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March 12, 2014 | Tom Ballard

Jesse Smith changes homerooms, but stays focused on composites

ORNL_outline(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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 arrived in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley five years ago with the experience of a Marine, and he has not wavered in his quest to make a difference.

One of his most important mentors – Troy Cain – taught him to always ask the customer what was needed rather than just focus on what you were trying to sell. During his nearly five years was Director of Technology for Innovation Valley, Smith consistently followed that advice.

“I worked to get people connected with the right researcher at ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) or UT (University of Tennessee) to create an economic development opportunity,” he explained. While he was technology agnostic, Smith maintained a passion for polymers and composites, carryovers from his tenure in Mississippi.

From his Innovation Valley post, he was instrumental in landing for Knoxville Composites World’s “Carbon Fiber 2013” conference. The December international conference brought 280 people to the region, nearly double the expected number.

Just weeks ago, Local Motors announced execution of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with ORNL to produce the first direct digital manufactured car, drawing on ORNL’s materials science and additive manufacturing expertise.

That effort also had Smith’s handprints on it. He met a Local Motors executive at a national conference, heard of the company’s plans, and pursued the opportunity with the passion of a Marine taking a hill.

Last October Smith changed homerooms, joining ORNL as Manager of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development.

“I have better reach into the lab by being here,” Smith explained. The move also allows him to be even more involved in composites, a technology area that he believes can be a significant differentiator for the region.

Smith justifies his belief by citing the region’s rich assets – ORNL’s $35 million Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, world-class researchers working to develop processes to deliver low-cost carbon fiber, and a world-class composites lab that Roane State Community College operates in the Halcyon Center in the Oak Ridge Science and Technology Park.

While the ex-Marine is persistent and optimistic, he also is realistic. Carbon fiber is still an expensive alternative, although ORNL researchers are working to change the financials.

“When carbon fiber scales, we are off to the races,” Smith says of the technology and the economic development opportunities for the region.

Until then, however, he regularly reminds us, “The near-term opportunity is not in carbon fiber, but in composites. You will only use carbon fiber-reinforced composites where you need its strength.”

Smith also notes that other materials are in the mix. Indicative of this belief is a quote from a speaker at “Carbon Fiber 2013” that he keeps on his mobile phone. It reads as follows: “Aluminum is the best lightweight material for cost, weight and processability.”

Smith, citing the recently unveiled F-150 pick-up truck, explains that aluminum allows vehicle manufacturers to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards through existing processes, existing suppliers, and at the right cost.

The polymer science graduate, economic developer, and company business developer could not be happier in his new role at ORNL. Smith understands all sides of the equation.

“I’m trying to create market pull,” he says in describing his role.

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