four finalists in the 2017 Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge for its biodegradable plastics made out of lignin to eliminate oil-based plastics for farmers, home gardeners and greenhouse and nursery managers.  

The company was awarded $15,000 for being selected and will compete at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 98th Annual Convention & IDEAg trade show in Phoenix in January.

The challenge judges looked at each business owner's idea, potential impact that that idea on the agriculture industry across the nation, the traction the company had and the team the company put together, Tony Bova, co-founder of Grow Bioplastics, said.

Grow Bioplastics' product would help farmers save money and reduce waste sent to landfills, Bova said.

"In the farming industry, especially crop growers, a lot of them use plastic films, mulch films, to lay over their field to increase the amount that can grow," Bova said. "Now they have to be ripped off the field and sent to the landfill at the end of the season. It costs at least $100 an acre or more, so our technology would allow them to buy a biodegradable plastic at the same price, and then they can plow the plastic into the field to break down naturally."

The company will pitch its product to a panel of judges and attendees at the final conference Jan. 8 in competition for the Rural Entrepreneur of the Year award and $15,000, which Grow Bioplastics would use to create prototypes of its product for farmers to test. 

Knoxville helps pave way for Grow Bioplastics

Grow Bioplastics is a Knoxville startup company that is working to commercialize plant-based biodegradable plastic made from lignin, a renewable waste stream from the paper industry.

It also is the epitome of what entrepreneurship is in the Knoxville area. The company has been touched by the University of Tennessee, the UT Research Foundation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and others.

"The number of people that have come up to us, offering just their assistance, free conversations, that has been the biggest part," said Tony Bova, 32, co-founder of Grow Bioplastics. "And the fact that it is so tight-knit, that everybody knows each other personally. Honestly, that's been the biggest of all it.

"How quickly we've been introduced in a matter of nine months to all of these parties, and they're all interested in what we're doing and eager to help drive that mission, that Knoxville is good for this."

Grow Bioplastics' goal as a company is to create a family of plastics that have applications throughout industry. It currently is focused on plastic mulch film.

Mulch film is used in farming to keep soil warm and moist. It extends the growing season for plants and blocks weeds. The problem, Bova said, is that farmers have to remove the plastic and send it to a landfill. Only about 10 percent gets recycled, mostly because it is covered in pesticides and recycling facilities won't take it, or will charge an extra fee.

"What we're trying to do is make a material that has the same properties, and performs just as well for all of their uses, but at the end of the season, they can just plow it into the ground where it will break down naturally because it is biodegradable material," Bova said.

The idea for Grow Bioplastics came in 2014 while Bova was taking an entrepreneurship course for his Ph.D. program at UT. The challenge in the course was to find different pieces of intellectual property that either existed at ORNL or UTRF and do a business model canvas around it. Through the advice of Tom Rogers, the director for industrial partnerships and economic development at ORNL, Bova picked a technology based on lignin-based plastics.

"I was fascinated by them," Bova said. "I really fell in love with that technology and I switched my research group in the Ph.D. to go work for the inventor of that technology out at Oak Ridge, Dr. Amit Naskar."

Several people are named on the patent for the technology, which is licensed by TennEra. According to Bova, Grow Bioplastics is in talks with TennEra to work out a sub-license agreement so that it can have access to that portion of the technology.

Bova and a team of students entered a pitch competition from another class based on the technology "just to see what our class work had put together," Bova said.

Grow Bioplastics won.

"It was like, $1,000, and we split it between the four of us," Bova said. "We didn't yet have a company, and at the time, we were talking about making 3-D printing materials out of lignin. And then I took a few more entrepreneurship classes. I took plenty, as many as I could."

Bova credited the Ph.D. program at UT's Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, which unites resources and capabilities from UT and ORNL to promote advanced research and to provide innovative solutions to global challenges in energy, engineering and computation. Bova's undergraduate work was in chemistry. Co-founder Jeff Beegle is a biosystems engineer.

