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March 26, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Millhorn discusses strategic research areas

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series generated from a recent interview with David Millhorn, Executive Vice President of the University of Tennessee, about the past eight years and the future. Additional articles will focus on interviews with Dick Gourley, Interim President of the UT Research Foundation, and David Washburn, the Foundation’s Vice President.)

During our recent interview with David Millhorn, the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Executive Vice President talked at length about the foundation that has been established for significant future progress.

“We have spectacular people to work with,” he says, noting that was not the case when he arrived nearly eight years ago.

The relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has never been stronger. Both UT and ORNL now understand they “can add value to each other’s work” in a number of research areas, exemplified by ORNL’s work in low-cost carbon fiber and UT’s in biomass.

“It’s all about leverage,” Millhorn says.

Describing UT as “a small university when it comes to science,” he emphasized, “We have to be strategic; we can’t be good at everything. We have to establish excellence in two or three areas in conjunction with the lab.”

So, the natural question was, “What are those strategic areas?” Not surprisingly, they revolve around big science and data, coupled with a very supportive infrastructure.

Millhorn described three “waves of innovation” that have impacted higher education. The first one was passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 that spurred the creation of land-grant colleges. The second was the post-World War II era that accelerated federal R&D funding from $2 billion annually to $150 billion now.

“The third is computing at the extreme,” Millhorn said in describing an area where UT is a recognized higher education leader along with ORNL. “We’re at the forefront, and we have to continue to lead.”

With the emphasis on big science and big data, it was only natural for Millhorn to say that “we have to continuously keep it (our relationship with ORNL) number one.” He also talked about the importance of staying linked with the Governor’s priorities as well as those of the local community.

Millhorn believes that Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus will increasingly be an important asset in the future. “It is staged now with a good leader and good vision,” he says, describing R&D park as the vehicle to help bring together federal, private and university interests in meaningful partnerships.

“Federal funding is not going to increase,” he says, describing future research growth for UT as being linked to private funding – a $350 to $400 billion annual market – and the creation of strong public-private partnerships.

One such partnership that UT is pursuing with Terry Douglass of ProNova Solutions is an Institute for Radiological Sciences and Imaging that would leverage the individual strengths of ProNova, ORNL and UT.

An important part of Millhorn’s vision relies on more successful execution by the UT Research Foundation (UTRF).  “We’ve asked Technology Transfer to be strategic and more aggressive. UTRF has to become a player in our strategies to engage the private sector more.”

He reminded us that you have to measure progress in these sorts of research activities in decades, not years. With the foundation set and the defining strategies for success determined, Millhorn is extremely optimistic about the future for this region, the state and UT. One only wonders what the dreamer has “up his sleeve” as the next “big idea.”

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