Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
November 07, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Joe James is passionate about improving the lives of poor, at-risk individuals

His start-up named Agri-Tech Producers LLC is using a process that James invented and patented to bring economic opportunity to others.

Joe James has spent most of his career in economic development, working in leadership roles for cities like Austin, Chicago, Richmond, and urban counties like Price Georges County before landing in Columbia, SC to take a senior position in the state’s Commerce Department.

“I was supposed to be a chemist,” James told us, explaining that he was enrolled at Union College in Schenectady, NY when Martin Luther King was assassinated during his junior year. That event changed his plans and, for the next 30 plus years, James worked in various economic development positions across the country, always making sure that some of his efforts were focused on making the lives of poor and at-risk individuals and communities better.

It was in the Palmetto State that he was first exposed to the poverty in rural communities. Based on his years of experience, James knew that adding value to the agricultural and forestry assets of those communities was a way to create new bioeconomy jobs.

He left government in 2004 to pursue that strategy, creating a nonprofit named the Corporation for Economic Opportunity, and winning something named the “Purpose Prize” in 2008 for his work to uplift poor, rural and urban communities. James knew that new technologies were needed, so he used some of the prize money to launch Agri-Tech Producers LLC (ATP).

Today, that company is a member of Cohort 2 of the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” operated by the University of Tennessee Research Park at Cherokee Farm. ATP uses a Combined Remediation Biomass and Bio-Product Production (CRBBP) process that James invented and patented to capture CO2, provide other environmental services, and then to make bio-products.

“It may be the world’s least costly way to extract lots of CO2 from the atmosphere to combat climate change while also contributing to a bioeconomy,” James says. Today, he plants special bio-crops like biomass sorghum which he says captures four times the CO2 per acre that pine trees do, then converts the resulting plant material into bio-products in which the captured carbon can be sequestered and kept out of the atmosphere.

As far as the company’s business model, he says that it calls for operating affiliates in each state, including Tennessee, and three of those companies are already partnering with three utilities (Dominion Energy Ohio, Baltimore General Electric, and Philadelphia Gas Works) in CRBBP process demonstration projects.

ATP helps those utilities reduce their carbon footprints by using their abundance of otherwise underutilized land to produce biomass, then converting the resulting output into biochar which will then be embedded in the very same sites to sequester the captured carbon and hopefully earn carbon credits.

In addition, ATP is making other bio-products such as a safer, biobased alternative to carbon black filler powder to make recyclable shipping pallets. James is also working with a university to convert ATP’s climate-smart biomass into a coating for military vehicles that would protect them from chemical warfare.

James is now looking for talented and committed individuals to take on leadership roles in his proposed Tennessee operating affiliate company.

As to why he was interested in being part of the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator,” he described Tennessee as “a target-rich state for what I do.” James sees the Tennessee Valley Authority as a potential customer that could benefit from planting biomass sorghum for CO2 reduction, and he wants to explore possibilities for biomass-based products with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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