Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
Spark Scholars
April 03, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

From classroom to career | Spark Scholars creates unique opportunities for UTK students

So far in 2024, the Spark Scholars program supports 12 interns across eight companies.

The initiative to spur more cleantech start-ups in East Tennessee won’t be possible without an interested and engaged workforce. Once a start-up gets its sea legs, how does it transition into hiring? Where do founders find qualified talent?

The Spark Scholars program is a collaboration with several  University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) organizations including the Center for Materials Processing (CMP) and the Spark Innovation Center at the UT Research Park. They have developed a solution to address that gap that seamlessly connects qualified students with start-ups, providing a path to employment after graduation. It’s a “win-win.”

It’s an internship program, where half of the student’s pay is funded through CMP, and the other half is funded by a company that is part of the Spark program. It uniquely brings extra hands to the table, at a cost that is manageable for a new company. Several students who participated in Spark Scholars have locked in a full-time paid position with the company upon graduation.

Lilly Tench

Here’s how it works: A start-up in one of the Spark-sponsored programs – the Spark Cleantech Accelerator or Spark Incubator –  applies for a sponsored internship, either with a specific student in mind or open for interviews. On the other side, UTK Students apply, interview, and then are strategically placed with the companies they most align with.

“There’s a lot of room for these students to grow and develop their skills throughout the program,” said Lilly Tench, the Director of the Spark Innovation Center.

The program has grown significantly in the last few years.

The pilot program began in the summer of 2022 with two undergraduates. It grew to eight students and five companies in the summer of 2023. So far in 2024, there are 12 interns across eight companies.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in the program on both the student and startup side,” Tench said, “It’s meeting a real need for both companies and interns. I think it will only grow from here.”

According to the Spark Innovation Center, interns have worked on research and development projects involving batteries, carbon capture, nanomaterial synthesis, micro-mobility solutions, and more. They are working directly with the founders and experiencing the ins and outs of starting a cleantech business.

Sky Nano, which recently opened its new headquarters in Louisville, is one of the participating companies for the Spark Scholars program. In an interview with Founder, Anna Douglas, she said the program has been a “game-changer” for getting plugged in with students and candidates.

“We had an intern through the program, Lucy Moore, and we connected and liked her so much that we decided to extend a full-time job offer to her before she started her senior year,” Douglas said.

Lucy Moore and Michael Dickey-SkyNano (summer 2023)
Lucy Moore and Michael Dickey-SkyNano- Courtesy: Spark Innovation Center

Moore has been working for the carbon nanotube company since she graduated in May of 2023.

This is only one example of how student internships led to full-time job opportunities. Holocene and FC Renew are also examples of companies that have taken advantage of the program and currently employ Spark Scholar interns.

As mentioned, the program is sponsored by the CMP which bankrolls 50 percent of the student’s wages.

“We added two new companies to the program this year, and that speaks to just how valuable this resource has become for our Spark companies,” said Andy Sarles, the Associate Director of Industrial Relations for the CMP.

The CMP gets its funding through UTK, which is funded by taxpayer dollars. He said Spark Scholars is a really good use of that money because it’s making a visible, tangible change in the community.

“It’s a state investment toward career development, technological development, supporting small businesses, and keeping our UTK students in Knoxville. This is good for us,” Sarles said.

You can learn more about the program by reading the UTK article here.

Visit the UT Research Park website.


Don’t Miss Out on the Southeast’s Latest Entrepreneurial, Business, & Tech News!

Sign-up to get the Teknovation Newsletter in your inbox each morning!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

No, thanks!