(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another article in our series spotlighting some of the region’s most successful entrepreneurs and their reflections on their start-up journey in this community.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
By any stretch of the imagination, Bill Malkes can wear the “Serial Entrepreneur” badge. He’s done it multiple times, both in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region, and earlier in Detroit.
Malkes joined his long-time friend James “Vig” Sherrill in launching ASIC International, a company that developed integrated chips. From there, the duo went on to collaborate on three other start-ups: (1) TradeWind Technologies, a company that designed, developed, manufactured, and sold Radio Frequency Identification readers as an attachment to Personal Digital Assistants and mobile phones; (2) Healthspex that was focused on DNA processing and commercializing an Oak Ridge National Laboratory technology referred to as “lab on a chip”; and (3) GRIDSMART Technologies Inc., founded as Aldis and focused on the intelligent transportation sector.
GRIDSMART was acquired by San Diego-based Cubic Corporation at the beginning of 2019, and Malkes took some time to decide what was next. In a blogpost, he wrote, “Indeed, there has been no shortage of opportunities. Through all the conversation, there was always a calling still looking to be satisfied. I knew that if I was going to take on another project then it had to fit some very specific criteria.”
Today, Malkes is bringing the passion for doing the right things along with knowledge and scars he’s gained from those numerous start-ups to his latest endeavor, serving as Chief Executive Officer of NellOne Therapeutics Inc., an early stage company that he joined a decade after it was founded.
In describing the fire and passion that drove him to another start-up, Malkes ended that blogpost with these words: “So, if you’ve asked me what is next, let it be known that changing the world is what is next. This (NellOne) is bigger than any one person. Because it changes lives. Because it lets me be a servant leader. And because that NELL1 talented protein can only succeed if NellOne the company delivers on its promise. I answer to a higher calling and greater mission. I believe NellOne is where I am commanded to be.”
So, it should come as no surprise that, with everything that he has seen and accomplished since arriving in Knoxville 21 years ago, we wanted to get the always candid Malkes’ insights into and assessment of the entrepreneurial ecosystem as it exists today.
“This community is an orders of magnitude more inclusive than when I arrived,” he says, noting that it has been a challenge in the past for those who did not grow-up here, as well as women and people of color, to breakthrough. Yet, Malkes also sees the other side of that picture.
“What comes with that exclusion is a sense of community,” he acknowledges, while also applauding the focus that the recent Techstars assessment of the region placed on ensuring greater access for and participation by underrepresented groups in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
As readers may know, Malkes does not just talk about helping less fortunate parts of the community; he walks the talk. During his tenure at GRIDSMART, he led an effort to serve and support the Lonsdale community. The initiative included spotlighting and rewarding the “Lonsdale Student of the Month” and the Lonsdale “Day of Service” that was part of the company’s annual INTERSECT conference, through GIVESMART, the 501(C)(3) created to serve the underserved
“GIVESMART survived the sale of GRIDSMART and remains active in underserved communities,” Malkes says. “The organization is now the official charitable arm of NellOne. GIVESMART has distributed several tons of food during the pandemic, distributed spring baskets to the children, and continues to participate in the Christmas celebrations at Lonsdale and Sam E. Hill elementary schools.”
Malkes reminds entrepreneurs that they are going to get mollywhomped, no matter where they live. “You have windows of opportunity, go through them expeditiously or risk smacking your face on the glass. You’re going to get hit along the way. The question is do you get back up and stick with it?”
On the frequent criticism of Knoxville’s availability of capital, he’s a fan of what he calls “smart capital,” something that Malkes says exists here. “I’ll take smart money over bulk money,” he explains, adding, ‘It’s going to get you there.” In that regard, he calls out Three Roots Capital “where the investor truly participates in the company.”
One area in which he sees positive growth is the size of the local entrepreneurial community. It has been fairly small, but is getting stronger. “That’s important as entrepreneurs lean into each other for advice and assistance,” Malkes says.