Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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July 23, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Thomas Zacharia challenges region to think really big during yesterday’s “TVC Virtual Summit Series”

One might be thinking, “If it’s Thursday, it must be another edition of the ‘TVC Virtual Summit Series,’” and that was certainly the case yesterday afternoon when more than 200 people tuned-in for the second of five virtual events to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Corridor (TVC) organization.

During a much longer panel discussion than the one on July 16, one of the panelists – the always provocative Thomas Zacharia – advanced a bold, but important futuristic idea calling for the Greater Knoxville Region and possibly the TVC as a whole to become one of the country’s next major innovation hotspots.

“More than 50 percent of the innovation jobs in the country are located in 41 counties,” the Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory said. Let that statistic sink-in. There are 3,141 counties or equivalents in the U.S., and Tennessee alone has 95 counties. