8 Companies to Watch in 2021

Area Businesses Primed to Thrive

Business disruptors are problem solvers. They lean into creativity and tech-forward decisions to change the status quo. The last year posed a unique challenge to Chattanooga businesses poised for success, yet, bolstered by an innovative community and a strong sense of purpose, these 8 “disruptors” are primed to thrive. 

By Camille Platt

 

Campfire-Proof, Windproof, Waterproof Apparel 

Trekka Designs

 

Man wearing Trekka Designs apparel paddleboarding on the tennessee river

 

Nick Rader and Chris Loizeaux’s first product in apparel was the Traveler Pants, a lightweight chino with 16 features in the fabric, including four-way stretch, bug repellant, quick-dry, UV protection, and odor resistance. In January 2020, the pants were distributed to crowdfunding backers and listed for sale on Trekka’s website. Now, the two-man team is working toward the release of their second product, the Trekka Element Jacket. “I think everybody that’s hung out in a puffy jacket around a campfire has eventually gotten a burn hole in it, or maybe snagged it on a briar and had to tape it back together,” Rader says. This jacket is abrasion-resistant and simply unbothered by embers and sparks. 

 

man tending to a campfire wearing Trekka Designs Apparel

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

The trend in outdoor apparel in recent years has been shifting away from big-name brands. “Consumers simply want something unique,” Loizeaux says. “It seems smaller brands are customer-focused and the ones pushing innovation.” When designing the Traveler Pants, Rader and Loizeaux acknowledged that the problem with typical outdoor pants was bulk. Pockets, seams, and zippers are often placed at angles and locations that give a false illusion of function. In addition to solving these issues, the Trekka Element Jacket also addresses problems with material. Manipulating fire-resistant materials made for industrial applications, Rader and Loizeaux have created something lightweight, breathable, and waterproof, as well as resistant to burns and tears.

 

Trekka Designs founders Nick Rader and Chris Loizeaux

Nick Rader and Chris Loizeaux

 

2020 in Review:

Last year moved Trekka from proof of concept to product-in-hand. After distributing the Traveler Pants, currently available in men’s cuts, to backers early last year, Trekka made the product available on its website for other consumers. In November, Trekka launched a Kickstarter for the Trekka Element Jacket that closed on Christmas morning with $206,000, more than twice the investment it had on the Traveler Pants.

Outlook for 2021:

This year will mean moving forward with relationships with new investors and with manufacturers interested in partnering with young companies developing new products. Rader and Loizeaux plan to bring on staff in 2021 and work toward expanding their product line by six items.

 

 

Boosting Product Properties While Reversing Climate Change 

Ecophene

Leandro Alvarez and Stephanie Soto say it’s long been thought that the only way to make a profit is to damage the environment, and that the only way to save the environment is to hurt business. However, this duo believes they have discovered a profitable solution. Founded on the principle that excess carbon dioxide should be a resource rather than only a greenhouse gas that damages the environment, their company — Ecophene — repurposes atmospheric carbon dioxide to make industrial-grade material called graphene for use in manufacturing. The result: a product that can be used to produce high-performing finished goods, often at lower prices than other raw materials. Among many of its notable features are its light weight, conduction of electricity, and strength far greater than steel.

 

Leandro Alvarez holding a jar of graphene

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

Ecophene’s vision for the future of graphene includes applications in asphalt, batteries, clothing, and even military armor. Partnering with nanotech specialist Dr. Sung Hee Joo, Alvarez and Soto also plan to advance the use of graphene in water filtration. Alvarez says that while there’s plenty of competition in the field, Ecophene sets itself apart. “Other methods of production use very expensive, very dirty, very slow machinery to produce close to nothing in graphene,” he explains. “We can do it in bulk in a short amount of time at a significantly lower price.” Furthermore, Alvarez says his clients can apply for government grants and tax benefits because they are utilizing green technology.

Leandro Alvarez headshot

Leandro Alvarez

2020 in Review:

Alvarez and Soto relocated to Chattanooga from Miami on April 1, and Ecophene was accepted into the INCubator in June. Hoping to become the first company to bring graphene into the construction sector in the United States, they generated interest in using graphene to make cellular lightweight concrete and established a relationship with Romix North America, one of the country’s largest road-surfacing companies.

