By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
University of Tennessee (UT) Vice President Stacey Patterson is one of those senior executives who does not seek the limelight, but it’s hard to miss the impacts the office of Research, Outreach and Economic Development is having on the state and beyond.
It’s a leadership role for which the late David Millhorn provided strong mentorship beginning in 2009 when he hired Patterson as Director of Research Partnerships for the Executive Vice President’s office. For the previous three years, she had joint roles as a Licensing Associate for the UT Research Foundation (UTRF) and a Research Scientist in the Center for Environmental Biotechnology at UT, Knoxville. After Millhorn’s death in late 2017, his protégé was well-prepared to assume his role as Vice President for Research, Outreach and Economic Development, first for former President Joe DiPietro and now for Randy Boyd.
Today, Patterson has a very broad portfolio of responsibilities that includes being UT’s primary liaison to Battelle Memorial Institute, its partner in the management of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), as well as ORNL’s senior leadership along with “special assignments” like the new “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” and the recent proposal under the “Build Back Better Regional Challenge” (BBB) of the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Both were partnerships that included UT, ORNL and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In all of her activities, Patterson says, “Our goal is to work with campuses to advance their goals and also have complementary programs like Techstars.” To achieve that goal, she highlights three key focus areas for her office and the entities that are part of it:
- Enhance innovation and discovery in ways that elevate UT’s reputation;
- Increase participation of demographically diverse constituencies; and
- Advance and enhance the university’s impact.
A major part of Patterson’s responsibility is UTRF where the organization’s former Licensing Associate is now its President. In that role, she brings an important perspective as a former researcher who was part of the founding team at 490 BioTech, a local start-up that captured the judges award in Knoxville’s “Startup Day” in 2020 and also won the inaugural “Ballard Innovation Award” from PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz.
Because 490 BioTech is a licensee of UTRF technology, Patterson stepped away from the start-up years ago, but she notes that it is an example of the great growth that has occurred in the UTRF portfolio. “In 2008, we were averaging six to eight licensing agreements a year,” she says. “We did 51 in 2020. That’s one a week!”
UTRF has also birthed a number of subsidiaries. “All were intended to support UT missions in partnership with industry,” Patterson explains.
- The Clinical Trials Network of Tennessee involves 10 hospitals across the state undertaking clinicals trials in support of researchers at the UT Health Science Center.
- Cherokee Farm Development Corporation oversees the UT Research Park located across from the UT Medical Center.
- Cherokee Farm Partners Inc. is a for-profit subsidiary that takes an equity stake in some of the commercial space at the Park.
- Collaborative Composite Solutions was created as the home for IACMI, officially known as the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. It is a public-private collaboration focused on the composites industry and has managed more than $300 million in research projects since its founding in the mid-2010s.
- TennEra LLC which owns the biorefinery in Vonore which is being used by Genera Inc. to produce ag-based pulp and molded fiber products.
During our interview, Patterson was very passionate about an issue that many communities and businesses are facing. That challenge and a proposed solution titled the “East Tennessee Transformation Network” were the basis of the recent BBB proposal submitted by the East Tennessee Development District.
“You cannot separate innovation and discovery from workforce development,” she emphasized. “We have to be open to what workforce development looks like in the future. There is a real need here for reskilling and upskilling.”
Although she is based in Knoxville, her role is statewide, and Patterson cites strategic investments that her office has made in campus initiatives such as the work of Mina Sartipi and the team of researchers involved in the UT Chattanooga-led “Smart Community Collaborative” and the One Health initiative of the UT Institute of Agriculture.
“I’m also really proud of the Governor’s Chair program,” she says of the initiative that attracts top researchers. “It’s transformational, particularly for the Knoxville campus.”
Noting the final two words in her title – “economic development,” Patterson says that the “Techstars Accelerator” will showcase the local ecosystem and be a catalyst to inspire more local entrepreneurship. That program that will bring 30 high-potential start-ups to the community over the next three years and the BBB proposal are what she describes as “once in a generation opportunities.”
Not only are they reflective of the “Big 3” (UT, ORNL and TVA) coming together in a way not seen before, but the BBB in particular was an eye opener for the participants.
“As much as we think we know the community, the work on the proposal has taught me so much about the real challenges we face,” Patterson says, citing areas like healthcare, childcare, mental health, and transportation in the 16-county region.