By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
If you are a tech-based start-up in the Knoxville area looking for inexpensive but quality space in a pastoral setting convenient to the interstate system, Sizzle TechStart might just be what you need.
The co-working space is located in Roane County, although it has a Lenoir City mailing address. Housed in an old farmhouse which still includes an original wall built in 1804, Sizzle TechStart is the brainchild and gift to the region of Sam and Carol Jane Weaver. The former launched Proton Power Inc. in the building, and the goal now is to do the same for other start-ups.
“It’s Dr. Weaver’s brainchild,” Sean Hensley says of Sizzle TechStart, but one clearly sees that it is also more than that. It’s a passion for the serial entrepreneur who knows the struggles that start-up founders face. It’s also somewhat akin to an extension of the family.
Hensley’s father (Dan) is a longtime colleague of Weaver’s and a co-founder of Proton Power. The younger Hensley, Purchasing and Human Resources Manager for Proton Power, also serves as the day-to-day manager of Sizzle TechStart.
“With Proton Power across the street, our tenants have access to its prototyping capabilities,” Hensley explains. That fact, coupled with the pastoral setting, modern technology and more than 30 acres of farmland, makes Sizzle TechStart a desirable location for start-ups like Grow Bioplastics and Urban Valley Farms.
Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle of Grow Bioplastics moved into the co-working space in 2017 and established their lab in the three-bay garage behind the farmhouse.
“Proton Power helped with the electrical installation and water for the sink,” Beegle said. “The lab space was really important to Dr. Weaver,” Hensley added. There’s space for two additional start-up labs.
Another significant feature of the Sizzle TechStart ecosystem is the synergy between Proton Power and the two current tenants. All have a sustainability and regenerative nature to their business. Proton Power has a patented technology to convert a variety of biomass feedstocks into synthetic fuel or electricity while Grow Bioplastics is focused on producing biodegradable lignin-based plastics and Urban Valley Farms is providing a sustainable source of protein for humans.
“We like that focus,” Hensley says. “We like the ag-tech type companies.”
That’s certainly the case with Urban Valley Farms.
“We’re raising insects,” Carson Bone says. As noted in one of the photos at the end of this article, his “incubator” for the insects is specially-equipped space inside an old shipping container located just behind Sizzle TechStart’s detached garage.
Bone, a Columbia, TN native and University of Tennessee graduate, told us he has about 10,000 crickets in the incubator and could have as many as 100 million by the fifth generation although the current configuration only will allow about one million.
“Right now, we are focused on people,” Bone says of the cricket flour Urban Valley Farms produces as a sustainable source of protein. “We could move into other products at a later date.”
In addition to the shipping container, Bone also rents space in the farmhouse. Tenants like Grow Bioplastics and Urban Valley Farms pay one dollar per month per square foot for their co-working space in one of several former bedrooms. Each room has a private bathroom, and the rent includes desks, utilities, copier, and Wi-Fi and access to the breakroom and conference room. Lab space is an extra cost.
“We ask the tenants to join the Roane Chamber,” Hensley says. “It helps get them ingrained in the community.” I am not sure if this is the best place to include it, or somewhere else, but we SizzleTech Start is a partnership between PPI, the Chamber and KEC…so I would like to plug them and say something like “we have partnered with Knoxville Entrepreneur Center to assist our tenants with programming”
The first company to incubate in the space was ARiES Energy, winner of the 2015 “Traction Award” presented by the Innov865 Alliance during “Start-up Day.” The company has since been acquired, although Founder Harvey Abouelata remains with the parent enterprise.
Sizzle TechStart is located at the end of Sam Rayburn Parkway in the Roane Regional Industrial Park just off Interstate 40 Exit 364. Hensley says he can accommodate four or five more start-ups. Those interested in learning more should contact him at SHensley@protonpower.com.
Pictured below are (in order): front entrance to Sizzle TechStart; field where experiments can be conducted by ag-tech start-ups; Jeff Beegle and Tony Bova with several of the ceremonial checks from pitch competitions they have won; Carson Bone of Urban Valley Farms and Sean Hensley in the breakroom at Sizzle TechStart; a typical office work space; the entrance to the lab; and the Grow Bioplastics lab set-up.