Stephanie Soto headshot

Stephanie Soto

Outlook for 2021:

The future of Ecophene includes goals to establish a manufacturing facility in Chattanooga that has the capability to produce one ton of graphene each month. Alvarez and Soto will also submit their second application for a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research program award (NSF SBIR) focusing on the use of graphene in asphalt, as well as an application for the Environmental Protection Agency SBIR grant. 

 

 

Business Gains in Grocery 

The Chef and His Wife

Formerly the executive chef at Volkswagen, Tim Mulderink says it was a friend from cooking school, Larry Raymond of Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce, who inspired him to seek out grocery stores to sell his famous pimento cheese. And Mulderink knows his product isn’t alone on the shelves. He explains, “The time is perfect to redefine the image of pimento cheese to the level it deserves. In the past, the industry has done little to change the outdated packaging and boring, pasty taste. Our colorful square tub is chic. The flavors and textures of our pimento cheese have a ‘wow’ factor that makes your taste buds dance to a gourmet tune!”

 

Tim and Shelley Mulderink

Tim and Shelley Mulderink

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

Four years ago, The Chef and His Wife pimento cheese was sold at six local Food City stores. In June of 2020, Food City moved his Original, Jalapeño, and Smoked Gouda products into all of its stores by the refrigerated pickles. Mulderink increased his packaging size from 8 ounces to 12 ounces, and today, Food City sells about 500 tubs each week. Utilizing a commercial kitchen in Hixson, he’s also seen a decade’s worth of success in catering and carry-out meals. This year, however, he’ll focus solely on the cheese.

 

The Chef & His Wife Brand Pimento Cheese

 

2020 in Review:

COVID-19 restrictions meant the elimination of sampling products to customers in stores, so Mulderink turned to social media and television. He hired a videographer and ran two 30-second television commercials in Johnson City, Bristol, and Kingsport during the fall, and sales continued to increase. He plans to repeat the marketing in Knoxville in 2021.

Outlook for 2021:

This year, Mulderink will not renew his lease on his catering and meal production kitchen in Hixson, which garnered $230,000 in sales of comfort food like chicken pot pie last year. He plans to sell the equipment to someone interested in investing in a successful customer base. By shifting his complete focus to pimento cheese, his goal is to continue to increase brand awareness and to secure space in other grocery chains.

 

 

Automated Data for Accurate Business Decisions

Datably

 

woman entering data on a laptop

 

Taylor Hall likes to claim he’s been developing software since he had a V-Tech laptop in fourth grade; Emily Hall’s professional history is in retail leadership. Married in January, both realized administrative and operational tasks are simply more frustrating and time-consuming than necessary. Datably is a software development company that automates workflows by replacing or syncing data from the systems you already have in place, like email software, customer tracking, inventory tracking, and invoice management. “We can free you up to think about building the business rather than sitting there entering data all day,” Taylor says.

 

Taylor and Emily Hall founders of Datably

Taylor and Emily Hall (Photo Courtesy of Film Production Central)

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

Datably’s competition in the market includes what Taylor calls one-size-fits-all automation software, which isn’t individualized and requires a tech-savvy operator. And individualization can make all the difference when it comes to data related to estimating or inventory. One Datably success story includes replacing an inventory system that required a business’s staff to manually calculate multiple price points each time a vendor changed the price of an item. Replacing the 17 clicks and 2.5 minutes it took to update a single piece of inventory, which led to inaccuracies, Datably built a system that automated the process.

2020 in Review:

The Halls relocated to the Scenic City from Orlando in May because Bill Lupia, operations manager for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, gave them the confidence that Chattanooga simply breeds small businesses. Transitioning to town with what they learned as software developers in Florida, they acknowledge that doing the job well requires a deep understanding of the client’s evolving business model. Otherwise, Taylor admits, all that’s achieved is an impressive advancement in software that only solves half the problem at hand.

