Using knowledge that came from the classroom and drawing on inspiration that came from the heart, engineering students were big winners in the recent Graves Business Plan Competition.
The bi-annual event is hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) housed in the Haslam College of Business. Featuring a diversity of ideas, UT students gained real-world experience by pitching their businesses in front of a panel of five successful entrepreneurs. Seven student-founded businesses were awarded prizes in the competition’s Growth and Lifestyle categories.
Cody Blankenship, a senior computer science major, and Kaitlyn “Katy” Daniels, a graduate student in industrial engineering, each captured first-place awards and $5,000.
Blankenship’s win came in the Growth category, which is for startups seeking high investment with large scalability. The Knoxville native founded Flock Analytics, a cloud-based software solution tailored for church analytics, to foster his passion for helping churches in a meaningful way.
“I was super excited and surprised because there were so many other great companies and people I knew involved,” said Blankenship, who also won first place in the Fall 2023 Vol Court pitch competition. “It was really an honor to be selected as the best out of all those great ideas.”
Daniels won first place in the Lifestyle category, which is for startups targeted to support local or smaller-scale opportunities. The Seymour, Tenn., native founded Henry BnB, an affordable rental farm stay that helps alleviate the lack of experiential rentals within the greater Knoxville area while also raising awareness about the East Tennessee farm culture.
“I was absolutely shocked to win it,” Daniels said. “This was the third time I entered the competition, but it’s the first time that I ever made it to the final round. It was just very exciting and unexpected to me.”
Logan O’Neal, a senior computer science major from Jefferson City, Tenn., was awarded second place and $3,000 in the Growth category. O’Neal founded Laborup, which connects skilled talent with high-paying industrial sector jobs.
“Growing up in a rural community, I witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by hardworking, blue-collar individuals seeking employment in physical industries,” O’Neal said. “Winning the Graves Business Plan Competition will not only propel our company forward but also amplify the impact we can make in bridging the gap between talent and job opportunities.”
Blankenship and Daniels both developed their award-winning business plans with help from their loved ones.
The father of Blankenship’s fiancée is a pastor and Blankenship asked if he could help his church in any way. They began discussing the church’s database, and Blankenship noticed church officials had no way to do analytics. He asked why and was told there was nothing available and the church couldn’t afford to hire its own analytics team.
Blankenship decided to build the software and started Flock Analytics nearly a year ago. The company plans to officially launch on New Year’s Day of 2024.
“A lot of churches use popular church management software, and 90 percent of them use the four most popular ones,” Blankenship said. “What we provide if they sign up with our company is the ability to connect directly with their system and create pre-built dashboards that are specifically designed for them.”
Clients have already seen results. One church in Knoxville had a higher number of single people in their late 20’s as congregants and used the information provided by Flock Analytics to start new groups and events targeted to the demographic.
“They saw a huge amount of success from that,” Blankenship said. “That is something they didn’t even know they had a need for until they looked at their data that we provided.”
Flock Analytics currently serves two churches in Knoxville and has spoken with ten others. Blankenship envisions major growth as more churches begin using the software.
“I would like to serve all the churches across the US in some way, and if we are talking 10-20 years, maybe even the world,” he said. “Analytics are something all companies use now and I don’t think churches should be any different. I want to see all churches benefit from this and really improve the services they provide their congregation.”
Daniels developed her business plan with the hope of revitalizing her family farm in Seymour. The BnB in Henry BnB stands for “Bed and Barn.”
Daniels recalls some of her fondest childhood memories came when the farm had cattle. But after the financial recession, the family had to sell most of the cows and focus on just growing hay. Daniels is driven to change that.
“It’s something that is really important to me. That is kind of the whole reason I got into engineering,” Daniels said. “I enjoy it, but it also comes with a pretty good paycheck, and I figured I could put that toward getting my farm back to the way it used to be.”
Through Henry BnB, Daniels intends to restore a farmhouse on her family’s property to be rented out to the public. Her mom worked as a nurse until she suffered a pulmonary embolism after the Covid pandemic and went on disability. Daniel believes the two would enjoy working on the business together while raising awareness for the culture of East Tennessee farmers.
“People can come and stay at the farmhouse and don’t have to go out looking for activities to do. They can come and pet the cattle, learn about bees in our apiary, garden and harvest, look at old generational recipe books and learn how to make the food based on what they harvest,” Daniels said. “There is so much to do on the farm. I just want to share that experience and culture of my family with everybody.”
Daniels will be taking the money she won from the Graves competition and placing it in a saving’s account to start to accumulate interest. She wants to enter another competition in the spring for a chance to win more money to fully cover the start-up expenses and refinish the farmhouse.
Daniels is taking steps to apply for certification from the Tennessee Century Farms Program, which recognizes farms owned by the same family in the state for at least 100 years. She also wants to get the farmhouse on the national registry of historical places, which would help her become eligible for grants.
Once she obtains her master’s degree, Daniels plans to pursue her doctorate in biosystem engineering. She is working with her academic advisor to find ways to connect her IE background with agriculture.
“Everything about this business just really ties into my major,” Daniels said. “I have taken a lot of business engineering type classes through the industrial engineering department and that helped me come up with a better business plan and making sure I provide a quality experience that I can maintain.”
Blankenship is equally grateful for how much his UT education assisted with his business plan. He lauded the engineering department staff and Chuck West and Lynn Youngs in the Haslam College of Business for their guidance in creating Flock Analytics.
“I received help from some of my professors and talked with some different people who came to our senior design class. They were successful entrepreneurs who talked to us about running a start-up,” Blankenship said. “Really, ninety percent of everything I’ve been able to achieve I credit to my time in the Tickle College of Engineering.”
Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683, firstname.lastname@example.org)