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April 24, 2023 | Shannon Smith

Six student start-ups win big at “Graves Business Plan Competition”

A TikTok influencer, pillow designer, shoe cleaner, and more student entrepreneurs take home money as winners of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's biannual competition.

From tech to lifestyle to services and everything in between, college students are full of ideas. At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), six students turned their ideas into winning business plans.

They were awarded a total of $20,000 in funding during the spring 2023 “Graves Business Plan Competition.” Hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI), the competition is designed to give UTK student entrepreneurs their first experience pitching a business plan.

The competitors pitched their plans to a panel of successful, local judges in hopes to win investment funds. The competition has two categories, Growth and Lifestyle, each with three levels of prizes.

The Growth category is for start-ups seeking high investment with large scalability.

  1. First place – $5,000 – KnoxBots, founded by Wesley Pitts, a sophomore marketing major from Knoxville. He created his innovative robotic mowing company that installs and maintains robotic mowers and mowing systems for residential and commercial properties.
  2. Second place – $3,000 – Elevate Hydro, founded by Kyle Weiss, an energy science and engineering Ph.D. student from Seattle, Washington. Elevate Hydro, which also won third place at Vol Court this spring, provides water ram pump systems for pumped storage facilities. Using this known technology in novel applications, the company promotes cost-effective, environmentally friendly growth of the world’s largest batteries—pumped storage.
  3. Third place – $2,000 – Chock-it, founded by Blake Norris, a junior management major with a collateral in entrepreneurship from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Chock-it, which also won second place at Vol Court this spring, is an automatic wheel-chocking system that combats and prevents theft.

“Winning the Graves Business Plan Competition means everything to me,” said Pitts. “It not only provides the financial support we need for our upcoming pilot program, but also the validation and recognition that our business model is on the right track towards rapid growth.”

The Lifestyle category is for start-ups targeted to support local or smaller-scale opportunities.

  1. First place – $5,000 – @shamelesscloutchaser, founded by Max Thompson, a senior marketing and business analytics double major from San Diego, California. He is a full-time content creator with over 280,000 followers on TikTok. Thompson strives to entertain his audience and make the best videos possible.
  2. Second place – $3,000 – Holy Grail Pillows, founded by Mariah Laux, a sophomore business analytics and economics double major from Chattanooga. Laux created the company to provide specialized sleeping pillows for people with ear piercings.
  3. Third place – $2,000 – Shoe Riz, founded by MacKenzie Haba, a junior management major from Kingston. She formed her mobile shoe cleaning service after her entrepreneurship class helped her establish the foundation of her company.

“As an independent creator, this funding will dramatically change the type of content I am able to make, and it gives me the chance to make truly meaningful content for my audience,” said Thompson.

ACEI, housed within the university’s Haslam College of Business, is devoted to providing students the opportunity to take what they learn within the classroom and apply it to real-world situations. Students learn experientially through competitions and gain important feedback from our esteemed judges.

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