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October 24, 2019 | Tom Ballard

Boyd, Zacharia showcase importance of UT and ORNL brands at GOVCON

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

At the beginning of yesterday’s opening session at GOVCON, the annual “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development (ECD),” and again at the end, Commissioner Bob Rolfe observed that “this was more fun than a PowerPoint presentation.”

He was referring to a lively and insight-filled panel discussion that he moderated featuring Randy Boyd, Interim President of the University of Tennessee (UT), and Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

In introducing the two, Rolfe said, “In the business we’re in, it’s all about the brand. We are judged by the brands that call Tennessee home,” noting how valuable the UT and ORNL brands are in ECD’s efforts to sell the State of Tennessee to prospects.

Over the next 45 minutes, the leaders of two of the Volunteer State’s greatest assets did not disappoint as they talked about how they and their organizations are leveraging each other in ways that benefit not only ORNL and UT but the entire state. They did it in a way that clearly showed the camaraderie that exists between them.

For example, early in the panel session, Zacharia concluded a review of ORNL’s assets and the reasons his family has remained here so long with a challenge to Boyd: “Top that, Randy.” The effervescent UT Interim President said, “I’m your boss,” to which ORNL’s Director quickly said, “You’re the best boss I’ve ever had!”

Zacharia, who has spent most of his professional career at ORNL, noted that the lab’s annual budget has grown from $500 million right before UT-Battelle LLC assumed management on April 1, 2000 to $2.1 billion this past year. That clearly underscored the interdependency between the two enterprises.

“We are the largest science lab in the country,” he said, adding that ORNL hired 877 new scientists and engineers in the just concluded fiscal year. “We attract the best and brightest.”

Boyd noted that the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, a joint effort of UT and ORNL, has 128 Fellows who are part of the “best and brightest” and 16 Governor’s Chairs that the two institutions share.

Explaining that UT has 1,200 faculty members and only one-third are in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, Zacharia talked about the importance of UT leveraging ORNL’s scientists to supplement needed skills.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity came from ORNL’s Director.

“Why are we not RTP or Route 128,” Zacharia asked. “No other place on this planet has a computer as fast as ORNL does or the world’s most powerful neutron source. We are the best in the world.”

He then suggested that Grenoble, France was a model that could and should be replicated in East Tennessee, referring to GIANT, the acronym for the Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies initiative.

“We have all those assets (that Grenoble has) and more,” Zacharia declared.

GOVCON attracts about 750 attendees, most falling into either a local government category or an economic development role. Recognizing that reality, Rolfe asked how attendees should connect to ORNL and UT.

Zacharia quickly called-out Jesse Smith, a familiar name to many readers of because of his work across East Tennessee. In Boyd’s case, he said that he did not have a Smith, so he gave attendees his email address.

No economic development event occurs without workforce development being a key topic, and Boyd drew appreciative applause when he mentioned the new UT Promise. Under the program, any Tennessee high school graduate who meets eligibility standards can attend UT’s Chattanooga, Knoxville or Martin campus with tuition and fees covered if that person’s family income is below $50,000 annually.

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