By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
If he said it once, James “Vig” Sherrill said it at least a dozen times in one way or another, generally using the same five words to describe his lifetime of work – “a whole lot of fun.”
The long-time Knoxville-Oak Ridge entrepreneur rejects the title that many would give him – serial entrepreneur. Even though he is into his seventh start-up since arriving in the region 26 years ago, Sherrill says “a serial entrepreneur is simply a nice way of saying severe ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)”.
“Five years, and it loses its thrill,” he says in describing the reasons that he moves from one start-up idea to another.
That chain might be broken with his latest endeavor – a company named General Graphene.
“We are going to change the world,” the always upbeat Sherrill says emphatically. “Graphene is very likely the most important substance ever discovered.”
Those views were shared by former Vice President Al Gore during a conversation he had with PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy at last month’s “Southland” conference in Nashville.
Sherrill quickly listed a number of reasons why the extremely expensive material that was only discovered a decade ago is going to be such a game changer.
“It’s 10 times as strong as diamonds,” he explains. “It’s 300 to 400 times the strength of steel. It’s one million times more conductive than copper.”
The list doesn’t stop there, but we will for now and come back to this newly discovered material that has Sherrill as excited as we have ever seen him.
We started the lunchtime discussion asking him to take us through each of his entrepreneurial undertakings. We knew of some, but not all of them.
“We developed a signal processing technology,” Sherrill says of his first start-up named Audio Animation. “It was right at the beginning of the digital revolution.”
Describing the technology as “easy mathematics but computationally intense,” Sherrill said the device allowed for extremely precise dynamic range adjustment of sounds.
“It was my $7 million MBA,” he added. The company went public, but Sherrill left before then.
“It was a whole lot of fun, but I never made any money,” he added.
Next up was ASIC International, a company that developed integrated chips for a number of customers including Audio Animation.
The company’s name is also a technical term – Application Specific Integrated Circuits. These chips are designed for a particular application and built by connecting existing circuit building blocks in new ways.
“These were very complicated chips,” Sherrill said. “It was absolutely the most fun I ever had.”
Part of the fun was not doubt attributable to creating a special environment for the ASIC family.
“We had a California-oriented start-up in Oak Ridge,” Sherrill said. “We provided a catered lunch every day. We had pool tables and ping pong tables.”
In addition to the environment that was and still is standard fare for California, he described the work as fascinating.
“We got to see the latest technologies from companies all across the world and help them build great solutions,” Sherrill said. By the time ASIC International was sold to Flextronics in 2001, it had grown to be the fifth largest company of its type in the world.
Sherrill stayed with the acquirer for a year, but the entrepreneurial itch or ADD got the best of him. We’ll pick-up start-up number three in the second article in this series.