Every year, the Innov865 Alliance puts on Innov865 Week, a week-long event full of learning, networking and supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Knoxville. During the celebration, the main event – Startup Day – provides local entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their company to a room full of spectators and judges for a chance to snag a cash prize.

Ahead of this year’s event, we’re catching up with past Startup Day pitchers and winners to hear stories, advice and updates about their entrepreneurial journey.

This month, we’re speaking with Dan Close, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of 490 BioTech, and Judges’ Choice winner from Startup Day 2020.

Tell us about your startup.

490 BioTech makes glowing human cells for scientific research. We’ve found a way to make any cell produce a harmless visible light that is bright when they’re healthy, gets dim when they get sick, and goes out completely when they die. We use these cells to create tests for pharmaceutical and biotech companies that let them determine if their products can make sick cells get better or prevent healthy cells from getting sick. The best part is that you can watch the results in real-time, so you get a lot of information very fast without needing to spend a lot of money.

What made you want to create your company and become an entrepreneur?

I founded 490 BioTech along with Dr. Gary Sayler and Dr. Steven Ripp back in 2011. At the time, we had been working at the University of Tennessee and were doing a lot of testing to determine if cells were healthy or sick. The testing available back then was time-consuming, expensive, and didn’t give us a lot of information. When we invented the technology that became 490 BioTech we realized we had solved all of those problems. Being able to experience first-hand how much better our method was made me want to figure out how we could help others work more efficiently too. After all, if we had a chance to help discover new medicines, make them safer, and make them less expensive, how could you not want to get that technology out there?

What is the best part about being an entrepreneur?

I bet if you asked 100 entrepreneurs that question you would get 100 different answers! For me, it’s been the ability to dedicate myself to something that I really believe in. I’ve been with this technology since we first invented it. I’ve seen it grow to make things that were previously impossible, possible. I’ve watched it help identify new drugs and I’ve listened to people tell me about how much faster their research has moved because of it. I really do believe that what we’re doing can make a difference and every day I get to do everything I can to make that come true.

What is the most challenging part about being an entrepreneur? 

People like to talk about how an entrepreneur can “live their dream” or “be their own boss.” They always like to gloss over all the hard work that goes into that. As an entrepreneur, you’ll encounter challenges that you likely wouldn’t along a more traditional career path. I think, for me, it’s been the variety of those challenges that have been the most difficult to overcome. Learning how to run a business is a very different skill from being good at what your company does. And both of those are different than learning about sales, marketing, taxes, etc. Being able to put on the appropriate hat, never stop learning, and identifying when you need to ask for help can be the hardest things to do when people typically think of entrepreneurship as taking on the world all by yourself.

How has the Knoxville community supported your entrepreneurial journey?

It has been a joy to found and grow 490 BioTech in Knoxville. Our unique position between the state’s flagship university and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, combined with East Tennessee’s scenic beauty and high quality of life, make this a hidden gem for business growth. Knoxville may not yet have the entrepreneurial name recognition of Silicon Valley, but there are a surprising number of dedicated people working hard to change that. Even as a highly specialized biotechnology company, we have not lacked resources or inspiration and have had access to everything we need to be successful. 

But if I had to pick one aspect as my favorite, it would be that our entrepreneurial community is so welcoming and helpful. I think everyone here knows that we have the chance to lift ourselves and our community up by working together and benefitting from one another’s success. As a first-time founder, that attitude has been indispensable for getting 490 BioTech off the ground.

When you pitched at Startup Day, what was your experience like? 

We pitched virtually during COVID, so I suspect our experience was even more unique than usual. I didn’t know what to expect, but when the pitches started you could still feel the energy from the judges, the audience, and my fellow entrepreneurs. I thought it would be hard to convey how much excitement we have for what we do without standing in front of a live audience, but as each entrepreneur stepped into the virtual spotlight our passions took over and shone through – just like if we were up on stage!

What are some notable highlights or developments your startup has experienced since pitching at Startup Day?

Locally, we were fortunate to become the inaugural winner of PYA’s Ballard Innovation Award. This provided us with coaching, consulting, and capital to continue to grow our business and helped us start attending scientific conferences as a vendor to sell our products. In the larger sense, we’ve continued to expand and improve our technology. We’re growing our number of customers and starting to get bigger, more influential contracts. Looking back, it’s great to see how these local opportunities have been instrumental in helping us get to where we are today.

Looking toward the future, what’s next for you and your startup?

Growth, growth, and more growth! Like any startup, we want to keep up our positive momentum and continue to do great things. We have plans to expand our product lines. We are looking to bring on bigger and more ambitious projects with our clients. We want to take our technology to new heights so we can meet the needs of researchers from more fields. That’s part of the fun of being a small business – when you’re out to change the world there’s no sense in waiting!

What advice do you have for future Startup Day pitchers?

Have fun and go for it! The Startup Day pitch competition is unique because there are awards for both judges’ choice and the audience’s choice. I really like this format because, while the two groups often prioritize different things, what connects them is their ability to see how much they believe in what they’re doing. That means your job isn’t to put together the most technically proficient pitch in the world but to put together a pitch that really shows how you believe you can make an impact on the world. As an entrepreneur, that’s by far the most fun and authentic story you can tell.

Follow @Innov865 for more pitcher stories and information about Innov865 Week Startup Day 2023!