Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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January 09, 2022 | Tom Ballard

PART 6: More entrepreneurs share their hopes for region and their start-ups

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked individuals who had been spotlighted in the past year or so in two questions ahead of the dawn of 2022. One concerned their hopes for their local entrepreneurial ecosystem, the other about their aspirations for their company. This is the sixth article in a series capturing their responses.)  

The 14th and 15th respondents to our questions were Alex Abell, Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Lunchpool, and Jesse Thornburg, Co-Founder and CEO of  Grid Fruit.

  • Lunchpool was founded in Florida as a tool to connect disparate workers over lunch and quickly took off in early 2020 as COVID-19 spread, providing an alternative way for individuals to connect and network virtually. Abell moved to the region in 2019 when his wife accepted a position at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville.
  • Grid Fruit is focused on 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, and fine-tuning a solution was what brought Thornburg to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Cohort 3 of its “Innovation Crossroads” program. The start-up recently was awarded $1.1 million from the DOE to do research focusing on using machine learning and data to gain insights into food businesses and power grids.

What one or two wishes do you have for the entrepreneurial ecosystem where you and your start-up are located?

  • ABELL: More programs that highlight and connect everyone together. I hope to see more initiatives like the “Made for Knoxville” campaign from KEC (Knoxville Entrepreneur Center). It has been inspirational to see all the great stories of area start-ups, and I’ve heard from the founders that have been highlighted (including myself) that it really made us feel proud to be part of Knoxville’s innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem. “Startup Knox” from Brandon Bruce and John Bruck is another great resource that comes to mind. Also, initiatives to grow and measure connections and share resources. I hope to see more people getting lunch and coffee together to explore how we can all share resources/connections. I strongly believe organizations like KEC, KTech, UT’s Spark Center, Innovation Crossroads, and the various Innov865 member organizations have a huge ability to help connect the various people within the ecosystem, and using technology like the one we’re building, measure the results of those efforts via social system mapping and analysis.
  • THORNBURG: We hope the Knoxville entrepreneurship community continues to expand its support of makers and entrepreneurs, specifically with more Knoxville businesses willing to pilot new technologies from startups. As an energy start-up, we’ve found lots of well wishes but are still looking for a business in the area to let us implement at pilot scale with them (to learn from their context as we reduce their energy bills).

What specific aspirations/goals do you have for your start-up in 2022?

  • ABELL: After bootstrapping for three years, growing my team and revenue, I’ve got some big goals. I’m finally ready to take on some outside capital and build what we’ve been wanting to build since starting Lunchpool. I’ll be growing a product team, expanding our professional services, and hopefully getting the world to Lunchpool together.
  • THORNBURG: We are grateful that this year we could expand our revenue – from one software/simulation pilot in 2020 to two in-person paid pilots in 2021. In 2022 our goal is to secure our first recurring revenue and ongoing customer, i.e., expanding beyond pilot scale. Expanding on the prior point, we’ve begun two in-store pilots in Vermont, consisting of installations at a general store/grocery and a neighborhood market.

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