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“Spark Cleantech Accelerator Demo Day” underscored region’s progress as an innovation hub

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Dan Miller verbalized a thought that was bouncing around in my head about a third of the way through yesterday morning’s “Spark Cleantech Accelerator Demo Day.”

As Miller introduced four of the five participants in Cohort 6 of the “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program operated by ORNL, he commented on how many exciting things are happening in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge innovation and entrepreneurial community. It took us back nearly 11 years to January 2012 when we launched teknovation.biz. The landscape was vastly different then.

  • Neither the two-year IC program nor the 13-week “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” existed.
  • The University of Tennessee (UT) Research Park was a vision, not far removed from being a dairy farm, and certainly not having programs like the Spark Innovation Center and a cleantech accelerator.
  • The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center did not exist.
  • Techstars operated accelerators in big cities, not in a community the size of Knoxville.

Wednesday’s event showcased how two of those programs are making a big difference locally by attracting highly motivated entrepreneurs from around the country to the region with the hope that some of them will remain after their program ends. For now, that has been the case with past participants in the IC as well as several of those in the new “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” and two in the inaugural “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” planning to retain some level of operations here.

Add to the mix the fact that the fall edition of UT, Knoxville’s (UTK) “Vol Court Speaker Series and Pitch Competition” began last night, the third sessions of the “Women’s Capital Series” wrapped-up Tuesday, officials at UTK and Kingsport-based Eastman announced the opening of the Eastman Innovation Center last week, and applications open soon for the second cohort of the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator.”

In other words, it’s been a good week for spotlighting how far the Knoxville region has come in promoting technology, entrepreneurship and innovation. These events also reinforce a message that Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon delivered during the lunch portion of yesterday’s event about the city’s emphasis on being a great place to live, work and grow an innovation business. She particularly emphasized the goal of being a model for cleantech and a hub for innovation in that sector.

Pictured here with the Mayor are (left to right): Ed Chaum of GroundStar, John Bruck of the Spark team, Dave Castley of RAEV, Carol Seamons of the Spark team (mostly hidden . . . my apologies), Kay Baker of Green Llama in front of Ryan Ginder of Windfall, jhana porter of Frakktal, and Tom Rogers of the Spark team.

We have previously spotlighted the five “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” participants in feature stories. They are: (1) Frakktal which is developing a 100 percent bio-based natural PVC alternative for flooring; (2) Green Llama that is developing refillable plastic-free home cleaning products; (3) GroundStar which is focused on mitigating emissions through carbon capture; (4) RAEV that is focused on providing an inner-city transportation alternative that is both convenient affordable and also generating zero emissions; and (5) Windfall which is recycling windmill blades.

After their presentations, four of the five start-ups that comprise the newest IC cohort provided shorter, snapshot pitches. We have article in the queue on each of them.

  • Agriwater Corporation was founded by Bianca Bailey based on a device she designed called an electro coagulator that turns cow wastewater into more purified water.
  • Ateios Systems, founded by Rajan Kumar, has developed a technology that allows for rapid, low-cost and cleaner manufacturing of critical battery components.
  • Captis Aire LLC was founded by Kim Tutin and is focused on commercializing an advanced air pollution control technology that manages pollutants from wood products produced in manufacturing facilities including those producing liquid biofuels, wood pellets and oriented strand board.
  • Vitriform3D Inc., co-founded by Alex Stiles, is focused on using recycled feedstocks like glass to create new value-added polymeric composite products.

Also pitching yesterday was IC Cohort 5 member Phil Stuckey of FC Renew. His focus is on broader adoption of zero-emission, green hydrogen fuel cell technology in heavy-duty trucks.

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