Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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Weekend edition April 12, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

RECAP: 2024 Ballard Innovation Award

Safire Technology Group won first place, Statheros won second, and Whisper Aero secured third.

At the 2024 PYA Ballard Innovation Award live pitch competition on April 10, Safire Technology Group won first place, $50,000 in capital and in-kind services — the largest prize of its kind available to startups in the region. Five finalists from numerous applicants took the stage at Jewelry Television (JTV) in Knoxville to compete for first-, second-, and third-place prizes.

PYA Ballard Innovation Award Winners
PYA Ballard Innovation Award Winners

Safire Technology Group is redefining battery safety. It emerged in 2020 from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and commercialization by FedTech. Among the company’s five comprehensive patents, its patented Li-ion advanced battery safety technology prevents lithium-ion battery explosion/fire without hampering the battery’s performance through an instantaneous liquid-to-solid transformation upon mechanical impact while protecting against projectiles.

Andrew Hanna, Safire
Andrew Hanna, Safire

“We’re proud to recognize Safire Technology Group as the 2024 winner of the PYA Ballard Innovation Award,” said PYA President and CEO Marty Brown. “Safire’s innovations keep us safer in our highly technology-based world. PYA is committed to supporting entrepreneurs and innovators, having started several companies, itself. That’s why we celebrate entrepreneurs. We know a healthy entrepreneurial community brings innovation, jobs, and growth to the region, and our annual award allows us to help new companies like Safire Technology Group thrive.”

Second place was awarded to Statheros, and third place went to Whisper Aero. Second- and third-place winners receive $10,000 and $5,000 of in-kind strategy support from PYA, respectively.

Statheros was founded in 2021 in Knoxville. The company creates secure systems and software for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations mission and testing to ensure the detection of and response to cyber threats.

Whisper Aero is reinventing electric propulsion with breakthrough technology that generates thrust with less noise and higher efficiency. This technology can lead to ultra-quiet flights with greater efficiency and higher speeds, making it applicable to aircraft, drones, and more.

The PYA Ballard Innovation Award competition is open to any early-stage company in the East Tennessee area that has established a proof of concept with accompanying revenue and financial resources of at least $200,000; a business plan to optimize business operations; and evidence of an innovative spirit and a vision to empower the consumer.

A panel of five regional leaders, including Drew Everett, Chairman, Bush Brothers & CompanyMaha Krishnamurthy, President, UT Research FoundationJorge Sanabria, President, ExpoquipAnca Timofte, Co-founder and CEO, Holocene; and David Youngblood, CFO, Strategic Acquisitions Group, selected the winners based on the competitors’ five-minute pitches.


Judging Panel BIA
Judging Panel, Ballard Innovation Award

During the event, PYA Chief Alliance Officer and the award’s namesake Tom Ballard discussed Market Square Ventures with Brandon Bruce, Co-founder and General Partner of Market Square Ventures, CEO and Co-founder of Uncat, Cirrus Insight, and other ventures, and John Bruck, Co-founder and General Partner of Market Square Ventures, Co-founder of the University of Tennessee Research Park’s SPARK Innovation Center, among other ventures.


Fireside chat, Ballard Innovation Award

Ballard has spent decades creating relationships and supporting the East Tennessee region’s entrepreneurial community. He is also the editor of PYA’s daily e-newsletter,, which focuses on technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The 2024 award is the fourth annual PYA Ballard Innovation Award. Read about all five finalists in the 2024 competition. Past first-place winners of the award include iO Urology, PrepWizard, and 490 BioTech.


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