January 15, 2020

24 Hours with Tony Bova: Chemist turned entrepreneur, founder of mobius and winner of the 2019 AgSharks Competition

Tony Bova’s fascination with renewable energy truly sparked when he and his good friend, Jeff Beegle, decided, on a whim, to participate in a startup pitch competition during their undergrad at the University of Toledo. The pair, who met in 2012 while conducting academic research for the State of Ohio, joined a team of students that came up with the idea to form a business that could install a set of buffer strips on farmers’ lands to give them the equipment needed to recapture fertilizer runoff with plants and turn those into biogas that could be used to power their facility. Though Bova and Beegle walked away empty handed, the competition gave them the “entrepreneur bug.” A few years later, mobius pbc was founded.

Today, mobius is on its way to achieving its goal: to create a world where there’s wonder in waste. The company, which is still in its inception phase, is currently developing technologies that convert unavoidable organic waste into much-needed products such as waste-based fertilizers, biodegradable seed and fertilizer coatings, and biodegradable mulch films and nursery containers. Using the $500,000 equity investment earned from S2G Ventures at the 2019 AgSharks Competition during Western Growers’ Annual Meeting this past November, Bova plans to bulk up his team and refine the startup’s solutions.

It’s not all about the agtech, it’s about the superstars behind it! Bova, 36, was kind enough to give us an in-depth look at his daily routine, how he manages his time and the unique way he is building his renewable chemicals and materials company—all the while pursuing a doctoral degree. Here’s a look at how he spends his average day.

8:30 AM – 9:30 AM

I’m not an early riser. My of most productive hours are from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., so waking up exceptionally early is not part of my daily routine. The first thing I do when I wake up is to take my two dogs out for a walk. My eight-year old German shepherd, Rogue (yes, like the superhero from X-Men), and 10-year old bulldog/beagle mix, Pepperoni, have an incredible amount of energy and enjoy all the scents, scenery and terrain that Knoxville, Tennessee has to offer. After getting some morning air, I review my calendar to see what meetings I have that day, any important phone calls I need to make and possible team outings that may be scheduled. I receive about 200 e-mails a day so lining up my priorities and “must-do’s” for the day allows me to be most productive, while still meeting everyone’s needs.

9:30 AM – 10:00 AM

I head out to our office space in Lenoir City (a suburban city in Tennessee with a population of about 8,600), which takes about 30 minutes. During my short commute, I like to listen to podcasts that get me energized about the day. Some of my favorites include:

·    Up First from NPR: NPR’s Up First not only gives me an overview of the latest news but it analyzes the biggest stories of the day.

·    The Daily with The New York Times: I like hearing the stories from the actual journalists who write the stories, rather than a host or commentator.

·    This Week in Startups by Jason Calacanis: Jason is an angel investor on the west coast who interviews a variety of entrepreneurs all at different stages of growth. It’s fun to hear what’s current in the realm of startups and gives me an idea of each of the cultures they have built within their companies.

mobius is located in a little agtech incubator space that we share with three or four other startups. Our space is unique in that we are working out of a farmhouse that was built in the 1800’s. It’s on 30-acres of beautiful historical farmland and our materials science lab is literally in what used to be a garage.

Though the entrepreneurial community in Knoxville is still rather small, they have been incredibly supportive, interested and invested in what we are doing. They have been integral in helping us build our network in the ag space and connecting us with farmers in the west coast, such as members of Western Growers. A misconception that I’d like to dispel is that there’s a lot of articles out there that make it look like the startups appeared out of nowhere and were an overnight success; but the truth is that success comes from a lot of relationship building that stem from support from the local community.

10:00 AM – 1:00 PM

Every Monday, we have a standing morning meeting where our team of six provides an update on what occurred the week prior. This includes chatting about progress made in the enhancement of our proprietary, biodegradable plastic made from lignin (lignin is an organic substance that binds cells); exploring possible new technologies/solutions that will allow us convert waste streams into chemicals and materials; laying out each of our game plans for the week; and breaking down any challenges or road blocks we come across.

