$20,000 Awarded to Six Innovative Student Businesses in Graves Business Plan Competition

April 21, 2023

From innovative robotic mowers to a mobile shoe cleaning service, six student businesses were awarded a total of $20,000 in funding during the spring 2023 Graves Business Plan Competition. Hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the competition is designed to give University of Tennessee, Knoxville, student entrepreneurs their first experience pitching a business plan. The competitors pitched their plans to a panel of successful, local judges in hopes to win investment funds.

The competition has two categories, Growth and Lifestyle, each with three levels of prizes. The Growth category is for startups seeking high investment with large scalability. The Lifestyle category is for startups targeted to support local or smaller-scale opportunities.

“The winners in the Growth and Lifestyle categories displayed their entrepreneurial mindset through their presentation of in-depth business plans to an extremely knowledgeable and talented panel of judges,” said Robyn Geron, director of operations at the Anderson Center. “The goal now is to take the award money and apply it for improved prototyping, upgraded equipment or whatever helps the student-driven company provide the next level of service to their customers. I’m hoping to see these students continue to challenge themselves and apply for the Boyd Venture Challenge next month.”

Robotic Mowing Company and More Growth Category Winners

First place and $5,000 in the Growth category went to KnoxBots, founded by Wesley Pitts, a sophomore marketing major from Knoxville. He created his innovative robotic mowing company that installs and maintains robotic mowers and mowing systems for residential and commercial properties in the greater Knoxville area. He was first introduced to the concept while living in Budapest, Hungary, and he wanted to bring this technology to the U.S. market.

“Winning the Graves Business Plan Competition means everything to me,” said Pitts. “It not only provides the financial support we need for our upcoming pilot program, but also the validation and recognition that our business model is on the right track towards rapid growth.”

Elevate Hydro (formerly Elev8 Hydro), founded by Kyle Weiss, took home second place and $3,000 in the Growth category. Weiss, an energy science and engineering Ph.D. student from Seattle, Washington, set out to help states attain carbon-neutrality and net-zero goals. Elevate Hydro, which also won third place at Vol Court this spring, provides water ram pump systems for pumped storage facilities. Using this known technology in novel applications, the company promotes cost-effective, environmentally friendly growth of the world’s largest batteriespumped storage.

“Winning this award is a great step for my team members, Kainoa Matsumoto and Doug McLellan, and me as we move our product to market,” shared Weiss. “This award will help with patent filing and testing of our products.”

Third place and a $2,000 prize in the Growth category went to Chock-It, founded by Blake Norris, a junior management major with a collateral in entrepreneurship from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Chock-it, which also won second place at Vol Court this spring, is an automatic wheel-chocking system that combats and prevents theft.

“Winning this competition means a lot to me. It means that five great judges saw potential in my business idea, and that alone makes me feel very accomplished. It also means that Chock-It has a real opportunity to thrive,” said Norris.

Social Media Guru and Other Lifestyle Category Winners

First place and $5,000 in the Lifestyle category went to @shamelesscloutchaser by Max Thompson, a senior marketing and business analytics double major from San Diego, California. He is a full-time content creator who strives to entertain his audience and make the best videos possible.

“As an independent creator, this funding will dramatically change the type of content I am able to make, and it gives me the chance to make truly meaningful content for my audience,” said Thompson.

Holy Grail Pillows, founded by Mariah Laux, was awarded second place and $3,000 in the Lifestyle category. Laux, a sophomore business analytics and economics double major from Chattanooga, Tennessee, created the company to provide specialized sleeping pillows for people with ear piercings. After personally experiencing issues sleeping due to a lack of pillows for those with piercings, she decided to create a product to fill the need in the market and piercing community.

“As a newcomer to the Graves Business Plan Competition, I am especially honored to be a recipient of this prize,” shared Laux. “Holy Grail Pillows will be able to start manufacturing with the winnings from this competition, and I am excited to start delivering value to our customers.”

Third place and a $2,000 prize in the Lifestyle category went to Shoe Riz, founded by MacKenzie Haba, a junior management major from Kingston, Tennessee. She formed her mobile shoe cleaning service after her entrepreneurship class helped her establish the foundation of her company.

“Winning this competition will help me with the start of Shoe Riz and provide me with the confidence needed to start this journey in my life,” said Haba.

The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, housed within the university’s Haslam College of Business, is devoted to providing students the opportunity to take what they learn within the classroom and apply it to real-world situations. Students learn experientially through competitions and gain important feedback from our esteemed judges.

About the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is a university-based resource for entrepreneurship across the region and the state of Tennessee. Its mission is to foster an entrepreneurial culture at UT and across the state by developing student skills, providing experiential learning opportunities, conducting meaningful entrepreneurial research and connecting students with mentors and resources that enable them to successfully start and grow new businesses.


Brennan Hullett, bgalbrai@utk.edu