Teknovation Article by Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center (KEC) is leveraging a number of strategic relationships to offer its latest start-up accelerator.

Named AgWorks, the 12-week program builds on a relationship between KEC and Sizzle TechStart that was announced about 18 months ago and an emerging alliance with AgLaunch, the statewide agricultural innovation partnership that is a joint effort of Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

“The idea is to build the Sizzle TechStart incubator into a hub of ag-tech innovation that includes programming like our AgWorks accelerator,” KEC Executive Director Jim Biggs says of the facility in the Roane Regional Industrial Park that features one wall from the early 1800s. The old farmhouse is where local serial entrepreneur Sam Weaver launched Proton Power, his latest start-up.

A new use for the building was first outlined in broad terms when Weaver and his wife (Carol Jane) announced in December 2015 that they were making the farmhouse available to help support economic development in the county, and more details were revealed about six months ago when the building’s first tenant and a special grant were announced.

That tenant – Grow Bioplastics – has a proprietary plastic that can be rolled as film or 3D-printed. The plastic is biodegradable and can be tilled into the soil after use. Grow Bioplastics joins four other start-ups to comprise the inaugural AgWorks cohort. The others are:

  • Cattle Market Mobile provides up-to-date market data for farmers on a variety of commodities. Information is pulled from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Auction Reports and USDA Commodity Reports.
  • Geo Air provides a faster, more precise way to identify mold in fields by using a drone to take airborne samples of the field. The resulting data are used to create a heat map, which identifies mold hot spots. This information allows growers to spot and treat problem areas instead of the entire crop, saving time, money, and crop production.
  • Tomboy Organic Skincare formulates organic plant salves, skin care and makeup using herbs and roots from the native deciduous forests of the Southeast.
  • Urban Valley Farms is developing a sustainable, economical and high-quality cricket-based protein powder.

“Desk space is being offered to the other entrepreneurs for the duration of the program,” Biggs said.

AgWorks is a complement to the AgLaunch Accelerator being run by Start.Co in Memphis as well as the farmer network and other resources coordinated by AgLaunch. The latter organization will be sharing resources that include its mentor network, funding sources, and learning modules to provide subject matter expertise to the AgWorks program.

“Pete Nelson (AgLaunch Director) or someone from his broad network of mentors and industry experts will deliver a workshop by videoconference every Wednesday,” Biggs said. Locally, Chris Ayala will serve as the key instructor, supported by KEC’s Stephen Jenkins. Ayala, who has taken a company through the prestigious TechStars program, moved to the region a little more than a year ago and recently launched Towanda Capital.

AgWorks, which is generously supported with funding from Launch Tennessee, USDA and Tennessee Department of Agriculture, kicked-off last week at Sizzle TechStart and will end in mid-August. Details about the “Demo Day” will be announced later.