Outlook for 2021:

The Halls hope to grow their revenue to between half a million and three-quarters of a million this year so they can hire eight full-time software developers in Chattanooga. 

 

 

Skill-Based Classes by Women, for Women

Women Repair Zone

 

woman filling holes in the wall and painting

 

While president and CEO of nonprofit Girls Inc. of Chattanooga, Bea Lurie asked her team to create a camp called “Ms. Independent” for area youth to learn basic automobile maintenance and home repair skills. For years, she received a consistent question from the girls’ mothers and grandmothers: What about us? In 2017, at 57 years old, Lurie left her position at Girls Inc. to answer the call. The following year, she founded Women Repair Zone, which offers courses for women, led by women, in skills related to home repair, home improvement, and automotive maintenance and repair.

 

Women Repair Zone Founder Bea Lurie

Bea Lurie

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

Early last year, Lurie was on track to be a year ahead of schedule for turning a profit, but COVID-19 restrictions meant the suspension of in-person classes. It took a masterclass with scaling coach Julia Pimsleur to inspire her to move her classes online. “Pimsleur said to all of us, ‘Whether you’ve had your business for eight years or you are newer like Bea, you’re all start-ups again. That’s the way you have to think about your business if you’re going to survive,’” Lurie recalls. “We could mourn what we had, but we have to move forward.” The beauty in the shift to Zoom is participants are working on their own homes while the instructor models. Not sure whether your hot water heater’s pressure relief valve is piped properly? Simply hold up your phone or computer and ask. 

 

Woman power washing the patio outside her home

 

2020 in Review:

Since moving to Zoom, Lurie’s classes have included participants in 14 states and Israel. With courses including Plumbing Basics, How to Hang Anything, and Chair Upholstery for Beginners, participants receive a supply list and a summary of what’s to come before each class. For example, for Plumbing Basics, women who want to participate hands-on rather than simply watching and asking questions need channel locks for opening the p-trap under the sink and a water key for operating the water main shut-off.

Outlook for 2021:

“One of the things I’ve learned is that when the customer asks for something, you need to listen very closely,” Lurie says. Access to recorded video workshops has been a regular request, and this year, Women Repair Zone sessions will be available for download, with access for 10 days, for the same price as attending a workshop live. Lurie also added private group sessions, hosting her first with a group of women from Israel, New Jersey, and New York early this year.

 

 

Small Batches, Big Flavors: When Science Meets Spirits

Gate 11 Distillery

 

Founder of Gate 11, Bill Lee

Photo by Emily Pérez Long

 

An award-winning microdistillery with retail and cocktail hours located at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Gate 11 is the product of founder and Master Distiller Bill Lee. Joined by his wife Wanda and a small operations team, Lee opened Gate 11 in 2019 with three separate artisan still systems: a pot still for whiskey, column still for vodka and gin and rum base, and glass reflux for botanical extractions and spirits fractionation. “We’re combining the technical tools and stills of large distilleries with the passion and obsession for creating something new and flavorful in the small-craft industry,” says Lee.  

 

Gate 11 Whiskey and Gin bottles

Photo by Emily Pérez Long

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

Gate 11 utilizes advanced methods in distilling its whiskeys to increase the retention of rich and complex flavors. Lee has also created a program that offers participation in the distillation of custom whiskey. In exchange for committing to buy a 12-bottle case of bourbon, rye, or single malt whiskey, participants can help with the mashing, fermenting, distilling, barreling, and bottling. “Some craft distilleries come off as being fairly opaque and even a bit intimidating,” Lee admits. “We try to be very accessible. Whether you’re an experienced connoisseur of spirits or really learning about it for the first time, you can gain a lot coming here and have a great experience.” 

2020 in Review:

With products available in several dozen bars and restaurants in Chattanooga, as well as 20 area package stores, Gate 11 was nominated by USA Today for Best New Craft Distillery 2020 and won gold medals for its gin, rum, and absinthe blanche at the John Barleycorn Spirits Competition in 2020. The company also won a silver medal for vodka and a bronze medal for gin and rum at the American Craft Spirits Awards (ACSA). 

