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.”