The idea for the only local company that landed a spot in a new statewide business accelerator program came to Ryan Cox while he was watching the Angelina Jolie movie "Beyond Borders."
"[In the movie], they were spending millions to send truckloads of rice and other staples and grains to refugee camps," he said. "And I was like, 'Why wouldn't they just send them a farm?' And a light bulb went off. And I've been impassioned ever since."
East Tennessee: HATponics, Survature, Vendor Registry
Middle Tennessee: eClinic Healthcare, Got You In, Gun.io
West Tennessee: Health & Bliss, Mobilizer, Screwpulp, View Medical
Last week, leaders with Launch Tennessee announced the 10 companies chosen to participate in The TENN, which is Tennessee's first master accelerator business program.
The new program is part of public-private partnership Launch Tennessee, which aims to support the development of high-growth companies throughout the state with the goal of job creation and economic growth.
A panel of out-of-state investors chose the companies, including local business HATponics, after hearing 20 pitches at the first statewide demonstration day.
Cox's HATponics produces portable, high-density farms using aquaponics, which is the hybrid of hydroponics and aquaculture.
Hydroponics is soilless agriculture, and aquaculture is the farming of fish, Cox said.
With HATponics, Cox and his team of about 11 employees use the waste from the fish they raise to grow food, such as herbs, vegetables and fruit, in a portable format.
Cox has a research farm in Rossville, Ga., and office space on Chattanooga's Southside at The Company Lab.
The gardens are contained inside large portable containers that can be shipped anywhere around the world for between $20,000 and $150,000, depending on the location.
The containers HATponics sells can produce 25,000 heads of lettuce a week and feed between 300 and 500 people, Cox said.
He is working with government leaders around the world on potential deals, and clients can either lease or buy the gardens.
"A lot of people might not be able to build a regular garden in urban environments," Cox said. "It's very difficult to find that space, that land. It's very labor-intensive to take care of, and this is not."
Before turning his venture into a for-profit business, Cox created Inner City Aquaponics, which is the community outreach portion of his company.
Cox said he is blending capitalism and humanitarianism with his company. He sells the portable gardens and sustainable agricultural consulting services, but he is also working in schools to help educate young people, largely free of charge.
They teach elementary, middle and high school students, as well as education leaders, about sustainability and aquaponics.
They have worked with several schools in Chattanooga, such as Tommy Brown Elementary, he said.
Cox is also working to mechanize the production process of the portable farms and create more jobs locally, but the company's leaders also want to help humanitarian organizations and refugee populations.
By the end of the second quarter of 2014, Cox wants to have 25 portable gardens out and then start a local factory to produce them on a larger scale. Right now, the products are being handcrafted and custom made, he said.
He and his team want to feed 20 million people worldwide by 2020, he said.
Company leaders are partnering with representatives from multiple nations around the world, specifically those who are in leadership positions with organizations such as the United Nations, Cox said.
"If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for his life; if you teach a man to farm fish, you feed the world," Cox said.
Company leaders are also waiting on approval from the school board to create a 33-foot-wide, 120-foot-long sustainability garden at Apison Elementary School, Cox said.
The pitch process to get into The TENN accelerator was intense, Cox said.
Each participant had seven minutes to present to the judges and then did three minutes of questions and answers with the panel, Cox said.
It was a high-profile group of judges, including founder of Hotmail Sabeer Bhatia.
"[The pitch process] left me feeling naked, and then when we felt really exposed was when we did our pitch as 20 other people also had to do their pitch that day," he said. "You saw so many brilliant companies. You saw so many brilliant ideas and minds and so many highly motivated people. There was no point in the competition where you knew where you stood. It was a very intense operation."
The moment when Gov. Bill Haslam called HATponics, Cox was in shock, and it was a little like going to the Oscars, he said.
The TENN kicks off with The TENN Roadshow Sept 9-13.
The roadshow includes stops throughout the state, where the startups will meet with executives at companies such as Eastman Chemical, Scripps Networks Interactive, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, HCA, First Tennessee and FedEx.
Participants will have a chance to network, present short elevator pitches and receive feedback at each visit.
"The TENN Roadshow is a unique opportunity for these startups to get advice from top executives at some of the state’s leading corporations," Charlie Brock, CEO of Launch Tennessee, said in a prepared statement. "These meetings are a great step toward increasing corporate engagement with startups in Tennessee. We are thrilled to give The TENN this opportunity to network with and learn from such seasoned business leaders."
The winning members will also fly to California and the East Coast to network with entrepreneurs and investors.
Cox said he used to work for an oil company but that he was called to do something different and more impactful, like HATponics.
"Just being able to help anyone eat is something we should all be involved in," he said.
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