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March 02, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Latest WTBI pitch competition featured strongest line-up yet

As one of the judges told us, deciding the winner of Sunday night’s “What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Pitch Competition” (WTBI) was a challenge. I would agree; it was probably the best overall set of presenters and ideas since the new format for the annual event was adopted six years ago.

In the end, however, there had to be a winner, and it was that was presented by Mike Benn. He’s a high-energy, charismatic graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s (UTK) logistics program who might have sealed the victory by the manner in which he demonstrated his product at the conclusion of his pitch.

“Traditional safety training videos are boring,” Benn (pictured right) told the attendees who filled Scruffy City Hall on Market Square. is a tool that allows the start-up to write, record and produce training videos for safety managers to engage the workers.

“Pick a topic and a genre (hip hop, pop, country, etc.), and we make you a song,” Benn explained. His target customer is a company with 500 or fewer employees.

As he concluded his pitch, Benn donned a hard hat and yellow safety vest as he danced to a short hip hop song playing in the background. The audience gave him a standing ovation for the creativity.

WTBI is organized by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) for The Development Corporation of Knox County and sponsored by Harper Auto Square. secured up to $10,000 in reimbursable costs to help advance the business.

Others who pitched and their ideas were:

  • Autopilot Finance, presented by Matt McMillan. It’s a way for individuals like McMillan and his wife, who collectively have $200,000 in student loan debt, to address the challenge while also saving for their future. He described the concept as an income sharing agreement.
  • Doula Ink was an idea pitched by Renee Dudley who explained that doulas are professionals trained in childbirth who provide emotional, physical, and educational support to a mother who is expecting, is experiencing labor, or has recently given birth. Doula Ink is a web-based client management software solution and online learning community designed to meet the administrative and professional support needs of birth doulas.
  • Grid Fruit is one of the participants in Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” program. As described in this recent biz article, the company is addressing a challenge that affects retailers such as grocery and convenience stores that have large coolers for food and beverages. It’s the cost of energy. The company’s tagline is “AI-driven savings for utilities.”
  • LaunchWhenReady might be described as a tool, somewhat like crowdfunding, to help entrepreneurs vet ideas before making the actual investment to start a business. It was presented by James Senter, a doctoral student at UTK, who said it was “a platform optimized for small businesses to succeed or fail quickly.”
  • PowerUp Fitness is another start-up spotlighted in this recent biz article. Founded by Stacy Baugues, the company is focused ensuring that kids receive the daily exercise they need. There are specific programs focused on pre-schoolers, those in school, and those at fitness centers. The start-up has grown to 41 locations in seven states, and Baugues plans to have 1,500 sites by 2023.
  • Primeaux is the latest offering from Knoxville maker John Phillips. Already well-known for his Phillips Forged brand of knives used by nationally renowned chefs like Sean Brock, he is now planning to branch into cookware made from carbon steel. The new line under new brand is in response to requests from customers who buy his knives. Phillips said the new offering will be “the world’s finest cookware.”


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