Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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September 16, 2020 | Tom Ballard

“Spark Innovation Center” focused on keeping locally-founded tech-based start-ups in the region

For as long as I can remember, leaders in the community have lamented the fact that technology-based companies get launched here, but we frequently lose them to other regions for a variety of reasons.

A new initiative to be announced later today by the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Park and a handful of partners is focused on addressing that challenge, building on recent successful efforts like “What’s the Big Idea”, Anderson Center Accelerator, “Startup Day,” and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program. Each of them is focused on encouraging more and more technical people to consider starting their own companies.

During a virtual event this afternoon, the ribbon on the new “Spark Innovation Center” at the UT Research Park will be cut, opening space in the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM) to six growing tech-based start-ups. Some of the companies have licensed technology from the UT Research Foundation or from ORNL, others are either alumni or current participants in the IC program that are now focused on commercializing their products. And, all of them are collaborating with either UT or ORNL, and in most instances with both institutions.

The new initiative is led by Tom Rogers, President and Chief Executive Officer of the UT Research Park, and a long-time player in the region’s economic development activities including leading Technology 2020 for 13 years followed by 11 years as Director of Industrial Partnership and Economic Development at ORNL.

“Our region is blessed with unbelievable technology assets and great research talent,” he says. “Through the Innov865 Alliance and other programs, we are doing a better job of helping researchers become more entrepreneurial.”

At the same time, Rogers notes that many of the companies that are started by researchers are not the type that are conductive to launching in the founder’s garage or even in a space of downtown. The scientists are accustomed to having state-of-the-art labs and access to collaborators, two important needs that the “Spark Innovation Center” will address.

“When I arrived at the Research Park in March 2019, I began exploring the possibility of putting together a model with shared lab space,” Rogers explained. His office is in JIAM, and he saw that there was some available space in the building that would be ideal for the facility he visualized.

The “Spark Innovation Center” is being launched with six initial tenants and nine founding partners, but that is what one might characterize as Phase 1. What is more important is Rogers’ vision for the future for these six and other start-ups as they shift from advancing research on their technology, which is the focus of the IC program, to commercializing the technology into a vibrant, sustainable business.

“Our goal is getting them connected, keeping them connected, and preparing them to grow,” he adds.

To help with the effort, Rogers has enlisted John Bruck, a former Cincinnati business executive who has become a fixture in many local entrepreneurial activities such as co-founding the “Startup Knox” site with Brandon Bruce. Bruck is the new Center’s part-time Senior Business Advisor.

“We’ve just begun scratching the surface on opportunities to connect these companies in ways that have not occurred before,” Rogers says, adding he expects to add other “Spark Innovation Center” sites at the Research Park as the program grows and new buildings come online. Having additional space is also important for the companies to grow into as they become more successful.

“We want to help make these companies successful,” Bruck says, emphasizing in our conversation that many will need a long-term connection to the university because of the technology nature of their businesses. “We think many will never disconnect from the need for UT and the Research Park,” he says in referring to the ever-evolving nature of technology-based businesses.

In launching the effort, Rogers has signed-up a number of founding partners including several UT entities – UT Research Foundation along with UT Knoxville’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, College of Law, JIAM, and Libraries. Community founding partners are the Innov865 Alliance, ORNL, Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council, and Three Roots Capital.

The first six tenants are, in alphabetical order:

  • American Nanotechnologies Inc., founded by Williams Fitzhugh and a participant in IC’s Cohort 3, is developing and demonstrating novel systems for the large-scale purification of high-value dielectric materials that can reduce the cost of semiconducting carbon nanotube production by orders of magnitude. We spotlighted his work in this 2019 biz article.
  • Chem Chip, founded by Brandon Iglesias who is producing working electrodes based on carbon nanospike innovation developed at ORNL and licensed exclusively to the company.
  • Eonix, founded by Don DeRosa and a participant in IC’s Cohort 2, is developing a next-generation electrolyte that will significantly lower the cost and size of ultracapacitor modules. We spotlighted DeRosa in this 2019 biz article.
  • Neptune Fluid Flow Systems, co-founded by Trevor McQueen and Winnie Liang and a participant in IC’s Cohort 3, is developing an advanced thin film cryogenic sample preparation device designed to substantially improve sample preparation for the transmission electron microscopy (TEM) community. We spotlighted him in this 2019 biz article.
  • SkyNano LLC, co-founded by Anna Douglas and a participant in IC’s Cohort 1. The company’s focus is on the production of high-quality, low-cost carbon nanotubes that can be used in a variety of ways to address critical needs. As noted in this recent biz article, SkyNano was awarded two grants from the U.S. Department of Energy that total $2.7 million.
  • Qubit Engineering LLC , co-founded by Marouane Salhi, is applying quantum computing technology to solve wind farm layout optimization tasks and also offer an optimized control solution to operate wind farms in a way that improves production while also extending the lifespan of the turbines through load distribution optimization. We recently spotlighted the company in this article.

“Half of these (companies) have paying customers, so they’re well on their way to commercialization” Bruck says. “We want to create even more opportunities for them to succeed by making connections across the university and with ORNL, TVA, and big companies in the area. We also want to help connect them with the all-important sources of early stage capital.”

The “Spark Innovation Center” clearly fills an important niche and, more significantly, a critical missing piece in growing a more robust tech-based ecosystem in Knoxville.

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