36|86 Student Edition 2016 winner: ‘There’s wonder in waste’
Jeff Beegle, co-founder of eco-startup mobius, on branding, employee №3, and prepping the perfect pitch.
When mobius co-founders Jeff Beegle and Tony Bova met back in 2011 at the University of Toledo, the shores of nearby Lake Erie regularly flared with the green muck of algal blooms. The blooms were unsightly — and more than just a summer nuisance. By 2014, when the two began applying to grad schools, the situation turned dire. Toledo’s drinking water was fouled, forcing the city to truck in bottled water for nearly a week.
“The crisis in Toledo was an inspiration because there was a need for innovation to solve this environmental problem,” said Beegle, now 28. “Tony was studying chemistry and I was studying bioengineering, and we began thinking about underutilized natural resources and waste streams we could use to make the same things currently made with fossil fuels. We saw entrepreneurship as a medium to bring science and technology into the world to solve big problems.”
That spark became mobius, which they developed as grad students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with research at Oak Ridge National Lab. Today Beegle holds a master’s in microbiology, and Bova is finishing his PhD in energy science and engineering in The Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education — a program between UT, Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Lab.
In 2016, the pair took top honors at 36|86: Student Edition Pitch Competition. We chatted with Beegle recently about the experience at 36|86 and what’s going on with the business these days.
What does mobius do?
At mobius, we believe that ‘There’s Wonder in Waste.’ We’re developing a platform of naturally biodegradable and compostable plastics made from lignin, a waste product of the paper and biofuel industry, for applications in agriculture, horticulture, food service packaging, and beyond.
So, catch us up — what’s happened with mobius since you won the pitch competition?
After 36|86, we went on to do about 15 pitch competitions and raised over $130,000. We’ve participated in a number of accelerator programs, and we’ve received federal grant funding from the National Science Foundation (through the SBIR program) and brought on two investors.
We now have an office and a lab, and we hired our first full-time employee. We participated in the LaunchTN internship program last year, which was fantastic. We had two interns — one from LaunchTN and one self-funded.
Besides winning the pitch competition, what did you gain from your experience at 36|86?
That was super early on in our company, so we knew people in Knoxville but not in other parts of Tennessee. 36|86 was a great opportunity for us to bridge the gap.
We had countless interactions with people we wouldn’t otherwise have met. One that sticks out was with Ross Baird from Village Capital. When we met him at 36|86, he took Tony’s phone out of his hand and sent an email to someone in his organization that said something like, “These guys are legit, talk to them.” We went through their accelerator program last year — one of the best we’ve had.
How did you prepare to pitch for 36|86?
Procrastination and a lot of late nights — but we’ve come a long way since then. I think we were at a pizza shop until 2 a.m. the night before 36|86 and had to pitch at 7 a.m. We had 10 or 15 minutes to pitch, which in pitching life is an eternity.
What advice do you have for this year’s 36|86: Student Edition competitors?
Practice at least 20 times. It’s never gonna be perfect — so practice, because at some point you have to submit the slides and you need to be able to communicate your vision. And talk to everyone in the room, because you never know who can be the introduction you need or make the introduction you need.
What advice do you have for pre-founder you?
To recognize that everything is going to take way longer and way more money than we thought. Patience.
How has your vision for mobius evolved over time?
I think even in the very beginning we had a global vision for what we wanted to do, and we’ve been able to rearticulate that vision and work on building a better brand around it. We’ve realized the power of branding as a tool.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Capital. We’re doing R&D, and that takes time and money. But I think we’ve also learned over time the creative ways around needing to raise capital — like strategic partnerships. This year we’re talking to new companies about opportunities to work together and what areas they’re interested in, to bring them to the table to have a dialogue. We’ve talked to big retailers and brands who’ve introduced us to the rest of their supply chain — and they’re actually willing to talk to you when you’re introduced.
Where will mobius be in five years?
We will have multiple product lines in the market or ready to go to market. Right now the focus is flowerpots for the greenhouse and nursery industry — a direct result of meeting with a big home-improvement company and talking with their product managers about what would be a good product. And then we were able to talk to the people in the supply chain. The US horticulture market is a $15 billion industry, and 5 billion plastic containers are used each year.
36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival’s student pitch competition gives student innovators a platform to access funding, marketing, and community and corporate resources. Students from Tennessee colleges and universities are encouraged to apply by May 31. LaunchTN will select 12–15 finalists to participate in the pitch competition at 36|86: Student Edition, Aug. 28–29 in Nashville, for a chance to win a piece of $60K in prizes.