(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a series describing the five and one-half year technology commercialization journey that resulted in the recent announcement that Domtar had taken a major interest in Prisma Renewable Composites.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Entrepreneurship seems to be in Adam McCall’s DNA.
He started his entrepreneurial career in East Tennessee for a start-up named IdleAire Technologies, starting as their Mechanical Design Engineer and working up the chain to Vice President of Product Development. After six and one-half years at the company, he left the region to help Malibu Boats, the company that had sponsored him as a professional wakeboarder, launch a new brand he later named Axis Wake Research.
“Interestingly enough, when I left IdleAire in 2007, I had recruited my replacement in product development and honestly thought the company was on its way to success,” McCall says. “Little did I know the impending financial crisis was around the corner, which obviously posed a serious challenge to a guy who moved to California to start a new boat brand!”
Laughing, McCall obviously enjoys the curves life throws as he recounts the past. As Managing Director of Axis Wake Research, he helped lead the parent company through a complete restructuring and ultimately became Vice President of Product for the parent corporation.
“We took it (Axis) from an unnamed and completely unknown brand in 2008 to around 15 percent market share by 2013 and took Malibu overall to 33 percent market share,” McCall says. The former was an exceptional accomplishment since the new line of wake boats was launched in the midst of a massive economic downturn that saw significant layoffs across the boating industry.
“I was feeling really good with where things were at by the start of 2013, between our recent launch of the patented SurfGateTM system and the incredibly strong position that the brands (Axis and Malibu) were in,” McCall says, adding that his nature causes him to start looking around for the next challenge when things are going well. “I don’t want to leave a job if things aren’t going well, but I’m a problem solver. “
In looking for the next challenge, McCall says he wanted to get back to that “feel good” type of opportunity that directly benefited the environment. “I didn’t merely want to say ‘well, I recycle, therefore I have done my part’,” he explained. “Instead, I think we have a responsibility to use our innovative brains and teamwork to truly make lasting improvements to the world.”
That skillset and interests aligned nicely when the Blount County native heard about the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Biofuels Initiative.
“I met David,” McCall says in reference to the late David Millhorn, then UT’s Executive Vice President overseeing research initiatives like the biofuels project. “He was a Vietnam veteran coming from a non-privileged background. He was a visionary who did not expect anything to be given to him. He respected the troops he had around him and was not a micromanager.”
The respect was mutual, based on conversations I had with Millhorn. McCall signed-on at the start of 2013 as President and Chief Executive Officer of TennEra, a biotechnology-based company that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UT Research Foundation. It was a decision he did not make lightly.
“My departure (from Malibu) went against all sound logic from the people I listened to on a daily basis including the Chair of Malibu,” McCall says. Some of the concerns those individuals posed related to the difference between a private, hard-charging environment and an academic environment.
“None of the advice has proven wrong, but I was convinced the challenge of technology transfer at a university would be a whole new sphere of opportunities,” McCall explained. “The resources found at places like Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UT, from the scientists to the facilities and analytical equipment, were ultimately the only feasible avenue I could see to solving such a massive technological challenge, and that’s what attracted me.”
There was another enticing aspect to the opportunity.
“I was given a blank enough slate and a directive to leverage as much as I could of the prior biofuels initiative investments, but (ultimately) I was expected to fund ‘science projects’ that I believed could result in commercial opportunities,” he added. “If I had been given anymore guidelines, we would have set it up for failure.”
NEXT: It has been a rollercoaster of a ride.