Tony Bova outlines many positive developments at Knoxville start-up mobius

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

There are a number of positive developments that have occurred since we last posted an update on mobius, the company that was originally founded in 2016 as Grow Bioplastics and built its early recognition by winning a series of pitch competitions.

Now, Co-Founder Tony Bova is zeroing-in on his doctorate – he’s planning to graduate in December as part of the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education jointly offered by the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

We recently caught-up with Bova to discuss a number of developments since our last update posted more than a year ago. As teknovation.biz readers should recall, mobius is focused on developing lignin-based biodegradable plastics for agricultural applications.

The key developments since last August include completing a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF); making close to 500 pounds of product – mostly pellets; completing its conversion to a public benefit corporation structure; completing NSF’s I-Corps program called “Beat-the-Odds Boot Camp” for Phase I winners; applying for two more SBIR grants; and last, but not insignificant, being accepted into a leading national accelerator program and receiving a competitive innovation grant from the largest grocery chain in the U.S.

The “Techstars Sustainability Accelerator,” offered in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and announced in late July, involves nine other companies in a three-month effort. The team at mobius is spending a portion of its time in Denver, CO for this program as they prepare for commercial pilots and fundraising later this year. The second initiative, announced a month later, places mobius as one of seven companies in the inaugural cohort of The Kroger Co.’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation’s Innovation Fund program.

All are preparing the company for a commercial launch.

“We are shifting to be viewed as a raw materials company,” Bova explained. The “we” includes Jeff Beegle, his Co-Founder, and employees Danielle Cowan-Banker, a UT biosystems engineering graduate; Mackenzie Hodge, a joint chemical engineering masters and MBA student at Tennessee Tech University; and Patrick Caveney, a synthetic biologist and recent graduate of UT’s Bredesen Center.

“A lot of this thinking came out of our NSF grant work,” Bova said. “We talked to more than 200 customers.”

As part of that process, the mobius team focused on retailers that sell to farmers, and Bova and Beegle also engaged with the supply chains for those retailers.

“That customer discovery process has been invaluable,” Bova said.

Part of the start-up’s evolving “go-to-market” strategy involves conducting pilot manufacturing projects like the one where mobius produced almost 500 pounds of material with a New Jersey-based manufacturer. While there continues to be strong interest in plastic mulch products, mobius’ shift to produce pellets allows them to focus on other agricultural and horticultural applications like flowerpots, part of a new focus area for the company.

“For films, farmers were asking for two to three growing seasons of data on how the material performed, which translates to two to three years of work” Bova said. Making pellets could accelerate commercialization and generate early revenue.

“Focusing on raw materials allowed us to open new application areas with existing manufacturers, like flowerpots for greenhouses, where we can get three to four cycles of data in a single year”.

The pilot manufacturing projects are also important from a fundraising perspective.

“We need to be able to show investors, suppliers, and customers we know how to scale manufacturing,” Bova explains.

That is also a key reason that mobius shifted its corporate structure to be a Delaware public benefit corporation (PBC), something that is attractive to a growing number of investors.

“The statement of our public benefit – both environmental and societal – is now codified in our charter,” Bova says. “It (the PBC structure) also allows slightly different rules around change of control, and ensures that our employees and the environment have the same seat at the table as our current and future shareholders.”

By the end of 2019, he expects mobius to take the public benefit designation to a new level, becoming a Certified B Corporation. In August, mobius received it’s official “Pending Certified B Corp” status. The work involved in securing the full Certification should be finished by the end of 2019.

When we wrote this article, there were nearly 2,800 companies that had earned this designation based on their commitment to balancing purpose and profit and, in that process, using business as a force for good. The list of companies earning the designation is very impressive with well-recognized names like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Eileen Fisher, Kickstarter, and New Belgium Brewing.

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