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December 09, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Bunker Labs announces 11 participants in inaugural cohort of local VIR program

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

At a Wednesday evening event attended by about two dozen individuals, Bunker Labs introduced the 11 East Tennessee companies that comprise the inaugural cohort in the local “Veterans in Residence” (VIR) program.

The Knoxville-based chapter joins with 21 others from across the country hosting the six-month incubator to help companies founded by veterans or family members. A total of 750 individuals applied for one of the “22 Alpha” cohorts, and 199 were selected for one of the 22 locations including 11 from East Tennessee. The Wednesday event was part of a coordinated program at all 22 locations the same evening.

Burrell at Event

The accelerator begins in early January, according to Derren Burrell, a leader and champion for Bunker Labs locally and also President and Founder of Veteran Ventures Capital LLC which, as its name implies, is focused on financially supporting start-ups founded by veterans. His colleague helping lead the local effort is Tony Lee, a veteran, realtor, and consultant.

As I’ve learned after attending a number of Bunker Labs events, spousal support is a key component of the organization’s philosophy, and that was clearly on display Wednesday night at the event held at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. Many of the 11 entrepreneurs has spouses or significant others in attendance, and Gloria Burrell, Derren’s wife, opened the event with a powerful rendition of the National Anthem.

We were familiar with only two of the 11 companies comprising the first local VIR cohort.

  • One was Shockwave Motors Inc., founded by John McMillian, and featured in dozens of posts on biz since the start-up was one of three winners in the 2015 Tennessee Veterans Business Association’s business plan competition (see article here). McMillian’s inaugural product is the Defiant EV3RoadsterTM which combines the excitement of a motorcycle with the additional safety features and stability of a car.
  • The other was D3D VR Studios, founded by Alex Weber, that combines virtual reality, augmented reality, and video. His idea captured third place in the latest edition of the “Vol Court Speaker Series and Pitch Competition” organized by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville. Weber was also a participant in the “I-Corps South Regional Fall 2021 Cohort,” also coordinated by the Anderson Center and the UT Research Foundation.

Three of the remaining eight are involved in some aspect of cybersecurity.

  • Brent Gallo pitched Hire A Cyber Pro, a company that he says is focused on helping enterprises prevent expensive and debilitating ransomware attacks like the one that the City of Knoxville experienced last year. “I want a better prepared Knoxville,” Gallo said.
  • David Watts is Owner, Director and Principal Consultant at Security Effects Inc. “We do security technology innovation,” he told attendees, a point emphasized on its website calling out “emerging technologies” like drones. “There is a lot of opportunity for efficiency,” Watts said. The company has a team of mostly 1099s.
  • Eric Carlson pitched Blue Sky Cyber which he said was focused on homes and small businesses. He has built a security device, similar to a home security system, that is focused on the rapidly proliferating set of smart home devices that comprise the Internet of Things and compromise both business and residential security.

Two veterans are in the food and beverage sector, while a third is focused on the disposal of food waste outside of landfills.

  • Rick Cox, who co-founded Next Level Brewing Company in 2019, briefly discussed plans to open what he described as “a unique dining experience” that would rely heavily on vegan options.
  • Ryan Steffy described his plans for a new restaurant named 71 South that is slated to open in 2022 at 3607 Sevier Heights Road near the entrance to Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. It will be a full-service restaurant.
  • David Weaver founded Sustainable Organics to be a “safe, reliable, and friendly alternative” for the disposal of food waste generated by residences and restaurants. Noting that the local community produces 67 million pounds of food waste annually, he said that Knoxville needs an alternative to simply sending the waste to a landfill.

The other three start-ups fell into separate sectors.

  • Keith Bridges of Knox Goats deploys goats and sheep to help eradicate areas blighted by Kudzu. His goal is to secure a herd of 600 goats that will be able to clear 2,200 acres annually.
  • Matt Gordon described Elevation as a mentoring, instruction and coaching platform for people struggling with issues like obesity and finances.
  • Stephen Manners said that he had joined with his girlfriend in launching Forever Fit Coaching to provide virtual training on fitness and nutrition, noting that one-third of Tennessee’s population is obese, and the Volunteer State ranks 38th in terms of health factors.

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