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June 08, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Spark Innovation Center to launch new cleantech accelerator with funding from DOE’s latest EPIC award

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Is Knoxville now the area that has the most start-up accelerators with an energy focus? It just might be. If not, it is certainly closing in on first place.

Less than a week after the announcement of the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” and a day after the announcement of Cohort 5 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Spark Innovation Center announced that a partnership of which it is a part has just secured a $900,000 award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The funding went to the “Midwest Regional Innovation Partnership” (MRIP) that is comprised of the Clean Energy Trust, Centrepolis Accelerator at Lawrence Technological University, mHUB, and Spark. A portion of the funding will enable the Center, housed at and managed by the UT Research Park, to offer an annual “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” beginning in May 2022.

The MRIP collaborators will address the urgent need for energy innovation while creating manufacturing jobs to drive the Midwest region’s economic recovery. Two of DOE’s “Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Programs” – “Chain Reaction Innovations” at Argonne National Laboratory and ORNL’s “Innovation Crossroads” program – will serve as project affiliates, along with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

In addition, two Tennessee-based partners will be assisting with the new accelerator.

“The Spark Innovation Center will work closely with TVA and the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC) to develop and deliver the new ‘Cleantech Accelerator’ in Tennessee in close collaboration with our MRIP partners,” said Tom Rogers, President and Chief Executive Officer of the UT Research Park.

It is the second win for Spark under DOE’s $10 million “Energy Program for Innovation Clusters” (EPIC) that was created to underscore the importance of regional clusters which increase productivity of area companies, drive the direction and pace of innovation, and stimulate the formation of new businesses. Last October, Spark was one of only two recipients in the Southeast and 20 nationally to receive EPIC first-round grants (see original article here).

As significant as the funding is, Rogers also underscored several more important points.

“We are now teamed with nationally-known partners . . . a ‘Who’s Who’ in the industry,” he said, adding that mHUB, Centrepolis and Spark all received EPIC first round awards. “We also appreciate the support from ORNL, Argonne and NREL. We believe it made a difference with DOE.”

Rogers said the new “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” will probably accept six entrepreneurs each year for a 10- to 13-week program. Like “Innovation Crossroads” and the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator,” recruitment will be much broader than just the local region, but the opportunity for the region is to help retain those companies after the program concludes. He also noted that the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” will most likely fit between “Innovation Crossroads” which is bringing mostly newly-minted Ph.Ds. to the region to grow their start-ups and Techstars which will be bringing the 10 best start-ups from across the world each year.

“Tennessee, and East Tennessee in particular, is on a roll with advanced energy accelerators and incubators locating here,” said Cortney Piper, TAEBC Executive Director. “It underscores that our facilities, research and people are world-class. Furthermore, the recent announcements in Tennessee prove that we have plenty to offer to the advanced energy economy.”

The overall MRIP program will integrate and support both new and existing programs for venture acceleration of energy hardware start-ups in the Midwest. The partners plan to support more than 360 new ventures and small businesses via tailored programs, which include both virtual and in-person events, sector-specific curriculum, mentorship, prototyping resources, and connections with industry.

In announcing the 10 recipients of second round EPIC funding, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said, “The clean energy market is growing at a breakneck pace, and America’s innovators need the tools to keep up on a competitive global stage. This funding fills a critical need for targeted financial support to incubators and accelerators that provide opportunity for aspiring energy entrepreneurs looking to fight climate change, create jobs, and empower underserved communities.”

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