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December 15, 2016 | Tom Ballard

First tenant, grant-funded initiative announced yesterday at Sizzle TechStart


By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

There was a significant celebration about the future yesterday morning in a building in Roane County where one of the walls is from an original log cabin built on the site in 1804, a clear reflection of the region’s rural and agricultural history.

Six organizations came together to celebrate the launch of a new regional initiative focused on agriculture technology and forestry as well as the announcement of the first start-up to officially call the building home since it was rebranded. Now known as Sizzle TechStart, the building that resembles a farm house more than an incubator will be home to Grow Bioplastics, a company founded by Tony Bova, a graduate student in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education.

And, in one of those ironic coincidences, the celebration occurred on the day that published the final article in a four-part series updating the work of Sam Weaver and the team at Proton Power. As noted in this article when Sizzle TechStart was announced, the farm house is owned by Weaver and his wife, and is the place where Proton Power, the latest of Weaver’s start-ups, was launched.

Yesterday’s announcement shows what can be accomplished when organizations come together to align their complementary capabilities and shared goals.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture have provided funding for specific activities that will be administered by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), one of the initial partners in the Sizzle TechStart initiative along with the Weavers and the Roane Alliance.

“We have been looking for a while at what this (Sizzle TechStart) was going to be,” Jim Biggs, KEC Executive Director, told us. “Sam has wanted to do something to support the community while also bringing new businesses into his orbit.”

As readers know, rural economic development is right at the top of the list of priorities for Governor Bill Haslam and many of his Commissioners. The state and federal funding will allow the initial Sizzle TechStart partners to more fully develop the business model while providing services to start-ups like Grow Bioplastics in the meantime.

Another key player in the collaboration announced yesterday is AgLaunch, an initiative of Memphis BioWorks that is focused on growing agriculturally-related companies across the state. Biggs and Pete Nelson, Director of the AgLaunch initiative, have been exploring ways to collaborate for months, and their strategies will be on display at the Sizzle TechStart facility.

“Our plans are to identify 12 new ag and forestry-related businesses that could benefit from additional assistance,” Biggs says. “The process will also involve identifying about six start-ups that are ready now for more in-depth technical assistance and help.”

In addition, the funding will support three outreach networking activities across the region that will be held in conjunction with the University of Tennessee Extension Service.

“These might be as little as getting a conversation started on the resources available to ag and forestry entrepreneurs,” Biggs said.

The final activity that the federal and state funds is supporting is the development of a more comprehensive strategy about how best to utilize the Sizzle TechStart facility and adjacent property.

“The space has unique qualities,” Biggs said, citing both office and hard-to-find lab space as well as land that can be used for purposes like testing new crops. “We hope to use it (the facility and land) as a way to engage nearby entrepreneurs in other counties who might not want to come to downtown Knoxville. The fact that it (Sizzle TechStart) is in a rural community also opens-up access to dedicated funding sources not available in urban areas.”

Grow Bioplastics has won numerous awards and cash in pitch competitions, as noted in these articles that have published on The start-up is also one of four finalists in the “2017 Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge” scheduled for next month.

“We are in discussions with other potential tenants and are looking forward to building a hive of ag-tech activity,” Biggs said.

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