“Innovation Crossroads” addresses national challenge, but can also help local ecosystem

innovation-crossroads-2By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

For the two people at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) most involved with the “Innovation Crossroads” initiative, it is a significant way to address a national challenge – energy innovation – while simultaneously supporting the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“It represents an incredible opportunity for the region,” Tom Rogers, ORNL’s Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development, says. He has spent decades in the economic development profession at TVA, the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, and Tech 2020 before joining the ORNL team nearly 10 years ago.


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“We’ve done a nationwide search for top energy innovators in the country and have superstars moving to our region for the next two years,” Rogers adds.

His partner in the “Innovation Crossroads” program – Beth Conerty, Program Lead for Entrepreneurial Support and Development – adds that it is not just the innovators themselves who are coming here.

“Four of the five are married, and three are bringing their spouses,” she said. One of those has a start-up in Silicon Valley where she had difficulty gaining the attention of investors. After visiting the region and seeing the collaboration among the entrepreneurial support organizations here, that spouse has decided to relocate her company to Knoxville.

Rogers and Conerty give special credit to the team at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) for embracing the spouse and offering to help her be successful. When we talked to her husband at yesterday’s event formally announcing the four teams, he cited the marketing expertise that KEC has.

As those involved in the technology commercialization and start-up space know, there is a term that is frequently used. It is stickiness, a reference to the ability to retain a promising start-up as the venture capital firms pull them to one of the coasts.

“Spouses moving here make the stickiness more likely,” Conerty says.

More than 50 applications were received from innovators in 21 states. Sixteen individuals representing 14 different projects were selected as semi-finalists, and seven of those projects involving nine innovators were designated as finalists.

“We asked each of the candidates to tell us why ORNL,” Rogers explained. “They did a lot of due diligence on their own, reaching out to individual researchers.”

Conerty was one of the early participants in the innovative Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education jointly operated by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and ORNL. With those ties and the entrepreneurial opportunities she experienced, it’s only natural that she has found a way to tie doctoral students in that program to the “Innovation Crossroads” teams.

“We will have Bredesen Center interns working with each team on market research and customer discovery,” Conerty says. “They will be helping the innovators get ready for their first mock board meeting in August.”

In the end, the DOE-funded program is about increasing the likelihood of success for advanced energy technologies.

“We want to build a runway for them to be successful,” Rogers says, adding the strategy involves using ORNL’s unique resources and the region’s network.”

The region needs to go all out to help them be successful. It’s good for the country, and it could also be good for the region.

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