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September 13, 2023 | Tom Ballard

COMMENTARY: It just keeps getting bigger and better

Tom Ballard, Editor of, shares his commentary following Startup Day 2023, which showcased the diversity of the Knoxville entrepreneurial scene and the growth that has occurred in the past decade.

If my memory is intact – and at my age, you never know, I have attended every “Startup Day” in Knoxville’s history, and they just keep getting bigger and better. The latest one on Tuesday was the 10th-anniversary celebration, and it continued to raise the bar several more notches.

There was a record crowd. More than 300 were pre-registered, and Piper Communications, the event organizer, had set up 240 chairs around tables. Almost every seat was filled, and there were people standing in the back of the Mill & Mine.

A number of those in the audience were first-time attendees such as Ashleigh and Drew Walters. They moved from Pennsylvania to Knoxville less than a year ago, so this was their first “Startup Day.” We talked with them before the pitches began and after the formal program ended. They said they were blown away by the quality of the companies that pitched.

The six start-ups that competed for two prizes represented the diversity of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that we have watched over the last 11-plus years and chronicled regularly in What captured our attention as we heard the pitches on Tuesday afternoon was the common denominator that each company shared: making the lives of individuals and the world itself better.

Those relatively new ventures ranged from Farm Grub which delivers fresh food in a five-county area but is underpinned by a powerful logistics platform to Holocene which just announced its first commercial agreement for carbon removal services; Orion Therapeutics Inc. that captured $100,000 in the prestigious Eli Lilly and Company “Genetic Medicine Grand Challenge,” sponsored by Nucleate; and KnoxFill that is Knoxville’s first zero-waste refillery providing items like hand soap, laundry detergent, dishwasher powder, shampoo, bodywash, and body lotions while diverting 50,000 containers thus far from landfills.

With any competition, there had to be those who came out on top, but the six who pitched were clearly winners in their own right.

As our colleague Shannon Smith reported in yesterday’s edition of, Alex Stiles, Founder of Vitriform3D, won the $7,000 Judges’ Choice Award, presented by the Innov865 Alliance. Attendees voted for Jonathan Halley, Founder of B-Roll Bank, to take home the Crowd Favorite cash prize of $3,000, presented by Boston Government Services. Vitriform3D, a participant in the “Innovation Crossroads” program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is focused on glass recycling and the use of recycled material for building materials like luxury tiles. B-Roll Bank provides a smart digital asset manager to capture video that would otherwise probably not be found or at least recovered easily.

The annual Traction Award, presented this year by CGI, went to Anna Douglas and the team at SkyNano Technologies that came here in 2017 as a member of the inaugural cohort of “Innovation Crossroads” and has grown the business by raising $16 million in non-diluted capital through grants and contracts. The company has developed a novel electrochemical manufacturing technology that captures and converts CO2 from various sources (e.g., atmospheric, concentrated, and flue gas) into valuable carbon-based materials such as carbon nanotubes.

We’ve enjoyed watching the evolution of the start-up community over the past decade. It’s grown in so many ways through the efforts of a variety of people and organizations.

More important, however, is that old adage that the best is yet to come, and those who attended Tuesday’s “Startup Day” got a preview of the future.

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