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June 06, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Knoxville start-up developing ATLAS to enhance traffic safety

The new product incorporates 23 hardware and software technologies ranging from advanced emergency responder preemption to traffic flow optimization, a customizable capability for toll roads, and real-time organized data analytics.

A Knoxville start-up is developing what its Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) describes as an “all-in-one customizable traffic solution.”

The company is named Borrego & Bendel, and its first product is ATLAS, which is the acronym for the Advanced Traffic Light Automation System. It incorporates 23 hardware and software technologies ranging from advanced emergency responder preemption to traffic flow optimization, a customizable capability for toll roads, and real-time organized data analytics.

Like most start-ups, the idea originated from a personal experience that Nick Borrego and Conley Bendel endured while driving to a gym in Oak Ridge almost three years ago. As described on the company’s website, they had experienced a long wait at the traffic light daily with no other vehicles around.

“I can’t believe we are in the 21st century, and we can’t even get a green light when no other vehicles are around,” Borrego said. From that day forward, they conducted research and quickly learned how many people died at intersections, how much money was being wasted at intersections due to inefficiencies, how much it cost to install and maintain a single traffic signal, and how much the industry suffered from the lack of hard and accurate data.

Armed with that information, they launched Borrego & Bendel on September 6, 2020, just a month after being spurred on by their experience. The company’s mission is straightforward; it wants to save lives, time, and money while also creating accurate data to shape the future of transportation, technology, and humanity.

That mission is underscored by the fact that more than 140,000 motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians are injured each year at stoplight intersections, resulting in about 800 deaths, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. For Borrego, the statistic is also very personal. He was 13 years old when he nearly lost his father to a redlight runner.

“My father called me and said, ‘Son, I got into a really bad accident, and it is a miracle that I am alive right now, and I just needed to let you know that I love you and won’t take another day for granted,’” Borrego explained.

So, how will the start-up realize its ambitious mission?

Using three engineering teams in Knoxville, Houston, and Romania, Borrego & Bendel is developing a comprehensive solution that includes a smart hub under development that connects traffic engineers with each intersection, a smart control software application with a simple interface, and a traffic flow optimization capability that sends data, based on individuals vehicles and bicycles, to the next signaled intersection.

“We are at a TRL 3 level but approaching a 4,” Borrego says. TRL stands for Technology Readiness Level.

Other members of the team include Téa Phillips, CEO of ATS Innovations Inc. which is developing the MetaFlex Therapy Glove, who serves as Chief Technology Officer, and Randy Ridenour, Chair of the Board.

The start-up has raised a little more than $160,000 from Borrego as well as the proverbial friends and family. It was also a winning finalist on the Global Fundraising Stage at the “World Business Angels Investment Forum” last October in Antalya, Turkey, and is in due diligence for a significant investment.

Borrego was born and raised in Denver and went to college in Arizona and California. So, how did he find his way to East Tennessee?

He said that his grandfather had a farm in Deer Lodge – that’s an unincorporated community in Morgan County – and he worked on the farm for several summers.

Borrego’s parents were entrepreneurs, founding an air ambulance company that they eventually sold to American Medical Response Corporation, better known as AMR, the ambulance provider in Knox County and provider of fire service outside the city limits of Knoxville.

After dropping out of several colleges and working at everything from modeling to selling, Borrego moved to Clinton where he worked for Tommy Hicks Construction.

“That’s where I found my purpose,” he says.

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