Startup Southerner Article by Lena Anthony

Innov865 Week is a week-long series of events, taking place September 19-23, 2016, to celebrate and showcase Knoxville as a great place for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses. We have partnered with the Innov865 Alliance to bring you stories of innovation born in East Tennessee. Today, we’re taking a look at two giants in East Tennessee research—the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee Research Foundation—and what role they’re playing in supporting entrepreneurship in the region.

What do you think goes on at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory? Top-secret government work is probably the first thing that comes to mind, but did you know ORNL is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity? There’s the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF), which works with 3-D printer manufacturers, material providers, and equipment manufacturers to develop faster, stronger and larger additive manufacturing solutions. “On any given day at the MDF, you can see dozens of these companies represented on the shop floor,” says Dan Miller, manager of industrial and economic development partnerships at ORNL.

ORNL also offers several entrepreneurial development programs, including the Technology Innovation Program, which selects and supports several ORNL researchers to accelerate their technologies to commercial readiness. “Projects are selected competitively based on their potential for near-term societal or economic impact,” Miller says.

Through a partnership with the University of Tennessee, ORNL leaders like Tom Rogers, director of industrial and economic development partnerships, teach classes in entrepreneurship and mentor aspiring entrepreneurs. “The class matches students with ORNL technologies with the goal to create sustainable business models,” Miller says.

So does all of this support work? Miller says the impact of the ORNL on the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is big and getting bigger. For example, it’s attracting companies to the area. Recently, Local Motors decided to open a micro-factory right by the MDF to build 3D printed vehicles. Magnum Venus Products, a premier composites equipment company, also opened a facility in the MDF vicinity. And its partnership with UT has already yielded some promising startups, including Nano-Elements Source and Grow BioplasticsGeneral Graphene is another ORNL success story. The Oak Ridge-based startup, which licensed ORNL technology to manufacture graphene, an advanced material with multiple applications, has attracted significant investment, including $8.7 million in series A funding.

Thirty miles away in the heart of Knoxville sits the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, which is believed to be the second-oldest university research foundation in the country. And there’s a lot going on there. UTRF houses the university’s office of technology transfer, which handles the licensing of innovations developed by UT students and faculty. It hosts the Tennessee Venture Challenge competition that includes a seven-week entrepreneurship boot camp followed by a pitch competition. It partners with regional events like Innov865 Week to promote awareness and celebrate the success of entrepreneurship in the region. There’s a 16,000-square-foot on-campus incubator space, which houses 17 companies. And there’s soon to be an accelerator program with room for two entrepreneurs-in-residence, according to Dr. Stacey Patterson, vice president of UTRF. It will be a collaboration with the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the UT College of Business.

There’s also the new Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus, a 77-acre plot of land master-planned for more than a million square feet of building space for public-private partnership development. “It’s a research and development park that gives businesses access to the most powerful tools available in materials science and high-performance computing, along with the internationally renowned researchers at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” she says. “We envision companies graduating from the UTRF business incubator to find permanent homes at Cherokee Farm.”

And that’s no pipe dream. Dr. Patteson says the UTRF averages 3-4 new company starts per year. There have been approximately 50 companies started out of UT technology over the past decade, and 38 of these companies are still in business in Tennessee today. In 2015, these companies raised over $54.5 million in venture-type funding and one company, Knoxville-based Hubble Telemedical, was just three years old when it was acquired last year by Welch Allyn.

When UTRF technology is licensed, Dr. Patterson says her organization encourages those entrepreneurs to stay put in Tennessee. “We are working with regional entrepreneurial support organizations and venture capital to try to ensure these companies have the best opportunity to grow their business in Tennessee,” she says.

Photos courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and University of Tennessee Research Foundation