Four businesses owned by students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, were awarded a total of $30,000 in seed funds in the spring 2020 Boyd Venture Challenge. The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Haslam College of Business hosts the annual grant competition.
Start-up companies Brakefields LLC, Rolling Storage LLC, AltFair Solutions LLC, and LEAPh Biosystems LLC were chosen as the winners.
“The participant field for this Boyd Venture Challenge was particularly strong,” says Tom Graves, the Anderson Center’s director of operations, who oversees the competition. “In fact, a judge who has been on the panel for seven years said this was the strongest and most diverse group he has seen.”
Brakefields LLC, a clothing brand offering adaptive garments for people with disabilities, was awarded $10,000. Mary Cayten Brakefield, a Nashville senior majoring in retail and consumer sciences and minoring in business administration, owns the company.
“Our products give people with disabilities the chance to dress independently, go about their day comfortably and unencumbered by their clothing, and have the freedom to choose if and when they disclose their private medical conditions to the public — experiences taken for granted by able-bodied people every single day,” Brakefield says.
With the award money, Brakefields LLC will conduct further market research to learn what clothing features its customer base needs, take steps toward patenting features of its designs, and present prototypes to a manufacturer.
Rolling Storage LLC, a company that provides temporary, mobile storage solutions at events, received $10,000. The startup, which allows attendees to store prohibited items and avoid being turned away from an event, is the brainchild of Kaleb Winders, a junior from Hendersonville, Tennessee, majoring in management with a minor in entrepreneurship and a collateral in marketing.
The business has a contract with the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, with plans to expand throughout Knoxville and the southeast. Winders will use the funding to scale the company and buy a new trailer that could serve larger venues such as Thompson-Boling Arena.
AltFair Solutions LLC was awarded $5,000. The business helps companies and students form meaningful relationships during career fairs and other events by expediting information exchange through a seamless, contactless software platform. Three juniors, all from Tennessee — Jace Smith, a supply chain management major from Winchester; Wilson Garrett, a finance major from Goodlettsville and Hugh Gentry, a supply chain management major from Franklin — own the startup.
The team will use the award money to develop and launch a website to market the company, as well as invest in software improvements.
LEAPh Biosystems, which builds “light energy applied photosynthetic” devices that use photosynthetic proteins to convert light to electricity, received $5,000.
“This approach uses only Earth-abundant components, offering a viable strategy to solar energy harvesting while offering a competitive price point advantage,” says the company’s founder, Nate Brady, of Oswego, New York. Brady is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology.
With the award money, Brady plans to hire a consultant to assist him in writing two Small Business Innovation Research grants, with which he would fund ongoing development of the technology at UT and Vanderbilt University.
A panel of four judges determined the funding awards, which were made possible by Randy Boyd, president of the UT system and founder and executive chair of Radio Systems Corporation, makers of the PetSafe, Invisible Fence, and SportDog brands. At Boyd’s suggestion, the Haslam finance department selected a master’s student with work experience and a strong interest in supporting entrepreneurial ventures to participate as a judge. The other judges hailed from the business community.
Due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Anderson Center extended the application deadline for this semester’s competition. The students created online video introductions for the judges and delivered their presentations via Zoom. Graves says he was impressed with how well this method worked, and believes it could be refined and employed in the future to allow judges to participate remotely.
“COVID-19 provided an opportunity to demonstrate what we tell our students about entrepreneurs,” Graves says. “You must be willing to pivot, accept change, and adapt. You must always be looking for opportunities.”
The Boyd Venture Challenge is open to UT undergraduate and graduate students from any field of study. Since the fund’s inception in 2011, 40 student-owned companies have been awarded a total of $442,000 in seed capital to advance their businesses.