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August 21, 2017 | Tom Ballard

AGWORKS TEAM #4: Grow Bioplastics

AgWorksThe Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and AgLaunch are collaborating to host East Tennessee’s first ever accelerator solely focused on agricultural start-ups. The program, named AgWorks, was described in this recent article. It features five companies that are accelerating their ideas at Sizzle TechStart.

“AgWorks Demo Day” is set for this Saturday, August 26. Ahead of the event, we have been spotlighting each of the teams. Today’s focus is on Grow Bioplastics, a start-up that we have spotlighted in a number of articles (click here for all posts) over the past several years.

Tell us about yourself and, if applicable, your other team members . . . names(s), background(s), experience, etc.  Grow Bioplastics is headed by Tony Bova (author of the information) and Jeff Beegle. Jeff and I both met at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio where we were finishing our undergraduate degrees in bioengineering and chemistry respectively. While there, we worked on a number of sustainability-focused projects, including starting a student green fund to help students pay for green improvements to the campus. Jeff now has a Master’s in microbiology from the University of Tennessee, and I am a Ph.D. student in the Energy Science and Engineering track through the Bredesen Center (for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education). Both Jeff and I have technical experience in converting waste streams into valuable products, and are using that expertise and passion to build Grow Bioplastics.​

Describe the focus of your start-up and the problem you are trying to address.  Grow Bioplastics is focused on converting organic waste streams into valuable products, with our initial focus being the development of a family of biodegradable plastics made from lignin, a byproduct of the paper and biofuel industries. Our first target products will be biodegradable plastic mulch films aimed at replacing the single use oil-based plastics used in farming today. Farmers around the country use plastic films​ to block weeds, retain water, and boost their crop yields, yet these plastics cost those farmers’ time and money each season to remove them and send them to the landfill. By using a biodegradable material like the one we are developing, they can simply plow the plastics into the ground where they will naturally degrade into water, carbon dioxide, and compost.

How did the idea to start the company originate? What was the catalyst? The concept for the company was based in part from Tony’s graduate research, where he studied lignin-based plastics. After recognizing the potential applications for renewable plastics and the projected growth of the bioplastics industry, Tony took the “New Venture Planning” MBA course at UT, taught by Lynn Youngs, Executive Director of UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. That course helped Tony refine a full business plan based on the concept of biodegradable plastic mulch films and plastic containers for use in agriculture. After the course was over, Tony and Jeff together decided to create Grow Bioplastics as an LLC, begin working on a more refined business plan, and enter a number of business plan competitions here in Knoxville. After winning some seed prize money, including “Vol Court” and the “Boyd Venture Challenge​,” Tony and Jeff decided to put their full efforts into growing Grow Bioplastics.

What was the impetus for applying to participate in AgWorks? Over the last year, we’ve participated in a number of accelerator and pitch competitions, and have learned a great deal from all of them. One of the things that was missing from many of them, however, was the specific focus on the agricultural sector as a market for new technology. The partnership between the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and the AgLaunch program of Memphis Bioworks/Ag Innovation Development Group was just what we needed to get plugged into the right network and set of advisors to help us iron out some of the final unanswered questions we’ve had about building a solid business model and preparing for a successful product launch when we’re ready.​

What do you expect to accomplish before the August “Demo Day”? We hope to have a more robust plan for field and greenhouse trials of our biodegradable plastics with farming partners across Tennessee and extending throughout the Southeastern U.S. In addition, we are working on developing partnerships with product manufacturers interested in using our plastics and applying for a number of grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and some other funding sources to help us round out the final portions of our research and development efforts, and prepare us for a pilot launch sometime in 2018 or 2019.

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