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Earlier than expected “seed capital” investment will accelerate UT-ORII initiatives

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Thanks to a recommendation by Governor Bill Lee and action by the Tennessee General Assembly in the 2022 session, the state’s “seed capital” investment in the University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute (UT-ORII) was fully committed years ahead of the plan.

“It allows us to be more strategic,” Joan Bienvenue, UT-ORII Executive Director, says. She and her team can accelerate their plans to fully capitalize on the region’s two great assets – UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory – as they build partnerships around the region and beyond. It’s an opportunity that continues to excite the new Institute’s leader more than 18 months into her tenure.

“We’re taking a vision of doing things together and figuring out how to align different resources,” Bienvenue adds. “The most fun part of my job is getting people to work together.”

She assumed leadership for UT-ORII in early March 2021, coming to the region from Charlottesville, VA where she had served as Senior Executive Director of the Applied Research Institute at the University of Virginia (UVA). Bienvenue (pictured here), who also serves as Vice Provost of UT, Knoxville, helped launch the UVA Institute in June 2013.

A good example of her efforts to get disparate groups to work together was the innovative second-life battery storage project that was announced in mid-June during the 2022 “Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit” in Washington, DC. The idea for partnering on a project came a year earlier when Bienvenue and Betsey Kirk McCall, President and Chief Executive Officer of Seven States Power Corporation, met while sitting together on a panel at the 2021 TVC Summit.

“After talking just a few times, we discovered this area of need and opportunity that we felt by working together we could really make a difference,” Bienvenue said. That conversation led to the expanded partnership described in this teknovation.biz article that includes Nissan, Middle Tennessee Electric, Tennessee State University, Seven States Power, and UT-ORII. They are teaming up on a project to repurpose used electric vehicle (EV) batteries from the Nissan LEAF, giving them a “second life” as a Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) for the Nissan electrical system at Nissan America’s headquarters in Franklin, TN.

The project exemplifies what Bienvenue characterizes as her philosophy of “finding the right people . . . a coalition of the willing.” It also underscores her commitment to public-private partnerships that advance priority research areas.

When we interviewed her – we see each other regularly at various events – Bienvenue was laser-focused on several major recruitments. Two involve UT-ORNL Governor’s Chairs in data science and artificial intelligence. Another set of recruitments includes joint faculty in two priority research areas – clean manufacturing and energy storage.

“They (those hired) have to be able to work well with both UT and ORNL,” she says.

With UT-ORII’s major emphasis on workforce, UT-ORII is hiring an Education Director. It’s part of a core role for the new Institute.

“Matching our workforce and the business climate and needs will propel Tennessee forward,” Bienvenue says, citing areas ranging from the automotive industry, one of the Volunteer State’s strengths, to nuclear, a well-known strength in Oak Ridge, and the lesser known but significantly important area of radioisotopes.

One of those emerging workforce initiatives for which Bienvenue has nothing but praise is America’s Cutting Edge (ACE), a Department of Defense (DoD) program to help revitalize American manufacturing. Through ACE, DoD established a national machine tool training program developed by UT, Knoxville Professor Tony Schmitz. The program brings together the scientific expertise of ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and the workforce development leadership of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, better known as IACMI.

“He’s everything you want in a collaborator,” she says of Schmitz, who is also one of UT-ORII’s first fellows and seed grant recipients, and Director of both the SEAMTN and Machine Tool Research Center.

Recognized nationally for his manufacturing education leadership and service in machining science and technology, Schmitz leads the ACE training initiative that is focused on reestablishing American leadership in the machine tool industry through transformative thinking, technology innovation, and workforce development. Schmitz developed the two-part curriculum that provides essential manufacturing skills through a modular, interactive, learn-at-your-own-pace course on modern CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machining fundamentals.

One part is a six-hour online course that offers instruction like a flight simulator. The second component is an in-person, 30-hour course, where participants machine five parts of an air piston.

Bienvenue describes the workforce initiative as “building a pathway, not a pipeline.” That enables people to get on and off as they choose.

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