Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
March 24, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

PYA announces the start-ups to pitch for the firm’s Ballard Innovation Award

Five innovative start-ups selected to present their cutting edge concepts to a panel of judges on April 10.

PYA, the power behind, announced the five companies that will compete at the annual Ballard Innovation Award on April 10. The award, now in its fourth year, is the largest gift of cash and in-kind services available to East Tennessee entrepreneurs and start-ups, reflecting PYA’s commitment to the region.

This is one of the most exciting, competitive competition years to date. The selected companies exemplify the best our region offers in terms of start-up innovation, profit potential, and scalability. The winners will pitch before a panel of judges beginning at 3 p.m. EDT on April 10 at Jewelry Television in West Knoxville.

Those interested in attending can RSVP for the Ballard Innovation Award Pitch Competition on PYA’s website.

Meet the companies


Statheros is a start-up founded in January 2021 and headquartered in Knoxville. The company is spearheaded by a group of passionate technology experts who are dedicated to enhancing the security of the United States. They focus on creating high-quality, secure systems and software for the US Department of Defense’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations (EMSO) mission and testing. Essentially, they develop advanced technology to give the US military an edge in detecting and responding to threats in the electromagnetic environment.

In October, the start-up received a $300,000 non-dilutive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Matching Fund grant from Launch Tennessee. They plan to use those funds to advance their AI EMSO technology products and to establish an Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Service (EMSaaS) AI training environment.

David Murray, Founder, Statheros
David Murray, Founder, Statheros

As artificial intelligence (AI) models continue to advance into many real-life applications, their ability to maintain reliable quality over time becomes increasingly important. Authentrics.AI offers organizations the ability to see inside their artificial intelligence systems and measure their operation using applications, content control, and when necessary, even remove problematic content.

Multi-time Founder and Chief Executive Officer, John Derrick explains Authentrics.AI as an “MRI for AI,” giving businesses visibility into an AI black box (read article here).

John Derrick Authentics.AI
John Derrick, Founder, Authentics.AI

Safire Technology Group

Safire Technology Group emerged in 2020 from a five-year R&D effort led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and a commercialization effort sponsored by FedTech. The team consists of a world-leading expert in electrochemical energy storage and seasoned business leaders with decades of experience bringing new technologies to market in both private and public sectors.

The company’s patented Li-ion advanced battery safety technology prevents explosion/fire through an instantaneous liquid-to-solid transformation upon mechanical impact and imparts ballistic protection — all inherent in the electrolyte chemistry. In 2023, Safire was selected by AFWERX for an additional $1.25 million SBIR Phase II award.

Andrew Hanna, Head of Product and Brand, Safire
Andrew Hanna, Head of Product and Brand, Safire Technology Group

Orion Therapeutics

Orion is a leading provider of state-of-the-art solutions for precise and targeted delivery of RNA therapeutics. Its advanced delivery platform is agnostic to nucleic acid payload and can be modified for a variety of disease indications opening new frontiers in the field of RNA-based medicine. Through their innovative approach, Orion aims to revolutionize treatment options and improve patient outcomes in atherosclerosis and endovascular procedures.

The start-up is located at the University of Tennessee Research Park and has secured several grants and funding opportunities. Most recently, the company won the 2023 “Venture Forum” and secured a $10,000 cash prize at the annual Life Science Tennessee conference.

Jennifer Zachry and Trey Fisher, Co-Founders, Orion Theraputics
Jennifer Zachry and Trey Fisher, Co-Founders, Orion Therapeutics

Whisper Aero

Whisper Aero is a next-generation electric propulsion company that invented breakthrough technology that can generate thrust with less noise and higher efficiency. This can be used for drones, air travel, leaf blowers, and more. Their technology can lead to ultra-quiet flights with greater efficiency at higher speeds. This opens the aperture to new C-UAS defense drones, multi-mission CTOL jets, high-speed VTOL aircraft, and more.

Most recently,  the company closed a $32 million Series A, placing Crossville on the map for energy start-up funding.

Andrew Terajewicz, Head of Product, Whisper Aero
Andrew Terajewicz, Head of Product, Whisper Aero

Read more about the panel of judges here.

The first-place winner of the PYA Ballard Innovation Award will receive:

  • $50,000 package of capital and in-kind services:
    • $10,000 of Monetary Capital
    • $ 2,500 of In-Kind Tax Advisory Support
    • $ 7,500 of In-Kind Outsourced Accounting
    • $10,000 of In-Kind Marketing Support
    • $10,000 of In-Kind Strategy Support
    • $10,000 of In-Kind Video Development
  • Marketing and promotional awareness through earned media
  • Physical award for presentation and marketing purposes


Don’t Miss Out on the Southeast’s Latest Entrepreneurial, Business, & Tech News!

Sign-up to get the Teknovation Newsletter in your inbox each morning!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

No, thanks!