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February 21, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Five projects selected for inaugural “Chancellor’s Innovation Fund” at UT, Knoxville

Three of the five are housed in the Tickle College of Engineering. The funding should help move their technology from the lab toward the marketplace.

Five faculty entrepreneurs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) who have developed technologies with the potential for commercialization have had their projects selected for the inaugural “Chancellor’s Innovation Fund.”

Chancellor Donde Plowman awards Ahmedullah Aziz.

These faculty, whose research ranges from athletic field safety to quantum computing, will each receive $50,000 and the support they need to help move their technology from the lab toward the marketplace. The new fund, which is administered by the Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development (ORIED), is aimed at bolstering East Tennessee’s entrepreneurship pipeline and providing a pathway to commercialize technology for faculty.

They were recognized Wednesday afternoon during an event at The Emporium in Downton Knoxville where UTK Chancellor Donde Plowman noted that “this moment has been a long time coming” since the idea was first presented to her nearly two years ago. Those pitching the fund were Deb Crawford, Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation, and Economic Development, and Marc Gibson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Partnerships and Economic Development.

Reiterating her frequently used phrase that “good is the enemy of great,” Plowman said, “We had to create pathways for innovators and entrepreneurs. We are the modern land-grant (university), and this (program) epitomizes that vision. I think of this only as a beginning.”

The five recipients were part of a group of eight that initially made pitches on October 20 at an event held in the Techstars space a few blocks from The Emporium (see article here). It is also not surprising, given the name of the fund, that three of the five winners are housed in the Tickle College of Engineering.

Marc Gibson

The recipients, who were honored at an award ceremony on February 21, were chosen through a rigorous process that included a pitch competition where they were asked to describe the benefits of their technology and how the funding would help propel their ideas to market.

Evaluations of the projects were based on their ability to address an unmet market need, the current state of technology, the proposed technology development plan, and the funding’s impact on commercialization. UT Research Foundation supported the program by evaluating proposals and coaching participants.

“We often talk about conducting research that makes life and lives better and the ‘Chancellor’s Innovation Fund’ is a perfect example of putting these words into action,” said Rob Coleman, ORIED’s Director of Entrepreneurship and New Ventures. “Our five awardees will utilize this funding over the next 12 months to refine their technology, develop prototypes, and conduct validation testing to ensure their solutions are addressing specific customer needs.”

The five inaugural winners are:

  • Ahmedullah Aziz, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the Tickle College, is working on a project that seeks to revolutionize superconducting processors essential for quantum computing, high-performance computing systems, and space electronics.
  • Jian Huang, a Professor, also in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was awarded funding for a project that is based on his research in the fields of visualization, big data, and cloud computing. He coined the term Visualization-as-a-Service, or VaaS, and his project aims to create intelligent VaaS to generate analysis and visualization apps for users, especially those working in organizations that need to use big data but cannot afford to hire their own data scientists.
  • Todd Reynolds, a Professor in the Department of Microbiology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and doctoral student Jordan Cannon are focused on engineering bacterial proteins that can degrade the bioplastic polylactic acid to make them more heat-resistant. The proteins can then be more versatile in biodegradation and recycling applications that require high temperatures.
  • John Sorochan, Distinguished Professor of Turfgrass Science and Management in the UT Institute of Agriculture, and Kyley Dickson, Researcher and Co-Director of the UT Center for Athletic Field Safety, were awarded funds for a testing device called fLEX, which measures the performance and playability of surfaces, typically sports surfaces. The device, which they conceived of together, is portable and can simulate the foot strike of an athlete ranging from 35 to 350 pounds doing a stopping or accelerating motion.
  • The final award went to Uday Vaidya, a UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Advanced Composites Manufacturing, Researcher Pritesh Yeole, and Graduate Research Assistant Vinit Chaudhary, all in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering in the Tickle College. Their project involves creating value-added material forms from carbon, glass, and natural fibers. It can be compared to combing out a ball of tangled hair. The funding will be used to expand the scale of the carding and combing to produce materials that will enable prototype parts to be produced that can be discussed with potential customers.

Ironically, Alan David Ferguson, a Senior Manager with FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, was in Knoxville for meetings with Sorochan who works with the organization as a Special Advisor on turf issues.

You can learn much more about each winner and their work by clicking here.

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