Outlook for 2021:

Lee aims to increase distribution of Gate 11’s craft spirits both locally and more broadly within Tennessee and is exploring e-commerce distribution in other states. Lee and his team are also developing an agave-based spirit (tequila) that he hopes to launch this summer.

 

 

Text-Based Healthcare Communications

Rhinogram

 

Dr. Keith Dressler headshot

Dr. Keith Dressler

 

In 2013, Chattanooga orthodontist Dr. Keith Dressler realized patients who needed to change an appointment time, ask clinical questions, or get details about their account balance were texting healthcare staff on their personal cell phones rather than calling the office. The problem: Personal health information was being shared on a digital medium that wasn’t secure or protected. A veteran entrepreneur in healthcare IT, Dr. Dressler created Rhinogram, a cloud-based, HIPAA-compliant platform for text-based communication. Today, Rhinogram has users in 47 states and 33 different healthcare specialties, including primary care, allergy, urgent care, pediatrics, dental, orthodontics, obstetrics, and behavioral health.

 

Rhinogram booth at convention

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

The problem with other attempts at hybrid care is that they require downloading an app or logging into portals. Rhinogram gives the practice a textable number that is identical to the phone number they already have. Any staff member logged in to the system can reply when they see a message come in from a patient, and the answers to common requests can be templated as text or video responses. Clinicians, nurses, and office administrators do not have to type an original response; they simply click the related customized reply. If a text conversation needs to be taken to video, Dr. Dressler says, the virtual visit results in the same reimbursement as a face-to-face visit. The internal side of communications in Rhinogram, Team Chat, allows staff to communicate within the practice about patient care so personal health information is never exchanged on personal cell phones.

2020 in Review:

Rhinogram completed integration with Athenahealth, Nextech, and Epic Systems, and within the first six months of 2020, added between 2.2 and 2.3 million new patients to the system. Sales grew 200% from 2019, and locally, the company was awarded Startup of the Year by CO.LAB. In the last quarter of 2020, Rhinogram filed for four new patents on its technology. 

Outlook for 2021:

The federal government allowed for non-compliant digital communications with patients last year because it was imperative to keep as many people home as possible while still having access to healthcare. This year, Dr. Dressler explains, providers know HIPAA compliance will be reinforced, driving Rhinogram revenue to perhaps 400 or 500% over 2020. The future of hybrid healthcare, he suggests, may also include the ability to take vital signs using facial and body recognition technology.

 

 

Tech-Forward Freight Management

Taimen Transport

 

Tamien Transport team

 

Derek Steele is a former contract manager for Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and Chris Wang got his start in logistics at Access America Transport. Joining forces with investor Jim Brunjak, the pair founded Taimen Transport on two plastic Rubbermaid tables in 2012. Taking their name from an aggressive fish Jim caught on a fly-fishing outing in Mongolia, the team says technology enables their logistics consultants to handle about four times more truckload freight volume per person than competitors. 

 

Tamien Transport logo painted on wall

 

Why It’s a Company to Watch: 

Taimen Transport’s transportation management software, Turvo, uses Google Maps to turn real-time traffic data into live shipment tracking updates that run every 45 seconds. This software along with FreightWaves Sonar allows brokers to use real-time market pricing data to help customers make shipping decisions. “If the market looks like it’s moving in the wrong direction, we can tell our customer, ‘You may want to ship this a few days early or a week early if it’s ready.’ Or, ‘If you can hold it two days, we can get you a better price then,’” Wang says.

2020 in Review:

Included in the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing privately held companies in the United States, Taimen Transport added Amazon as a customer last year. Brian Whitley, who served as the director of operations at UPS Freight and the president of Load One, came on as president at Taimen. “Our service has really grown with his network,” Wang says. “We’re now able to get your product picked up anywhere in the country within 90 minutes and put it on an airplane.”

Outlook for 2021:

Hiring will be a focus for the coming year. The company prides itself on its intensive one-month training program to set up new employees for success. Aimed at keeping as much of their business in Chattanooga as possible, Taimen will look for local business partnerships in insurance, banking, employee benefits, and the nonprofit sector. CS

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