I then triage my inbox to make sure all I complete all urgent requests and go straight into a Kanban—our workflow management platform—to see if I need to work on any grants, meet with potential investors or head to University of Tennessee to meet with other researchers who can help us enhance our product. Prior to AgSharks, most of our funding had been through grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so staying on top of these grant applications are crucial for the success of our business.

1:00 PM – 2:00 PM

I don’t really take a lunch, aside from quickly eating a ham and cheese sandwich while working. However, one thing Jeff and I started doing with our team was hosting a journal club every other Friday. When it’s not too hot or muggy outside, the team has lunch together to discuss specific topics in new science areas. We all read a publication, break it apart, analyze it and as a group, see how we can relate and apply it to any research or activities that we are doing either personally or professionally.

We’ve been doing this for a few months now and have found that it not only stimulates new ideas that benefit mobius, but it is also a fun way to build team morale.

2:00 PM – 7:00 PM

The rest of my day is comprised of a combination between phone calls and deep work. The three biggest challenges we face as entrepreneurs at a renewable energy company are as follows:

1.  Science is very slow. We have to wait a long time to see if what we’re doing works. For example, testing the biodegradability of materials in the soil can take up to two years. We conduct lots of tests and it can take a lot of time to collect the data we need.

2.  Finding partners for field tests. Once we get these products tested, it can be challenging to find partners who are open to helping us pilot them. Growers face their own set of challenges, and we understand that helping us test out our products in their fields isn’t at the top of their list. We’ve quickly learned that being a part of innovation networks, such as the ones S2G and WG offer, can help us identify those partners so we are thrilled about this collaboration.

3.  Changes cannot be made quickly. Because so much science is involved in our technology, the planning stages are much more complex and extensive. If we were building software products or developing an app, we could quickly change the code. Rather, we are dealing with atoms and molecules so the development process is not as fluid as we’d like it to be.

With that being said, much of my afternoon phone calls revolve around solving these challenges. I am constantly on the phone with university partners who can help us with R&D and explore methods to help expedite science experiments without compromising the data. I’m calling commercial partners that could be interested in that R&D to hopefully get more pilots in the field. We also collaborate with various stakeholders throughout the supply chain, such as product manufacturers and growers, to learn about their challenges and needs.

Most recently, we were able to connect with Kroger who provided us a grant to develop a new technology that can covert cooking waste oil from the food industry into other biodegradable materials and chemicals. There’s a lot of “deep work” that goes into this project including extensive research and development, as well as engaging in numerous strategy planning sessions and meetings with our team.

7:00 PM – 12:00 AM

The early evening is dedicated to catching up with my fiancée, Dr. Mallory Ladd, who now lives in the Washington, D.C metro area after landing a job in Virginia as a research analyst for the Navy. Mallory also has a PhD in Energy Science and Engineering and is a great partner that supports my entrepreneurial ambitions and is one of the best advisors a CEO can have. She gives me great feedback to plan for meetings and pitches, and also helps me make sure I take breaks from work to talk about what else is happening in the world! After our phone call, it’s back to work for me! I’m finishing up my PhD in Energy Science and Engineering (with a focus on polymers, material science and chemistry) so much of my night is filled with research and writing. My plan is to wrap up in the spring or early summer, so I plan to use my new-found extra time to focus on building out three areas for mobius:

1.  Creating biodegradable containers. We’re hoping to perfect our current technology so we can offer biodegradable seed trays and growing propagation containers to the agriculture, horticulture and forestry industries.

2.  Replacing plastic mulch film. We’re looking for manufacturing partners to see if they can use our materials to make sustainable plastic mulch films. Currently, farmers use plastic film made from polyethylene—which does not have the ability to till into the ground after use. We want to create a product that can be biodegradable in the soil AND have the same effect (if not better) on the growth rate of the crop.

3.  Inventing biodegradable seed and fertilizer coatings. The current coating on seeds uses a polymer that does not biodegrade, and therefore, accumulates into the soil. We want to develop technology that creates a better and more sustainable coatings.

As a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur, my days are long but incredibly rewarding. The challenges that we face in the field are not just obstacles, but they are opportunities. Having the ability to be an entrepreneur is a privilege, and I’m excited to start this journey in such an honorable industry such as agriculture.