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March 22, 2016 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Oldham, Soni focused on environment that spawns creativity

TTU(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series focused on the strategies that Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville has to help drive economic development in the region and beyond.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

During our recent discussion with two top administrators at Tennessee Tech University (TTU), President Phil Oldham asked one of those provocative questions related to innate skills individuals are born with versus those they acquire through education.

“Can you teach creativity,” he asked, then answered, “I don’t know if you can teach it, but you can encourage it and create an environment where it can flourish.”

Oldham does not just say those words. He and his team, including Bharat Soni, TTU’s Vice President for Research and Economic Development, are laser-focused on providing the infrastructure that enables a robust, creative ecosystem to flourish on campus.

A key centerpiece of their strategy is a relatively new and still evolving entity called iCube. The tagline – imagine, inspire, innovate – appropriately describes the origin of the name.

Located in an area of the Volpe Library, iCube is still evolving, but it already houses everything from a makerspace that faculty and students can use to create prototypes to a 3D virtual reality development capability that is being used by several organizations. One is the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga that sees it benefitting its education initiatives.

The iCube technology and innovation center also exemplifies the interdisciplinary and collaborative philosophy that Oldham and Soni espouse. Three departments –the Colleges of Business and Engineering and Soni’s office – share responsibility for the operation of iCube,

“We are using iCube as a conduit for interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation,” Soni explains.

Encouraging student entrepreneurship is another key strategy for Oldham and Soni. The third annual “TTU Eagle Works Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition” is set for April 9 with prizes available to the best business ideas.

“We had 11 teams apply the first year, and 44 in 2015,” Soni said, underscoring the growing interest on the part of students in entrepreneurial pursuits. Cookeville’s The Biz Foundry supports this effort. Other student-focused entrepreneurial activities include “Tech X,” a version of TEDx, and a 200-member, student-run organization named the Social Entrepreneurship Society.

On the technology development front, Oldham says Tennessee Tech is uniquely positioned on several fronts.

“Where we have a sweet spot is to do R&D on a three- to five-year horizon rather than 10 to 20 years,” he explains. “We are big enough to be meaningful but small enough to be agile.”

A growing area of interest for Tennessee Tech is the automotive sector. After all a Middle Tennessee-based technological university like TTU is particularly well-positioned geographically to respond to needs and opportunities.

“Automotive maybe the most innovative industry around,” Oldham says. “They have to turn things quickly.”

In response to the opportunity, TTU has created a first-of-its-kind B.S. degree in Vehicular Engineering that is a blend of two curricula – mechanical and electrical – and tailored to industry needs.

Later this year, these and other capabilities will be on display when Tennessee Tech plays host for the first time to the “Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit.” The annual event was launched in 1995 in Oak Ridge, and the organization’s tagline – “National leadership through regional cooperation” – is a motto that resonates well with Oldham.

“Having it here highlights what is possible in more rural parts of the Corridor,” he says.

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