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June 28, 2023 | Tom Ballard

COMMENTARY: New “Knoxville Innovation Report” outlines the challenges. Do we have the will to seize the moment?

The benchmark document from the Knoxville Chamber measures the region against peer communities in everything from most-educated population to SBIR and STTR awards, patents issued, and the all-important innovation index.

The first-ever “Knoxville Innovation Report” that the Knoxville Chamber issued Wednesday concludes that “having great assets is no longer enough. If the Knoxville area is to fulfill its economic promise, it will need to do so by embracing and being a leader in innovation.”

The reference to great assets is obviously to the “Big 3” – Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Tennessee Valley Authority, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) – and related entities. The latter include ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and National Transportation Research Center, UT’s Research Park at Cherokee Farm, and the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute. There’s also the Electric Power Research Institute.

From my two previous careers, I learned just how much other communities envied those assets, yet today many of those states, regions and cities are leveraging the assets that are in our backyard better than we do.

In the introduction, the authors write, “The purpose of this report is to assess the innovation economy of the Knoxville region by identifying (35) industry sectors and (58) occupations that are best aligned with the future trends of the ‘Imagination Age,’ as well as the opportunities and challenges the region faces in becoming a leading hub in innovation, technology, and research and development (R&D).”

For those not familiar with the term “Imagination Age,” it was coined by Next Conference’s Martin Recke to define the shift from the third industrial revolution (i.e., the Digital Age) to the fourth.

The report emphasizes that the Brookings Institution identified in early 2020 the top 35 regions with the potential to become the country’s innovation growth center, and Knoxville “checked in at #31, just ahead of communities such as Charlotte and Birmingham, but behind peer regions like Lexington, Nashville, and Greenville.”

That possibility is juxtaposed against a backdrop of rankings that one might say tell a more sobering or at least challenging story.

  • The latest edition of the “Innovation CitiesTM Index” from 2thinknow rates regions and cities around the world. In the U.S., Knoxville at #63 is behind peer cities like Nashville (#31), Memphis (#45), and Raleigh-Durham (#49), but ahead of Lexington, KY (#76), Chattanooga (#77), and Greenville, SC (#84). Knoxville moved up two spots, but Memphis jumped 27 places, Raleigh-Durham 21 spots, and Greenville 14.
  • Heartland Forward ranked cities based on factors such as young firm employment share, young firm knowledge intensity, per capita personal income, and employment growth. Knoxville was ranked #76 among 384 cities, behind Nashville and three North Carolina cities – Raleigh, Durham and Asheville – but ahead of Huntsville (#84), Chattanooga (#95), Memphis (#135), Greenville (#138), and Lexington (#182).
  • Separately, Heartland Forward ranked technology transfer programs at both public and private universities that are most proficient in creating new knowledge, embedding it into their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates, and transferring both to new and existing enterprises. UT ranked #98, but programs such as the new UT Research Foundation’s Accelerator Fund is designed to help address that ranking.
  • Wallet Hub, whose rankings we frequently post, rated the top 150 most-educated regions. Knoxville came in at #90, not surprisingly behind Durham (#7), Raleigh (#8), and Huntsville (#21). Other peers ahead of Knoxville included Lexington (#24), Asheville (#28), and Nashville (#48). Those trailing Knoxville included Greenville (#95), Memphis (#104), and Chattanooga (#112).
  • Two federal programs that financially support technology-focused companies are the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) initiatives. In the five-year period through 2022, there were 54 SBIR awards to companies in the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and 12 STTR grant recipients. How did the region rank? Huntsville had 575 awardees – 457 winners of SBIRs and 118 STTR recipients, while Durham had a combined 431 winners, and Raleigh checked in with 251 recipients.
  • Two other areas were also spotlighted. One was patents issued although the data were more dated, ending in 2015. The other compared engineering and computer science graduates among UTK’s peer institutions.

Now that there is a comprehensive baseline, it’s up to the region’s leaders – public and private – to ensure that progress is made before the next iteration of the report is issued in 2025. We have the assets. Do we have the will?

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