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Strong pitches and ideas at WTBI 2022 underscore strength and diversity of local entrepreneurial ecosystem

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

As noted in yesterday’s edition of teknovation.biz, The Lotus Program bested five other start-ups to win the 2022 edition of Knoxville’s “What’s the Big Idea?” (WTBI) pitch competition. By winning Sunday evening’s competition after a weekend of work, Founder Femeika Elliott took home the top prize of $10,000.

The Lotus Program is an outgrowth of Elliott’s Meik Meals business, and she started her pitch Sunday night by asking, “Is there anyone more exhausted in this world than a new mother?” Her initiative is described on the Meik Meals website as providing postpartum meal support in a holistic manner “to nourish the new mother with healthy, flavorful options so that more of the attention can be on learning the ropes of caring for a newborn.”

Femeika Elliott presenting on Sunday

Elliott, who is a member of the Real Good Kitchen shared facility community, briefly mentioned her own personal experience with postpartum as she said that The Lotus Program is “the only option in the market designed for postpartum recovery.” There are three tiers of packages that start with educational resources, continue with a weekly food service, and conclude with what she characterized as a “rebirth” package for the mother.

Close to 100 people, all lively supporting those pitching, turned out for the competition held at Scruffy City Hall on Market Square, and an unknown number of others viewed the event that was streamed live. After holding the 2020 edition at Scruffy City Hall, the 2021 event was virtual, so last year’s winner – Co-Founder Brandon Schreiber of Leviathan Affordable Aquarium Automation – was invited to the stage to help announce the winner of the 2022 competition.

“We are about to finish Leviathan version 2.0,” he told the group. As described in this teknovation.biz article after last year’s competition, Schreiber is developing a board that allows individuals to control six main features of a basic salt-water aquarium – equipment control, pH, temperature, chemical dosing, light control, and water level sensing.

Chris McAdoo keeping it lively

Organized by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) and involving a weekend of activities that started Friday evening, the annual event is sponsored by the Development Corporation of Knox County, Harper Auto Square, and Egerton McAfee Attorneys at Law. The always energetic Chris McAdoo, KEC’s Director of Strategy and Engagement, kept the mood at a fever pitch – no pun intended.

We’ve attended every WTBI since teknovation.biz was launched a decade ago, and this year’s group appeared to us to be the strongest overall in that 10-year period. They represented a very diverse set of interests and new ventures that are reflective of the Knoxville region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Judges were (1) Abhijit Verekar, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Avero Advisors; (2) Tricia Martinez, Managing Director of the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator”; and (3) Kandis Troutman, Chief Consulting Officer at The Creative Architect LLC.

The other finalists were (in order of pitch):

Woody

KnoxHarmonic, founded by Tim Woody, and designed to be a “second birth” for orchestra sound by uniting excellent orchestral musicians with passionately-inspired composers, arrangers, and recording artists to create powerful new recordings that unleash the orchestral sound. Woody, the son of Knoxvillian Ken Woody, President of Innova Memphis, told the audience that “the sounds of orchestras are in danger and the finest musicians are losing their jobs.” KnoxHarmonic provides what he called collaboration, community and revenue opportunities for classical musicians, matching both composers and performers.

Small

Realtyless, a for sale by owner start-up that offers a complete break from the traditional real estate system. The company’s Founders are two brothers and their sister – Brandon, Ryan, and Mariel Small. The former pitched the start-up as an online marketplace for buyers and sellers that bypasses agents while being a resource for linking-up with appraisers, inspectors, attorneys, loan officers, and title companies. “Real estate is a highly localized business,” Brandon Small said. “We want to start in Knoxville and grow out to other areas.”

Tucker

Sequense, described as the first of its kind solution aimed at the travel industry by managing day-to-day workflow, was co-founded by Alexandra Tucker who pitched the company Sunday night. She said that she and two travel agents met in a bar where they conceived the idea of the “highly efficient tool to modernize the travel industry.” Their initial focus is on travel agents who serve higher net wealth individuals. Tucker said the Beta version of the software that will integrate a variety of other systems ranging from customer relationship management programs to itinerary builders should be released in Q3 of 2022.

Shriver

Sentinel Devices is a member of Cohort 5 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In his presentation, Founder and Chief Executive Officer Forrest Shriver used a real-life problem the WTBI participants and their mentors experienced over the weekend to illustrate one of the opportunities for his small device. One of the two air conditioning units at KEC was not working, and Shriver explained that the technology could have predicted the failure. That said, the start-up’s primary focus is developing standalone devices that use machine learning – completely localized and disconnected from the cloud – to protect and secure the digital assets in charge of industrial processes with an early emphasis on power plants.

Barnett

KnoxFill is a zero waste eCommerce and pop-up store where Knoxvillians can get premium personal care and household goods without any packaging waste. It was pitched by Founder Michaela Barnett who started her presentation by noting that 5.8 million pounds of plastic that could become waste will be generated in the next five minutes. Over the last year, she has generated 700 customers with 11 pop-up events along with the pick-up and delivery service for her personal care and household products. KnoxFill is a retailer for many products of the Knoxville maker community. Barnett hopes to open a storefront in 2022 and add a mobile refillery in 2023. We spotlighted KnoxFill in this September 2021 biz article.

KEC received a total of 24 applications and conducted a weeklong public voting process to help inform the decision. More than 4,000 votes were cast.

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