(EDITOR’S NOTE: The University of Tennessee Research Foundation is holding its inaugural “Tennessee Venture Challenge” finale later today. In this interview, the organization’s President shares his thoughts on research and commercialization.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
David Millhorn is passionate about research and the impact that scientific discovery can have on individuals, society and the economy.
As the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Executive President and Vice President for Research and Economic Development, the Hamilton County native oversees a variety of activities – from the institution’s management relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the UT Research Foundation (UTRF).
Millhorn recently assumed the role of UTRF President following the departure of David Washburn for Michigan State University. It’s an opportunity to continue to shape the evolution of a portfolio of activities that fall under the UTRF umbrella.
He says that the organization is in “better shape than it was” before Washburn’s arrival in late 2011, but adds that “there’s still progress to be made.”
At the top of his list is diversification, a word that Millhorn repeated at least five times during our recent conversation.
He talks about new initiatives such as managing start-ups and overseeing contract research.
“We need to explore what else we can do other than technology transfer,” he says in reference to the primary role that UTRF does. In fact, UTRF is the umbrella for organizations like Cherokee Farm, TennEra, and older initiatives such as the Tennessee Solar Institute and Tennessee Biofuels Initiative.
Millhorn would like to see UTRF do a better job of leveraging these assets.
“Cherokee Farm could have labs to further advance our agriculture start-ups,” he says in citing one example of the leveraging he visualizes.
“Like anything else, diversification protects you,” Millhorn observes, again reiterating the theme of a broadened role for UTRF.
“We need to be the best business partner for the community,” he adds. “The relationship between UT and companies is good, but there is an opportunity to do more.”
In terms of the technology transfer role, Millhorn also has a clear set of expectations, starting with further increasing invention disclosures that nearly doubled last year and doing more and better engagement with researchers.
“We’ve got to grow it – number one, not just with staff, but with people who can work with researchers,” he says.
Millhorn praised his two UTRF Vice Presidents – Richard Magid in Memphis and Stacey Patterson in Knoxville. The latter took on the UTRF role in addition to her work as Assistant Vice President in Millhorn’s Office.
“My role is to have my hand on the rudder, keeping it (UTRF) going down the right channel,” he explained.