"We have people who are nuclear engineers, computer scientists, geographers. All of us focusing on different aspects of energy in general," Bova said. "As part of the interdisciplinary need, we are required to take a few classes in either entrepreneurship or public policy. I took one in public policy. It was interesting and I learned a lot. And I took one in entrepreneurship, which I was interested in before I came here, and was just hooked."

Since then, Bova has taken as many entrepreneurship classes as possible. One was a MBA course called "New Venture Planning" taught by Lynn Youngs, the executive director of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Haslam College of Business.

"In that class, I took that idea we originally had and worked with another team of students to pose a new question," Bova said. "What's a better application than 3-D printing, what's higher volume and something that's specifically targeting these biodegradeable plastics? That's where the mulch film idea came out of."

By the end of semester, Bova and his team had a full business plan in addition to one-page canvases. Bova emailed Youngs, saying "This is really interesting. I'm really actively pursuing this in the future and I'd really like to sit down and talk with you about it."

"He was like 'I don't know if you realize, but with this business plan, you have everything you need to start one,' " Bova said. " 'Start entering some of these competitions if you want to raise money, but get your business going. What better time than now? Don't wait.' "

So, on Dec. 29, 2015, Bova was in Chicago with his girlfriend, visiting her parents for the holidays.

"It was maybe one in the morning and I couldn't sleep," Bova said. "So I decided to start a business. I popped open the secretary of state website and entered all of my information and $300 later, I had an LLC. I was like 'Wow, this is really great.'

"I talked to Lynn later and he said 'Yeah, you probably should have waited until Jan. 1 because then you wouldn't have to pay the mandatory tax for those two days that you existed.' ... It's a fun story."

Since then, Grow Bioplastics has entered several business competitions. It started with "What's the Big Idea," hosted by the KEC and the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce.

"We had a three-day bootcamp weekend where we really dove into what the business model would be and we learned a whole lot," Bova said. "We didn't win."

Grow Bioplastics then entered the Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston.

"That experience, I think, has shaped us the most because we were immediately thrust into a situation where we weren't being judged by judges, but actual investors, industry experts," Bova said. "There were 300 different judges across the competition. We pitched four times, each to a room of at least 20 people, and we had great, great feedback and we evolved a lot in our presentation skills and everything there."

Grow Bioplastics has since been accepted to 14 competitions and won a total of $68,500 in cash prizes.

"It's super exciting," Bova said. "We've gone from $300 out of pocket to just over $68,000 in non-equity funding. We've come quite a long way. Now we're in the process of writing some additional grants to a few government funding agencies to get up a bit more funding and looking to bring on our first employees in the next three or four months so we can be ready for the next phase."

Grow Bioplastics has been invited to the SXSW Eco pitch showcase in Austin, Texas. It's a three-day event featuring "a ton of people, all of them interested in sustainability and green things in some way, shape or form."

Bova said that he has since learned that Grow Bioplastics wasn't ready for the competition at Rice in April.

"We had only been around for four months and hadn't been able to craft everything and understand exactly what we were," he said. "But now we have a much better understanding of that. SXSW is a well-recognized name on a national stage. It's really exciting for us to be able to get to that point where we can go and ask for the support, either connections or funding, that we need to get us to the next step."

Grow Bioplastics has proved that it can make some of the material in a lab. The next challenge is to show it can produce the material on a large scale and that it can make the plastic in a continuous production.

"The way we make them right now is small batches at a time," Bova said. "I can maybe make 25 to 300 grams, so like a pound of it at a time. So, moving forward to something where we can show that we have continuous production and a smoother manufacturing process and then getting a partner in the plastics processing industry that can be interested in helping us get this to a point to where we can form it into these thin films for that specific application. Those are our biggest milestones right now.

"So, can we make a lot of it? And does it actually do what we say it does? Which, from an educated standpoint, based on all of the literature we have and all of the results we have, it should. But we want to make sure all of those claims are sound and we have science to back them up."

The Knoxville entrepreneur community has been a huge help to Bova and Grow Bioplastics.

