(EDITOR’S NOTE: Sam Weaver is one of the region’s most senior entrepreneurs. When we first interviewed the President and Chief Executive Officer of Proton Power Inc. more than eight years ago, Weaver said he had been involved in at least 10 start-ups since leaving Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1970. He’s a quiet-spoken, unassuming individual who has a passion for science and a servant leaders heart. In the first article in a two-part series, we explore his thoughts about the region and technology-based start-ups. The second article provides an update on an opportunity that was unanticipated.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Sam Weaver makes you feel “right at home,” as we say in the South. He greets you warmly, whether its your first visit, as it was for PYA colleague Kailyn Lamb, or your third in my case. Weaver is always well-prepared and ready to update you on the latest developments at Proton Power Inc., a company that he told us in 2013 “could be the most impactful of any of his (entrepreneurial) efforts.”
Clearly driven by a servant leader’s mindset and commitment, Weaver’s passion for his latest venture has not waned in the eight years since we first chatted in the old farmhouse adjacent to the Roane Regional Industrial Park. That’s where Proton Power was launched in 2007. Today, the original cabin that was built in 1804 is incorporated in the farmhouse that is home to five corporate occupants including Proton Power. Weaver and his wife (Carol Jane) have made the space available to other start-ups.
“One thing entrepreneurs don’t need is a three-year lease,” Weaver says in explaining the decision to use it to help others. That’s also an indication of the character that personifies this individual who has been part of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem for a half century, but is still not finished making a difference.
In fact, Weaver clearly believes that Proton Power’s patented process called CHyP (Cellulose to Hydrogen Power) can address the world’s energy needs, particularly in developing nations, and he readily shares data that backs-up that assertion.
“Everyone’s concerned about the problem, but who’s really serious,” he asks. “We have a technology that can solve it.” The “it” is everything from world energy demand to food and water supply, climate change, and even forest fire control.
Drawing on cellulose-based feedstock – switchgrass, sawdust or even junk mail, the process creates hydrogen more efficiently than existing approaches. The hydrogen is then used to replace energy provided in other ways, and a byproduct called biochar is even usable as a soil supplement that increases crop yields.
That by-product also has produced an unexpected additional product that will be discussed more fully in Part 2 of this series that was written by Lamb.
Is the world taking notice of the company located in the Roane Regional Industrial Park? Absolutely. Weaver says Proton Power hosted 440 visitor days in 2019 before COVID-19 made such visits impossible.
As a long-time entrepreneur, we asked him about the reasons someone should start a tech-based business in the region. His comments build on a list that he provided for this 2013 teknovation.biz article.
“I can’t imagine any more of a business friendly place,” Weaver says, citing both the quality of life and the lack of an income tax. “From a technology standpoint, you can’t find a better place that has TVA, UT (University of Tennessee) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.”
Noting that Tennessee is a flyover state for venture capitalists and the fact that “there’s been no banking industry for entrepreneurs since 1990,” Weaver said he funded the first $3 million that went into Proton Power. Today, the company has 185 investors.
He also identified several factors that he believes have contributed to Proton Power’s success starting with a key one: “We pay all employee medical costs including co-pays.” Others range from an experienced team of top executives that has worked together for 46 years to experience in building large, high-temperature thermochemical systems for 35 years, a round-the-clock R&D commitment, the ability to manufacture its own equipment, and a commitment to “speed to market.”
Weaver is clearly one of the region’s entrepreneurial heroes.
NEXT: Biochar and the unexpected byproduct called graphene.