Three Student Companies Receive Funding at Boyd Venture Challenge

May 10, 2023

University of Tennessee, Knoxville, student-owned businesses KnoxBots, MNM and ZNAKICKS are the winners of the annual Boyd Venture Challenge, hosted by UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI).

The Boyd Venture Challenge offers student entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch successful businesses through seed funding, business development and mentorship. By presenting their companies in front of a panel of esteemed judges, students receive a real-world “shark tank” experience with non-dilutive funding.

“Year after year, I’m continually impressed by the caliber of our students and the vast array of companies presented,” said Lynn Youngs, executive director of ACEI. “It’s even more meaningful that a previous student who competed in the Boyd Venture Challenge in 2015 returned to be a one of the successful entrepreneurs judging this year’s competition.”

Boyd Venture Challenge Winners: Robotic Lawn Care, Kitchen Innovation and Sneaker Sourcing

KnoxBots, an innovative robotic lawn care company, was awarded $20,000. Wesley Pitts, a sophomore marketing major from Knoxville, founded KnoxBots after seeing the need to revolutionize the lawn care industry through new technology.

“Winning money in the Boyd Venture Challenge is a game-changer for KnoxBots. It helps us build a solid foundation and accelerate our growth, especially in the commercial sphere,” Pitts said. “This award confirms that we’re on the right path and gives us the confidence to keep moving forward.”

Biomedical engineering senior Alexandria Carter’s company — MNM — received $5,000 from the competition. Carter, a Knoxville native, started MNM to elevate and innovate the kitchen after her life-long passion of baking. MNM offers kitchen appliances that balance the line of smart, modular and convenient products. 

“To win money in the Boyd Venture Challenge means I can continue pursuing my dreams of combining passion with academic interest,” Carter said. “It means I can live up to the name of my company and make the inspirers of my baking passion always proud.”

ZNAKICKS, a source for securing exclusive and authentic sneakers, was awarded $5,000. Zain Zitawi, a sophomore marketing major from Knoxville, founded ZNAKICKS after seeing the need for a reliable and authentic source in the growing sneaker market. ZNAKICKS has already served hundreds of customers. 

“Winning this money in the Boyd Venture Challenge is going to give us the boost we need to reach the next level,” Zitawi said.

Esteemed Judges Evaluated Boyd Venture Challenges Contestants

Four local, successful entrepreneurs — Jenna Johns, Chris Miller, Geoff Robson and Graham Taylor — judged this year’s Boyd Venture Challenge.

Jenna Johns is the co-founder and COO of RDI Technologies Inc. She also manages the strategic vision and execution of RDI’s internal operations. Johns is a UT alumna who used her business degree to grow the RDI’s operations and landed the company on the Inc. 500 List of Fastest Growing Companies in 2019 and 2020.

Chris Miller, who has over 15 years of experience with operating and providing access to capital for small businesses, is the CFO of Three Roots Capital. Miller received his MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship and financial management from UT’s Haslam College of Business, which houses ACEI.

UT alumnus Geoff Robson is the president and co-founder of the Lighthouse Fund. The Lighthouse Fund is committed to the Knoxville community and assists Knoxville entrepreneurs through syndicating an investment, finding partners, referring a potential acquirer and taking an active role with a board of directors. 

Graham Taylor is the founder and president of Helix Biotech. Taylor earned his Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from UT, where he pitched his company in the Boyd Venture Challenge in 2015 and 2016. Helix Biotech helps bring cutting-edge medicines to the world through innovation and manufacturing excellence in pharmaceutical nanobiotechnology.

About the Boyd Venture Challenge and the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation 

The Boyd Venture Challenge is made possible by the generosity of the Boyd Foundation. Since the fund’s inception in 2011, 49 student-owned companies have been awarded a total of $529,500 in seed capital to advance their businesses.

ACEI 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 Galbraith,