"The groundswell of support has been the biggest help," Bova said. "We won the Vol Court competition that was sponsored by the Anderson Center at UT two times in 2014, with our first idea of 3-D printing materials, and this past spring. The prize for that was $1,500, which is enough money for us to fill out more paperwork and get to the next point where we are applying for things, a little bit of travel money that allowed us to go to Rice.

"But we also got a year of free legal services from David Morehous, who is a local lawyer in the startup community, a year of free office space at the research incubator, and then a year of free consulting for finance and general business consulting from Pershing Yoakley & Associates, specifically from Tom Ballard. And I think those three things alone ... have been way more valuable than the dollars. Because, one, it has a dollar value to it, but at this stage in our company, money won't teach us the things that we don't know. Those things will."

Bova, originally from Mentor, Ohio, near Cleveland, is thankful he chose to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee.

"Knoxville is a newer, more progressive city, so there is definitely a different vibe here than the other places that I've lived, and I really like it," he said. "It feels like this new, young community. There's almost something new opening once or twice a month, be it a new restaurant or some other new business. I like to see that kind of growth and I'm excited to be part of it.

"To be honest, when I came here, I didn't know if I would stay here after I graduated. Now I think that I might for a while. With the business side of things, all of the pieces are starting to fall into place. We can locate ourselves here. There are people who are really encouraged that we may stay and really offering to help us get to that point.

"The knowledge base that exists between Oak Ridge and UT, it's so invaluable. There's a lot of really intelligent people here, who we can potentially hire as employees, or in the future, have as mentors."

Starting in November, city employees will begin planting 500 canopy and large shade trees in areas that need more tree cover.

A state Department of Agriculture grant for $20,000 will be matched by an additional $20,000 in local funds.

Trees will be planted on North Broadway, Clinton Highway, Hall of Fame Drive, Island Home Avenue, Middlebrook Pike, Park Ridge, Sherrill Boulevard, the Cal Johnson Recreation Center and the safety building.

Planting should be complete by March. This is the second year the city has boosted treecover -- in 2014 about 600 trees were planted throughout the city.

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Knoxville will host the fourth annual Tennessee Bike Summit April 23-24 at the Knoxville Convention Center.

Cyclists, planners, engineers and government officials will gather to attend sessions and workshops on advocacy, education, planning and infrastructure.

Ahead of that event, the city has released a list of 20 bicycle-friendly improvements it's prioritizing for the next few years -- out of 120 that were recommended in a recent study.

Topping the list is a plan to widen the stretch of Chapman Highway that cyclists take to get across the Henley Bridge to UT or downtown destinations and add a dedicated bike lane.

Photo: University of Tennessee student Christopher Allen bikes on the sidewalk en route to campus last week on Chapman Highway. The city has completed a study recommending  upgrades to Knoxville's bicycle infrastructure, including a $700,000 Chapman Highway project the city hopes to fund with a federal grant distributed through TDOT. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

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Community organizers have finalized long-range plans for linking greenways in West Knoxville, Knox County and Oak Ridge.

The Knox to Oak Ridge Greenway Plan, created by The Great Smoky Mountains Regional Greenway Council, Knoxville Regional TPO and their partners, would add 13.2 miles of greenway trail to connect the Melton Lake Greenway in Oak Ridge with the 10 Mile Creek and Pellissippi greenways in Knox County.

The project as envisioned would cost $8.8 million dollars and be pursued in stages, according to a press release.  A second, smaller study is in the works this year to add the Turkey Creek Greenway into the project, based on public feedback.

Of that figure, the greenway itself is estimated to cost $600,000 per mile, but some portions of the proposed path will take more work than others. Safely crossing the Solway Bridge is a known problem; the proposed cantilevered pedestrian walkway  solution would cost $560,000. The Cross Creek trailhead, including a parking lot, would need to be created at a cost of $103,000.

 Finding those funds is expected to take time and a mix of public and private cooperation, especially as federal support for such projects are on the wane. 

Options mentioned in the report include asking developers of nearby commercial and residential projects to set aside property or easments for the greenway, as well as traditional donations of money and materials.

