Mike Cuddy reflects on Tech 20/20 through the years

 

Only a handful of individuals can claim to have been “officially” associated with Technology 2020 (or Tech 20/20 as it was recently rebranded) for its entire existence, and only one person can claim to have served as both a board Chair and CEO. That individual is Mike Cuddy, who has announced his retirement from the top leadership position at the end of the month.

Cuddy was on the organizing board in the early1990s and served as the second chair of the board of directors. He served continuously on the board until resigning in late 2008 to become CEO, succeeding Tom Rogers who had joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) earlier that year as Director of Industrial and Economic Development Partnerships.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Cuddy reflected on his nearly 20-year history with Tech 20/20 and a 45-year career in Oak Ridge. He recalled the impetus for creating the organization, the initial strategy and early challenges, the growth years and, more recently, the impact of the multi-year recession.

“In many respects, it’s déjà vu all over again,” he said, noting that the Oak Ridge community is concerned today about economic challenges with federal funding just as it was 20 years ago.

In the late 1980s, Cuddy was a manager with Martin Marietta and later Lockheed Martin. He recalled that Oak Ridge was dealing with cutbacks such as closure of the Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

“Gene Joyce, a long-time Oak Ridge leader, said we need an information teleport,” Cuddy said. Joyce pulled together a core group including Rogers, who was head of the Oak Ridge Chamber; Mayor Al Bissell and his son, Keith, then a member of the old Tennessee Public Service Commission; and Pete Craven, another long-time community leader.

“It was all about diversification of the local economy,” Cuddy noted.

The core group recruited additional individuals from the region such as Alex Fischer with the former Tennessee’s Resource Valley organization and Homer Fisher, a senior executive at UT. They secured funding from BellSouth to build a facility in Commerce Park in Oak Ridge. The BellSouth funding also provided five years of operating support.

Over the next decade, Tech 20/20 added programs and broadened its regional impact with Rogers as CEO and a diversified board of directors on which Cuddy has continuously served since its creation. (EDITOR’S NOTE: I served on the founding board, left the board for seven years and have since returned.)

“We took on the role of a pioneer,” Cuddy said.

In his view, several key initiatives clearly made a difference. They included the emphasis on creating more investment capital in the region, launching the Digital Crossing (DC) shared services center in Downtown Knoxville, establishing the Information Technology Business Association that is now known as the Tennessee Valley Technology Council, launching the “Venture Forum” that has morphed into the “Entrepreneurial Imperative,” and creating the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth (CEG).

Cuddy said Southeastern Community Capital (SCC), which was founded by Tech 20/20 and later spun-out, “is a real high water mark and credit” for the organization. SCC is now known as Pathway Lending with a $100 million loan fund.

Another wise decision was “investing in a data center in downtown Knoxville” that became known as the Digital Crossing. With grants and other investments, DC was launched and provided funding “that allowed the institution (Tech 20/20) to do things that would otherwise not have been possible,” Cuddy said.

He also cited 1999 as a particularly significant year when the U.S. Department of Energy issued an RFP for the management of ORNL, and a partnership comprised of UT and Battelle Memorial Institute won. “This was really, really good for the region,” Cuddy said, because of the role that UT-Battelle, LLC assigned to Tech 20/20 for technology commercialization.

“This was a real boost to our region,” Cuddy said, because it led to the creation of the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth (CEG) to work with start-ups that licensed ORNL technologies. “Soon after that, UT followed suit” with a similar CEG program for its licensees.

Cuddy noted that the CEG expanded beyond the Oak Ridge-Knoxville region to help start similar programs in Chattanooga and Western North Carolina. The organization also manages a CEG program for the National Institute for Hometown Security in Somerset, KY.

Cuddy took over as CEO at a time when the nation’s economic challenges were accelerating and Tech 20/20’s nearly 15-year old facility was beginning to show its age. Investment capital was more challenging for start-ups to secure, and the Digital Crossing lost its best customer. In spite of these challenges, Cuddy believes that Tech 20/20 has weathered the storm and is poised for long-term success.

  • He cites the recent sale of the Digital Crossing which provides a $1.5 million cash reserve for Tech 20/20.
  • He talks about a strong relationship that he has developed with Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson and the planned renaming of the Tech 20/20 building as the “Oak Ridge Tech Commercialization Center” to highlight the importance of start-ups to the city’s future.
  • He cites the key role that CEG is playing in the new East Tennessee Regional Accelerator Coalition (ETRAC), one of nine regional accelerators funded in part by grants from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
  • He talks about a strong staff, although he regrets recent staff reductions that were necessary in light of the loss of cash flow from the Digital Crossing.
  • He cites the new partnership with Solidus called “Venture Incite” as a key foundation for success.

As to what the future holds for Cuddy, he said that he is still considering options, but he expects to undertake “projects for friends” and might even consider engaging with a start-up. In the meantime, he said, “It has been an honor for me to have worked with our outstanding Board of Directors and to have been a part of the Tech 20/20 family for the past 20 years.”

UT’s Fred Tompkins, 2012 board Chair, expressed the board’s appreciation for Cuddy’s years of service and his “nice accomplishments” during his tenure as CEO, and wished him well in his new pursuits.

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