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April 14, 2015 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Long-time friendship, collaboration help win NSF grant

UT Knoxville(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a three-part series exploring a successful university-private partnership that recently won a major National Science Foundation grant.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

George Pharr and Warren Oliver have been friends and research collaborators for nearly 30 years. Their professional relationship proved extremely valuable when Pharr and colleagues at the University of Tennessee (UT) competed for and successfully won a major National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

“I’ve been working with Warren since 1985,” Pharr said. “We became close friends through our hobby of flying model airplanes.”

Their friendship is based on more than just their common interest in model airplanes. It was Oliver’s wife who introduced Pharr to Marilyn Walker, a UT staff member at the time who would eventually become Marilyn Pharr, his wife for more than three decades.

“Warren and I also have had this research collaboration for many, many years, and we’ve made a difference,” Pharr said of the Co-Founder of Oak Ridge-based Nanomechanics, Inc. We previously profiled Oliver in a two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2) in September 2012.

Today, Pharr holds several titles including Director of the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAMS). It is a collaboration between UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory with a new 140,000-square-foot research facility under construction on UT’s Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus on Alcoa Highway.

Over the three decades that the two have collaborated, they have developed the “Oliver-Pharr method for measuring hardness.”

So, it was only natural that Pharr looked to his long-time friend and research collaborator when UT needed a commercial partner for its NSF proposal. After all, Nanomechanics builds equipment that enables itscustomers to “evaluate and understand the mechanical performance of their materials on the micro- and nano-scales.”

“Warren is a hardware guy,” Pharr notes. “He makes things work.”

The university-private company partnership came together two years ago when Pharr noticed a call from NSF.

“It (the NSF program) had been around a long time,” he says. “For some reason, it caught my attention this time. What they wanted was something we were uniquely qualified to do.”

That reality set in motion a process to respond to the solicitation with a compelling proposal that was submitted in December 2012.

Pharr explained that he thought the proposal that UT submitted “really made sense.” When it was rejected, he decided to try to understand the reasoning and learned that it had been reviewed by the wrong division within NSF.

“You’ve written this proposal as if you want to build an instrument,” Pharr says he learned from conversations with NSF officials. “They told us we needed to focus on the research, then how to build a device.”

Armed with that intelligence, the team basically reordered the parts of the previous proposal – research first and instrument construction second – and resubmitted it.

“I was not optimistic,” Pharr says, adding, “The second time was a charm.”

UT won a $2.2 million, five-year grant from NSF, and work began last August.

NEXT: An overview of the NSF project.

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