By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“We’re seeing significant outcomes from the investments made in TN-SCORE,” John Hopkins, the organization’s Project Director, says with a big smile on his face.
Those accomplishments range from increased research funding to more invention disclosures, successful Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards, and several new start-ups.
It has been two years since we last did a teknovation.biz post about the five-year, $24 million program whose official name is the Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage using Outreach, Research and Education. TN-SCORE’s goal is to help states like Tennessee that are not as competitive for research dollars strengthen their infrastructure to be more successful long-term.
The organization received $20 million in federal funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and another $4 million in support from its partners. The award, one of the largest ever made in Tennessee by NSF, brought together scientists, faculty and students from 11 universities and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
“We use these partners to create pipelines for innovation and workforce development,” Hopkins explains, noting the importance of leveraging key assets like the University of Tennessee (UT), Vanderbilt University and ORNL.
“We embrace these two pipelines in an integrated way,” Hopkins adds, citing the flow depicted in this document (Innovation and STEM Education page 2). “The way we’ve gone about that is multi-institutional, interdisciplinary work.”
One pipeline is pre-college engagement through graduate studies – the human capital or workforce continuum. The other is basic research that feeds innovation and applied development, ultimately being translated into commercial products.
In the case of the latter pipeline, Hopkins explains it with this simple description: “We are creating innovation that has the opportunity to impact society.” That includes licensing more technology with a high percentage involving Tennessee-based companies.
To do so, Hopkins and the TN-SCORE team have been expanding their network of partners. Key commercialization relationships today include the Technology Transfer Offices at the major institutions; Launch Tennessee, the statewide public-private partnership focused on high-growth, technology-based businesses; and regional organizations like Tech 20/20, the East Tennessee non-profit that has assisted technology start-ups for nearly 20 years.
“Not only have we seen a growth in collaborative publications and new funded research, but we are also starting to see some of the related innovations find pathways into the commercial sector,” Hopkins says. This should be music to the ears of state leaders who have advocated for more technology transfer within Tennessee.
Hopkins cited WattJoule, a company that executed a license with the UT Research Foundation for breakthrough energy storage technology, as well as two recent start-ups to prove his point that collaboration is a key ingredient.
He talked about the importance of “connected assets and programs” that assist start-ups such as LaunchTN’s SBIR grants writing activities and even individuals who serve as mentors.
One of the new companies is IOP Technologies, LLC. The Nashville-based start-up, founded by Hank Paxton, a recent Vanderbilt Ph.D. graduate, is developing a thermionic energy generation system. It recently received a Phase I SBIR award.
“The support and guidance I have received from both TN-SCORE and LaunchTN has been without equal during my journey to advance my promising research towards commercialization,” Paxton said. “I am confident this highly beneficial relationship with them will continue to grow.”
Another new start-up is Peroxygen, started by UT graduate Ming Qi to commercialize a novel method for production of hydrogen peroxide that was also developed at UT.
The TN-SCORE catalytic work has also helped produce 11 new invention disclosures at the participating institutions.
For Hopkins, it’s about how the resources have come together to deliver significant impact from the federal dollars.
“It’s not enough to be a catalyst if your ecosystem doesn’t have reactants,” he says. With the federal dollars, TN-SCORE is clearly facilitating significant progress while also bringing new players to the table.