(EDITOR’S NOTE: The article that follows is the latest in a series of profiles on the parks in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley and their unique roles in accelerating the growth of technology-based enterprises in the region.)
Innovation Valley’s most visible science and technology park used to be home to cattle, but it will soon be home to a robust research and development enterprise with groundbreaking for the first building occurring later this year.
The University of Tennessee’s (UT) Cherokee Farm is seen by thousands of drivers who travel Alcoa Highway near the UT Medical Center. Until recently, it housed the University’s Dairy Farm, but the cattle have been relocated and site preparation is nearing completion. The $30 million infrastructure improvement project should be completed by the end of the summer.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, UT Executive Vice President David Millhorn said the initial vision for the site “has been fine-tuned” and groundbreaking for the first facility – the 144,000 square foot Joint Institute for Advanced Materials – will occur in late August or early September.
Materials provided by Millhorn describe Cherokee Farm as “an interdisciplinary research campus that focuses on solving problems of national significance.” UT believes the research campus will enhance its ability to “promote economic development, maximize unique resources and partnerships, and take a national leadership position in innovative research.”
Cherokee Farm is not only focused on drawing on the research and development occurring at UT, but also at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) which UT co-manages with Battelle Memorial Institute.
“We’re looking for private investment and partnerships that are good for UT and ORNL,” Millhorn said. Areas that he regular cites are computational, neutron and materials sciences and renewable energy.
Some of the fine-tuning that Millhorn referenced will allow the park to operate more like a business. One example is the creation of Cherokee Farm Development Corporation as a 501(c)(3) organization to facilitate development and “do deals with developers.”
“We are working on a master lease with the State Building Commission (SBC) that allows subleasing of the land by UT without going back to the SBC every time as long as we follow the approved development guidelines,” Millhorn said.
UT is also working with Pintoresco Advisors, LLC on a marketing strategy that is focused on Fortune 500 companies.
“We are poised to do well,” Millhorn says, but adds that there are some strategies that he and the team are still addressing.
“If we are going to attract small companies, we have to have space ready,” he says, explaining that a biotech start-up company, for example, will not wait more than six months for space. This means “shell” or speculative space is needed, but the challenge is to build a business model that will fund the space while it is vacant. Millhorn talks about creating a “bridge fund” to address this need.
Cherokee Farm will also pursue established companies, although Millhorn clearly says that UT doesn’t “want to recruit people who would not benefit” from being so close to the campus and its researchers.
The park will have a significant amount of green areas when the 200-acre site is fully developed to 1 to 1.5 million square feet of space. R&D operations will occupy much of the office and lab space, but Millhorn noted that Cherokee Farm will have unique features such as an amphitheater for social events and lectures.
“It’s a nice touch and will bring the people working at Cherokee Farm together,” he said.
He also says that “a hotel is still on the books,” but acknowledges that such a venture “would have to have a (business) model that works for them.”
With the strong emphasis by Governor Bill Haslam on seeing more commercialization of university technologies, Millhorn says that Cherokee Farm will “dedicate space in each building – part of a floor – to incubation.”
“We haven’t really modeled ourselves after other parks,” Millhorn said. “We are creating something fairly specific, but it’s a 10- to 15-year effort.”
Sustainability, preservation of mature trees on the site, and development of well-defined public places are several of the design principles for Cherokee Farm.