Grow Bioplastics, a startup by University of Tennessee students, has received a $225,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The award will fund research and development work on lignin-biomass-based biodegradable plastics for agricultural applications, specifically plastic mulches.
Grow Bioplastics’ team, led by co-founders Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle, will use the SBIR funding to create new biodegradable plastics from lignin, a waste product of the paper and biofuel industries. Bova is an energy science and engineering PhD candidate in UT’s Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. Beegle, a recent graduate with a master’s degree in microbiology, also completed his studies in the Bredesen Center.
The company’s biodegradable product offers an alternative to plastic mulch films used by farmers nationwide. Current nondegradable plastics must be removed at the end of each growing season and cannot be recycled. Grow Bioplastics’ biodegradable film can be plowed into the soil after each use, offering a solution to the additional labor costs and environmental impact of current films.
“Being selected for this competitive award from the NSF is a huge step for our company,” said Bova, who serves as CEO. “This funding will help us validate the fundamental science behind our lignin-based plastic technology, allow us to hire our first employees here in East Tennessee, and bring us one step closer to realizing our vision for a socially and environmentally driven business model to support a circular economy.”
Bova and Beegle began Grow Bioplastics’ journey at UT when they pitched the business idea at Vol Court, a speaker series and pitch competition hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business.
“Working with the Anderson Center was the bridge between the science world and the business world,” said Beegle. “Tony and I were able to take an idea that originated from the lab and cultivate it into a business with the help of the Anderson Center.”
The team’s Vol Court win was followed by seed funding from the Anderson Center’s Boyd Venture Challenge. The company went on to receive funding through several local, state and national pitch competitions.
“It’s been remarkable to see Grow Bioplastics progress from concept stage to this incredible milestone,” said Lynn Youngs, executive director of the Anderson Center. “This is the type of success we hope to see when we work with student startups.”
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