By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
On one level, yesterday’s announcement by LeMond Composites that it is investing $125 million to expand the old Theragenics facility in Oak Ridge and hire 242 people for high-wage jobs is the type of exciting economic development that every community wants.
And, as you might expect, there was a large crowd and a good number of state and local officials on hand at the Horizon Center in Oak Ridge to celebrate the announcement and the reuse of the long vacant facility.
Yet, at another level, what might be more significant long-term is the enhancement to an already strong brand image for the region that will come as a result of the decision by an internationally-known sports star to locate his new composites manufacturing venture here.
In case the name LeMond sounds familiar, it should. The composites firm is part of LeMond Companies, a group led by three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. International manufacturers understand the importance of the work in low-cost carbon fiber production that has been underway at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for years, perhaps best showcased by the $35 million Carbon Fiber Technology Center (CFTC) opened several years ago and the more than $260-million dollar Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation led by the University of Tennessee (UT).
ORNL and UT have clearly established their reputation through numerous research partnerships and other collaborations with industry. Until yesterday, however, we have not seen an announcement that a company was actually locating here because of what is underway here. For the region, the announcement was huge – from a future economic development perspective as well as for what it means when a person as well-known as Greg LeMond says this is where we need to be.
The former professional road racing cyclist says he was exposed to his first carbon fiber bike 30 years ago. Just as weight in a car requires more energy consumption, riding like LeMond did requires more energy if the bicycle is heavier.
“It (building a low-cost composites bike) has been something that has been a dream,” LeMond says. “I came to ORNL to figure-out how to make a bike more efficient.”
During that March 2015 visit, he met Connie Jackson, then a leader in ORNL’s low-cost carbon fiber research efforts.
“You’re doing what?” LeMond recalls asking Jackson with her explanation causing him to say, “I knew this was a game changer.”
Today, LeMond Composites has executed a license with ORNL for what the company describes as “one of the most significant developments in carbon fiber production in over 50 years.” The breakthrough process will significantly reduce production costs relative to the lowest cost of industrial grade carbon fiber.
The company says it will be the first manufacturer to offer the industry-disruptive technology to the transportation, renewable energy, and infrastructure markets.
“We have assembled the only team in the world that has executed this proven technology that uniquely positions us to deliver a successful outcome for our customers and stakeholders,” LeMond said.
Jackson has been named President of LeMond Composites as well as Co-Chief Executive Officer of LeMond Companies. Ironically, she is a Roane County native and will be helping launch the company in her native county.
“Everybody wants to make a difference,” LeMond said. “With this company, we can change the world.”
Having a company and a person with his name asserting that this will happen in our region cannot be anything but really good news for the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley, its citizens, and our reputation/brand.