Collaboration for Innovation in Tennessee

(Cookeville, Tennessee) – December 17, 2000

A university professor in Middle Tennessee has found a way to make anti-lock braking systems safer for motorists — but his discovery may never make it to the marketplace.

Because there’s no effective statewide support system to turn innovations into marketable products, many Tennessee Board of Regents (“TBR”) schools, including University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State University, Austin Pea University, Tennessee Technology University and East Tennessee State University, plan to build a bridge from innovation to marketability. The collaboration should make it easier for universities and federally managed laboratories to turn ideas into profitable ventures.

Tennessee Tech is the lead institution for the project funded with a three-year, $579,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Partner organizations include several TBR universities, Cumberland Emerging Technologies (CET), Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Tennessee Biotechnology Association and TennesSeed.

“There are islands of discovery dotting the state — isolated agencies competing for limited funds and ideas trying to turn knowledge into profitable, usable products,” said Tennessee Tech’s College of Engineering Dean Glen Johnson. “What we propose to do is connect the knowledge at universities and laboratories in the state with the development of new products and services that will create new jobs with economic development.”

The project will be a two-year study program that will enable students, faculty and researchers gifted in biotechnical fields to study and experience starting a technology business and seeing it through to become owner/operator. Students or researchers with undergraduate degrees and biotechnical innovations — such as pharmaceutical research, genetic marker testing and equipment improvements or innovations — are candidates for the program’s first class.

A screening process will identify the ideas for completeness and readiness for continued development, then partner institutions will provide students with technical and entrepreneurial mentors to make sure the ideas are technically sound and market savvy.

“One strength of this program is the communication participants will have through an electronic notebook on the Internet, allowing teams to share their success, struggles and advice with each other,” said Ken Currie, TTU’s interim director at the Center for Manufacturing Research and member of the Innovation Board.

According to Johnson, the project’s principal investigator, federal laboratories hold hundreds of patents that have yet to be tested for economic success and many more potentially patentable inventions exist in the labs of TBR universities with little likelihood of commercialization without this grant program.

He says the current lack of coordination and communication makes it extremely difficult for the state to reach a critical level of innovation.

“There is a prevailing influence in the state that workforce education should be training-based rather than innovation-based,” he said. “Our proposed work will be a first step toward transforming current low-skill, assembly-only economic development into a self-sustaining way to create wealth through innovation.”

Currie says the growth of wealth in the state can be exponential when companies are started based on innovative, new technologies.

“The Silicon Valley is an example of how promoting and supporting innovation can lead to growth and wealth for an entire area or state,” he said. “This program can be the first step toward improving Tennessee’s success in innovation and growth, something that can benefit every Tennessean.”

Applications for the program will be accepted through April 2001 for the first classes to begin in Fall 2001. The classes may be taken for credit, or students not enrolled in a university may take them as non-credit classes, depending on the policy of the school.


Comments are closed.