PART 1: Top Five not afraid to tackle big technology challenges

Top Five(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series focused on a new company exploring the commercialization of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s nanofermentation technology.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

When I think of a Tennessee small business entrepreneur who has spent more time than anyone else exploring how to leverage technologies at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), one name comes to mind immediately.

The individual is Jeff McCay, one of the founders of a company named Top Five. Located in Hamilton County – McDonald, TN to be exact, the enterprise is really a private equity firm that invests in interesting business opportunities. The current mix ranges from Scenic Industries, a high-end machining company, to NuWave/Pacenti Cycle Design, a high-end bicycle manufacturer, and Composite Application Group (CAG).

Top Five is a partnership involving McCay, Dennis Roach and Jim Horton. In addition to the companies already named, other “family” members also include Maxwell Industries and Printing Expressions.

Its CAG subsidiary was one of the first Tennessee-based company to start working with ORNL on low-cost carbon fiber. It even opened an office in the Oak Ridge Science and Technology Park and was a charter member of the Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium that includes global enterprises like 3M Company, BASF Corporation, Dow Chemical Company, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and Volkswagen Group of America.

Suffice it to say that McCay and his partners at Top Five are not afraid to tackle big technology challenges.

Today, they have launched their latest undertaking, executing a 15-month R&D license with ORNL for a nanofermentation technology.

“We spent last summer researching the market,” McCay said before executing the license in the fall. Weston Cronan, a sophomore at Tennessee Technological University, did much of the market analysis. Ironically, he is the grandson of Top Five Co-Founder Roach.

The event where McCay and Roach first heard about the nanofermentation technology was ORNL’s “Bridging the Gap” conference in 2013.

“Dennis is a wine maker,” McCay said. When Roach heard the explanation of the technology, he immediately saw opportunities.

“The process is a lot like fermentation of wine,” McCay said. “Dennis realized the equipment used in winemaking and that needed to produce (nano) particles was similar.”

So, after a summer spent exploring opportunities, Top Five executed the license and launched its latest company named Nano Elements Source, LLC.

The goal is to use the technology to make a nanoparticle that is being sold now for $10,000 a gram for about $10.

Obviously, there is a great deal of work still to be done, but McCay is optimistic. More important, he’s found a way to also link into the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. This program is a joint initiative of ORNL and the University of Tennessee attracting some of the brightest doctoral students in the country, including a subset interested in entrepreneurship.

NEXT: How the involvement of Bredesen Center students helped them as well as the new company.

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