ntrepreneurs looking to fast track their enterprise to the commercialization and expansion levels will find the resources they need in abundance in eastern Tennessee — in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley, specifically. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), managed by (UT)-Battelle LLC (a joint venture of the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute), is a goldmine of research and development resources, particularly in the critical area of energy research. Specialty fields at Oak Ridge include nuclear and neutron science, material science, computational science and biotechnology. Companies can save the expense of hiring R&D personnel by accessing the research staff, laboratories and equipment at ORNL — and reap the benefits of proximity to experts in key disciplines and early knowledge of new federal grants for which they can apply.
"From a technical staffing and technology research standpoint, this clearly is one of the best places I have ever been for a company to come and interact. For many companies, this location has transformed their business," says Jesse Smith, director of technology for the Knoxville Oak Ridge Innovation Valley. "The Departments of Energy and Defense and others put out funding opportunity announcements, for low-cost carbon fiber applications, for example," he illustrates.
"Typically, there isn't much time between when the announcement is made and when letters of intent are due. The beauty of being here is that companies can have a presence here, such as in the Halcyon Commercialization Center, which is the only incubator-office space where a private company can have an office on the site of a national lab — it's the only one." Halcyon also houses classroom space in which Roane State Community College holds classes in composite materials, adding another higher education dimension to the Lab site and to the Innovation Valley.
"People that do form relationships discover that when these funding opportunities come out, they immediately think of other companies with whom they can co-write a proposal or partner with on an application." Those relationships already need to be in place for this to happen, says Smith, who personally makes sure the right introductions are made between the ORNL's research staff and new investors in the area. "By using the research capability of the Lab and collaborating with other enterprises, companies can accomplish something much bigger than any one of them can do by themselves."
Low-cost carbon fiber applications, particularly in the transportation industry, is one area in which the Innovation Valley is rapidly distinguishing itself as a center of expertise. Carbon fiber has been proven to be several times stronger and several times lighter than steel, which is of great interest to manufacturers of cars and other vehicles seeking to reduce their weight so as to improve fuel efficiency. It is also several times more expensive, however, and therefore remains elusive as a viable substitute for steel vehicle parts. But that is changing.
Oak Ridge is opening a low-cost carbon fiber plant — the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility — a $34-million facility designed to scale up laboratory production of low-cost carbon fiber from one ton per year to 25 tons per year.
"The eyes of the world are on this plant because of its potential to make carbon fiber for automotive and transportation applications at a price point and a strength the industry has picked — which is $5 to $7 per pound and 250-plus tensile strength," says Smith. "The industry has given the Lab the criteria for cost and strength, and the Lab has done it on a 1-ton scale. Now they'll do 25 tons. It will be huge. We are now looking for companies that are in downstream market segments so we have a toehold carbon fiber manufacturer in Roane County. We are going to build a cluster around this low-cost material."
That cluster is already in place. In 2011, the newly formed Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium (www.cfcomposites.org) had 20 member companies by the time the fall meeting was held. Approximately 40 companies were members by the time the spring 2012 meeting took place.
Cherokee Farm Will Cultivate Start-Ups
Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has broken ground on Cherokee Farm, a 188-acre interdisciplinary research park that will be home to 1 million square feet of R&D space on 17 building sites. "We are targeting Fortune 500 companies that are looking to expand into the Southeast that fit our research profile, as well as small companies that are looking to move out of high-rent areas into a more affordable geographic location," says Dr. David Milhorn, executive vice president at the University of Tennessee. "This project is being developed with private funds, not state funds, which are hard to come by right now."
Once critical mass is achieved with companies in place at Cherokee Farm, graduating students will have career options locally to an extent that previous classes of students did not have. "Cherokee Farm will allow us to recruit the types of high-tech industry that those trained individuals will want to go to work in," says Dr. Milhorn. It will also provide the kind of space that until now was in short supply in the Knoxville area, he adds. "There is no wet lab research space that isn't already dedicated to Oak Ridge and the university. So we're building with the expectation of filling the space we build." Ideal tenants initially, says Milhorn, are "companies in the late start-up stage of development where we can help them succeed."
STEM Resources at Work
On the high school level, a new STEM Academy caters to students seeking to hone their science, technology, engineering and math edge in preparation for a university major in such a field. "We're seen as a laboratory school," says Becky Ashe, STEM Coordinator for Knox County Schools and principal of the L&N STEM Academy, located in the historic L&N train station building in downtown Knoxville. "We research best practices to identify what we're going to use in the school, and we study what we do and its effect before disseminating it across as broad a field as possible, especially throughout the STEM community."
Redesigning the magnet schools, of which L&N STEM Academy is one, is a work-force strategy, says Ashe. "STEM was seen as the area representing the greatest need on the part of employers, by far," she explains. "Our existence signifies an effort between the school system and business community to tailor-make a work force. Focus groups from business indicated to us what they want their future employees to be learning now. Latin is a required foreign language for all students here, for example. That came from the business community, because it is the best language for training the brain to think deductively."
The Knoxville Chamber also works to advance STEM expertise in the region, given its importance to existing and future employers and to regional competitiveness. "From an economic development standpoint, we are stressing how important K-12 students' outcomes are to this area," says Jennifer Evans, vice president, workforce development and education at the Chamber. "With so much effort lately working to grow and retain existing companies in the area, K-12 education is very important. They want to send their kids to good schools, but they also want a strong workforce. This area really gets that."
A Vols4STEM program supports the Innovation Valley's already rich STEM resources by making engineers and other technical workers available to teachers for instruction on how to apply certain principles, or math and science tutoring for students, for example. "We're working hard to make the link between the workforce and students in K-12," says Evans.
Behind the scenes, the Chamber is working closely with the Knox County school system to acquire the resources necessary to glean better information from test-score data so that schools can better address the areas necessary to improve academic performance. "We would like to do this throughout the Innovation Valley. It's a great example of how we're linking education to economic development."