The planning document highlights potential benefits of greenways to both homeowners and businesses, citing projects in similar cities in the region that attracted businesses and boosted home values. 

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Mawuli Tse has already brought solar power to hundreds of residents in urban Ghana and other African countries.

Now thanks to a $100,000 grant, he's creating a solar product for street vendors in rural areas, reports Jamie McGee of the Tennessean.

The device uses solar panels, which can be attached to umbrellas often used by the vendors, to power mobile charging stations for customers.

Vendors may also use the system for light, allowing them to stay open later or for use at homes, Tse said.

Read the full story with video at The Tennessean: Nashvillian's solar device helps vendors in Africa

Photo:Mawuli Tse detaches a portable solar panel from the top of an vendor umbrella at his home in Nashville on Friday.(Photo: Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean)

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Residents have an opportunity to recycle documents and safely dispose of old medications at this year's America Recycles Day celebrations 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, November 1, in downtown Knoxville on Market Square.

Photo: Wayne Bailey and Scott Harmon, hidden, public service workers with the City of Knoxville, deliver recycling cartsfor the free curbside recycling program. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

In April, the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization presented its plan for a greenway connecting Townsend to Maryville, Alcoa and even Knoxville.

Linking Knox and Blount counties via a greenway route from Knoxville to Townsend is the overall goal. Officials admit that is an ambitious project with possible obstacles of topography, streams and structures.

For now, planners are tackling smaller projects along the way.

Next Tuesday, July 23, the Knoxville Regional TPO, Great Smoky Mountains Regional Greenway Council and their Blount County partners will be holding two open houses to share draft plans to link the Maryville and Townsend greenway trails.

An open house will be presented in both Townsend and Maryville.

--Townsend open house: 4-5:30 p.m. July 23rd at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, 123 Cromwell Drive, Townsend

--Maryville open house: 6:30-8 p.m. July 23rd at the Maryville Municipal Building, 416 W. Broadway Avenue, Maryville

Attendees are asked to review the plans and offer comments and suggestions.

Other organizations participating in the greenway plan are local governments in Blount County and a Technical Advisory Committee with representatives from the City of Alcoa, Blount County, the City of Maryville, the City of Townsend, the Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks & Recreation Commission, the Blount Partnership, the TPO, and TDOT.

For more information visit knoxblounttrail.org.

Bike to Work Day is May 17

May 17 is National Bike to Work Day and Knoxville-area bike commuters are invited to participate by stopping by Market Square on their way to work. Celebrate with free coffee and biscuits from 7:30-8:30 a.m. with Mayor Rogero.
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Jim Hagerman, director of engineering for the city of Knoxville, pauses on his daily bicycle commute to work earlier this month in South Knoxville. The city is teaming up with Knoxville's regional Transportation Planning Organization to begin the process of finding ways to improve bicycle infrastructure within the city. (Paul Efird/News Sentinel)

Can't get downtown? Even if you have a different destination or start time, several businesses around town will also participate independently. See the full list of where to snag a free cup of coffee for biking to work.

Bike to Work Day is a way for people who have considered biking to work, whether to save money on parking and gas or to improve their health, to try it out. 






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solar elephants.jpgThe Knoxville Zoo's African elephant habitat now sports a 50 kilowatt solar installation, courtesy of Lenoir City-based Wampler's Farm Sausage and Family Brands International. Above, a time lapse image of the finished solar installation at the Knoxville Zoo's elephant enclosure. Blue Sky Aerial Images, Michael Sexton


The Knoxville Zoo's African elephant habitat now sports a 50-kilowatt solar installation, courtesy of Lenoir City-based Wampler's Farm Sausage and Family Brands International.

The system, constructed by Knoxville company ARiES Energy, will produce energy for the zoo as part of TVA's Green Power Provider Program. The zoo will then receive a credit from KUB on its utility bill each month.

Zoo officials say they also plan to use the system to educate visitors about solar power. Plans include installing a video monitor inside the elephant barn viewing area showing how solar power is created and adding signs throughout the exhibit detailing the environmental and economic impact, said Tina Rolen of the zoo's marketing department.


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