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January 29, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Grow Bioplastics making solid progress toward commercialization

Grow BioplasticsBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Last year was one of solid progress that portends an exciting 2018 for Grow Bioplastics, the Knoxville area start-up focused on commercializing products that use lignin-based biodegradable plastics for agricultural applications.

“We just learned at the end of December that we had won a Phase I SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) award from the National Science Foundation,” Tony Bova, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), told us in a recent interview. We posted Grow Bioplastics’ news release at this link last week

The announcement capped a year that saw the start-up secure its first outside investment, take home the largest prize amount in its series of successful pitch competitions, and open a shared lab at Sizzle TechStart in Lenoir City. The latter is the former farmhouse that Sam Weaver, President and CEO of Proton Power Inc., and Carol Jane Weaver, his wife, have made available to new enterprises like Grow Bioplastics.

“When we came into the space where the lab is, it was a garage that Proton Power had used,” Bova said. In fact, the space was where Proton Power’s early R&D work was undertaken.

“We removed the old equipment, power-washed the space, cleaned and painted the walls, upgraded the electrical, and installed used equipment and brand new lab benches,” Bova said. One of the specialized pieces of equipment the start-up installed is something called a torque rheometer that he says is an “instrument to do all small batch compounding.”

To see a chronology of the lab makeover, click here.

Grow Bioplastics only needs about a third of the lab space, so the company is renting the remainder to others. One of those tenants is Urban Valley Farms, a fellow participant in last year’s “AgWorks Accelerator” sponsored by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) and AgLaunch. We spotlighted Carson Bone and the start-up in this article last August.

Grow Bioplastics has survived largely on more than $130,000 in prize monies that Bova and Co-Founder Jeff Beegle won during a series of pitch competitions around the country. By far, the largest of those was the Baylor (University) New Venture Competition in February 2017 where the start-up walked away with $63,500.

Then, Bova says Grow Bioplastics secured its first and only outside investor in April. He hopes that will change, either later this year or in 2019, when the company launches a seed round.

With the SBIR funding, Grow Bioplastics will soon be hiring a second full-time employee to work alongside Beegle who went full-time last year after completing his Master’s degree at the University of Tennessee (UT). There are plans in the works to hire a third employee this summer and, thanks to an expansion of Launch Tennessee’s summer internship program, Grow Bioplastics will also have an engineering student working with the team.

“We are focused on making serious headway into product development including prototypes this year,” Bova says.

As far as future directions, he says that there is “quite a bit of opportunity in the agricultural space now, but we need to be agile if a new opportunity emerges. We’re looking at other options like sustainable coatings and packaging, but those are farther out.”

Bova is encouraged by inquiries Grow Bioplastics has received already from several Fortune 500 companies.

“We will be testing materials this fall and expect to generate revenue from mulch films and pelletized biodegradable plastics by 2019,” he says.

The company is also exploring two other Phase I SBIRs and hopes there is a follow-on opportunity for a Phase II, based on the just won Phase I, that will help Grow Bioplastics scale-up its manufacturing.

And, there is the matter of finishing his doctorate. Bova is one of the students in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, a joint effort of UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He plans to finish his dissertation by the end of 2018.

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