University of Tennessee

Student Start-Ups Win Funding in Graves Business Plan Competition

December 4, 2020

Six UT student start-ups were awarded cash prizes in the fall 2020 Graves Business Plan Competition. The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business hosted the business plan and pitch contest, with final-round pitches taking place over Zoom. The awards were announced in a Zoom ceremony on Friday, November 20.

School Bus User System (S.U.B.S.) and Rocky Top Engraving received first-place prizes of $5,000 each in the growth business and lifestyle business categories, respectively. In the growth business category, second place and $3,000 went to Emerald Strategy Group – BusiCard, with Server placing third and receiving $2,000. Among lifestyle businesses, PaintSplash Production won second place and $3,000, and The Sleepy Owl Company was awarded third place, receiving $2,000. 

“While not the preferred method, having the competition over Zoom is still a viable option,” said Tom Graves, operations director for the Anderson Center. “It is just too dangerous right now to bring everyone together in the same space.”

S.U.B.S. is a software program for a tablet that will generate the most cost-efficient route according to which students are riding on a given day and will have a parent component to let guardians track the location of the bus and alert them as the bus nears the right stop. Founder Heidi Whitaker, a junior from Sparta, Tenn., is a business management major with a collateral in entrepreneurship. 

“I want to help parents have more trust in our public school buses, kids not have to wait outside in harsher weather, buses save money on gas and finally to invest profits back toward underprivileged schools,” Whitaker said.

Matthew Shaver, a sophomore from Dayton, Tenn., majoring in aerospace engineering, started Rocky Top Engraving after discovering the possibilities of a laser engraver. He makes all types of engravings for home and office, which are fully stainable after purchase to guarantee to match the client’s décor. 

“The business was fully launched after we were sent home due to COVID last semester when I bought a Glowforge laser and set up a small office in the basement,” Shaver said. “It really started doing well around the end of the summer and right at the start of this semester and has carried on throughout the year, and I am extremely excited to see where it will take me.”

Second in the growth category, Emerald Strategy Group – BusiCard, was founded by Tihomir Nikolic and Jonathan Henry, both juniors at Haslam. BusiCard is a mobile networking app, an alternative to physical business cards. Nikolic is from La Vergne, Tenn., and is a double major in finance and marketing with a collateral in international business. Henry is from Williamsburg, Va., and is majoring in finance with a concentration in international business. 

“The competition has helped us tremendously,” said Nikolic. “Forming the business plan and pitches for the Graves Business Plan Competition helped steer our company. We were able to formulate a lot of ideas and strategies as a result of being in this competition. The award money will help us get our product in development and on the market.”

Second place in the lifestyle business category was awarded to PaintSplash Production, a video production company concentrating on doing affordable videos for small to mid-size businesses. 

“As little kids we would go out in the backyard with the family VHS camcorder to make home movies, complete with chase scenes, stop-motion animation and superheroes,” said co-founder Isaac Sheets. “However, as we got older, reality started to set in, and we had to decide if filmmaking was going to remain an expensive hobby or become our career. So, we decided to get serious about it and start a business. When COVID-19 came along, we lost our summer work opportunities and decided to pour all of our time into the business. Since then, our business has grown exponentially.” 

Sheets, a senior from Knoxville, is double majoring in marketing and business analytics, with a minor in statistics and a collateral in information management. His partner, Nathaniel Hendry, also from Knoxville, is double majoring in communication and in ministry and leadership at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. The partners plan to use the award money to upgrade some equipment, build an eye-popping website and hire a lawyer to create contract templates to ensure they comply with tax laws and other regulations.

Third place in the growth business category and $2,000 was awarded to Server. Tyler Bears, the founder, describes it as a platform that will provide a real-time overview of a restaurant and provide communication up- and downstream instantaneously. Bears is a senior economics and finance major from Wenatchee, Wash. 

“I want to create this business to make my platform available to small businesses that need to improve their own efficiency but may not have expendable capital like their competitors,” Bears said. “I believe this will help level the playing field for them.”

The Sleepy Owl Company took third in the lifestyle business category. Founder Mekal Smith, from Chattanooga, Tenn., is in the Master of Accountancy program with a concentration in taxation. The Sleepy Owl will be a website where aspiring authors can publish their work and add video elements to enhance the reading experience. 

“The Sleepy Owl Company was formed because I had a hard time being motivated to write my novel that I have been putting off for a year,” Smith said. “I knew the traditional book format or self-publishing route would not be sufficient and too costly. Sleepy Owl will provide a platform that will incentivize the author to finish his/her story by allowing quick monetization and lowering the cost of publishing. Most importantly, Sleepy Owl will give the reader a different experience of reading with its D.R.E.A.M. format implemented into the stories uploaded by authors and creatives.”  

Open to UT, Knoxville, students enrolled in undergraduate and master’s degree programs in any field of study, the Graves Business Plan Competition offers student entrepreneurs the opportunity to win start-up funds for original business ideas. An outside panel of judges from the business community reviews the entries and determines the winners. Since the competition’s inception in 2008, it has awarded $292,000 to 89 student start-up businesses. 


Laura Rust,, 865-974-5126