Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background - Default Cover Image
August 26, 2012 | Tom Ballard

“Trep Tree” identifies 15 parents, many offspring

John Morris and several of the area’s better known entrepreneurs traced the family tree of about 75 companies that were spawned from 15 “parents” during last week’s monthly meeting of the Tennessee Valley Technology Council.

Morris, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Tech 20/20, led the discussion around the concept of the “Trep Tree.” The word “Trep” is short for “entrepreneur.”

Joining Morris were Dave Coffey, who has founded several companies in Oak Ridge; Terry Douglass, one of the founders of CTI Molecular Imaging, Inc., and now leading the Provision initiative; and Steve Hicks, a former Whittle Communications executive who founded Cadre5.

Morris described the “Trep Tree” as a “living, breathing thing . . . a work in progress” and urged those in attendance to help add branches and ensure that the information is totally accurate.

At the start of the program, Morris characterized the 15 firms that made the list of “parents” as having spawned more than one branch or several companies and said the offspring had to be entrepreneurial start-ups, not an acquisition or employee turnover. He characterized an entrepreneurial start-up as one formed around intellectual property that is licensed as well as a company spun-out by a parent or taken out by an employee. Finally, to be eligible for the “Trep Tree,” the company must be located in one of the 16 counties that comprise the East Tennessee Development District.

The “parents” that that made Morris’ initial list were Audio Animation, Bagwell Communications, Clayton Homes, Elographics, ESC, FiShock, MTS Systems, ORTEC, Perceptics, Pilot Corporation, Remotec, TEC, Tennelec, US Internet and Whittle Communications.

Morris started the discussion with a description of one branch – Elographics – that spawned nine other start-ups including two with which he was associated – NetLearning and Sunlight Direct.

Douglass described the most extensive branch creator – ORTEC – where he started working as a student in 1966 and became President in 1980. Nearly 25 percent of the companies listed on the “Trep Tree” had ties to ORTEC. They included CTI which, in turn, helped spawn such well-known names as Agile Engineering, ABT Molecular Imaging and the Provision family of enterprises.

For Douglass, the success of ORTEC was all about its culture. He described it as one where everyone said, “Let’s see if we can take a technology and find a market for it.” He added that it’s also about “surrounding yourself with people who know more than you do about a particular area.” Those individuals included his CTI partners – Ron Nutt, Kelly Milam and Mike Crabtree.

Hicks noted that Whittle grew out of a company that Chris Whittle and Phil Moffitt founded while students at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus. Named 13-30 Corporation before it became Whittle Communications, the company grew to 1500 employees before a bet on a new initiative called Medical News Network came to life just as then President Bill Clinton’s administration was considering substantial changes in healthcare.

Pharmaceutical companies sponsored the new network and concerns about proposed changes caused them to cease the funding. Portions of Whittle were sold, but many of the alumni, including Hicks, elected to remain in Knoxville. Eight companies were identified as branches of Whittle.

“We all know pieces of it,” Morris said in referring to the “Trep Tree.” He invited the more than 60 people in attendance to submit corrections and additions to the living document.

“Everyone can start a new business and new node on the tree,” he added.

Tech 20/20 is working to make the tree available via the internet. It is currently built on Mind Meister software.

Those with ideas about branches can contact Morris at

Like what you've read?

Forward to a friend!

Don’t Miss Out on the Southeast’s Latest Entrepreneurial, Business, & Tech News!

Sign-up to get the Teknovation Newsletter in your inbox each morning!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

No, thanks!