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KNOXVILLE — Jim Clayton, founder of Clayton Homes. Sandy Beall, founder of Ruby Tuesday. Jim Haslam, founder of Pilot. Michael Strickland, founder of Bandit Lites. John Jansheski, founder of DenTek Oral Care.

What do all of these Tennessee entrepreneurial giants have in common? All were under 30 years old when they started their first business.

So are Brad Russell, president of Volantis LLC, and Bryan Moore, president of Airflow Systems LLC — two of East Tennessee’s newest award-winning technology entrepreneurs.

Although their daylight hours are spent as students in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship concentration in the full-time MBA program at the University of Tennessee’s College of Business Administration, their evenings and weekends are spent building their technology-based businesses with fellow students.

Volantis and Airflow Systems recently showcased their innovations in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Global Venture Challenge, Idea to Product (I2P) competition. Competing against teams worldwide, Volantis won first place, and $25,000, while Airflow Systems tied for first runner-up, earning $7,500.

“This is such a validation of our MBA’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship curriculum, which is designed to create the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders,” said Sarah Gardial, associate dean of academic programs in UT’s College of Business Administration.

Volantis is building a business to supply a super-hydrophobic coating for ship hulls that will greatly reduce fuel costs for the container shipping industry. The product is based on an ORNL material with a special nanostructure that repels water more efficiently than traditional surface coatings. Team members were Russell of Charlotte, N.C.; and William Ambrose, Danny Norman and Ned Morgan, all of Knoxville.

With Airflow Systems’ heat pump hot water heater, consumers will be able to save 20 percent on their electric bills every month. The product is based on an ORNL invention that transforms a low-efficiency system into one that is ultra-resource-efficient. Joining Moore, of Chattanooga, on the team were students Jyotirmoy Dwivedi of Mumbai, India; Jim Bell of Kingsport, Tenn.; and Joel Riddle of Morristown, Tenn.

“Our intention is to develop skills of our MBA students to be value creators, either in corporate, social cause organizations or new ventures,” said Glenn Swift, faculty member in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. “We help students develop their skills through applied, out-of-the-classroom learning experiences and encourage them to start new ventures while in the program. The Global Venture Competition was particularly important because it provided students with the opportunity to tell investors about their ideas. Collectively, the teams raised $32,500 for their new ventures and demonstrated to the entrepreneurial community that the collaborative model does work.”

Both teams are investing their monetary awards into their businesses: “The seed capital we raised will allow us to develop a proof of concept prototype to field test,” said Moore. “It is great learning how to apply what we learned in school to a real start-up business.”

According to Swift and Pat Richardson, faculty advisers for the winning teams, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship concentration integrates the four components of successful entrepreneurship for growing new businesses and developing business leaders — providing access to cutting-edge research, which is available through both UT and ORNL; access to business incubation, which is provided by the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth through Technology 2020; access to funding, which the students explore through exposure to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists; and the students’ own business leadership skills.

Area entrepreneurs contributed significantly to the teams’ successes, meeting with them and asking them critical questions about their plans.

“Our 2½ hours with (DenTek founder) Jansheski was incredible,” Russell said. “He gave us a failing grade on our first approach, but provided invaluable direction and a promising perspective on the path Volantis should be pursuing.” Two weeks later, Volantis won the Global Venture Challenge.

Jansheski said that he found the students “incredibly talented, innovative and open-minded.

“Collaborations involving students, entrepreneurs and researchers in the region are the wave of the future. They will enhance East Tennessee’s ability to retain talented young entrepreneurs and maintain our country as a world thought-leader and job provider. I am honored to be involved with the school.”


Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034,
Cindy Raines, (865) 974-4359,