(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on Jesse Smith, formerly of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley, and now part of the S&T Partnerships Directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Jesse Smith believes there is a reason for everything, including his arrival a little more than five years ago to serve as the first Director of Technology for the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley.
“I have been very blessed to have career choices that many people would die for,” he says.
Prior to arriving in East Tennessee, the Mississippi native was an Economic Developer with Mississippi Power Company when an unexpected call from a former classmate in the “Basic Economic Development Short Course” conducted by the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) altered the course of his professional career.
“I was happy at Mississippi Power and thought I was done moving,” Smith says. That changed when Kyle Touchstone, then a member of the Knoxville Chamber’s economic development team, called about a new opportunity with Innovation Valley.
“Kyle knew I was an economic developer and technologist,” Smith said in explaining his undergraduate degree in polymer science coupled with 12 years of experience in composites – nine at the nationally-renowned Mississippi Polymer Institute and three with Dickten Masch Plastics – and two years with Mississippi Power.
For a former Marine, the opportunity to take on a new challenge and work in a region with the Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory were too much. Today, instead of simply working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Smith is actually working for ORNL, connecting companies needing technological expertise with the lab’s rich scientific pool.
“I wanted to leverage ORNL,” Smith explained of his Innovation Valley role. “I never thought I would be at ORNL.”
He joined the lab last October as Manager of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development, bringing his Marine Corps passion to his new role.
Smith’s professional life is one in which opportunities seem to open at just the right time.
One of the earliest occurred when he was nearing graduation with his bachelor’s degree with plans to pursue an MBA while working for one of his professors.
“The corporate funding fell through,” Smith said. “At that very instance, the Mississippi Polymer Institute came into existence.”
The new graduate joined the new Institute as Manager of Marketing and Economic Development.
“We built a program from the ground up for the Institute to use equipment in the $80 million USM Polymer Science Research Center to solve problems in industry,” Smith explained. “We became very successful solving big problems and helping companies make new products.”
Smith’s work, particularly one-page success stories that the Institute produced, caught the attention of the predecessor organization to today’s Mississippi Development Authority.
“The state wanted to use the success stories as a recruiting tool,” Smith said in highlighting how his business development job became an economic development function, too. One of his big success stories was helping the state recruit Dickten Masch Plastics to Hattiesburg.
After nine years at the Polymer Institute, Smith decided it was time for a change. He made a blind call to Dickten Masch’s top local executive, inquiring about a potential position in business development.
The full service plastics company hired him, and Smith spent the next three years “learning how to do business development and sales.” His accounts included well-known brands like Viking Range, Husqvarna, Howard Industries and Peevey Guitars.
Dickten Masch was acquired and began making significant changes in its Hattiesburg plant. Those developments convinced Smith it was time to move. A month after he left, the plant closed, but not before Smith was on his economic development path with Mississippi Power.
We’ll cover the ex-Marine’s arrival in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley in part two of this series.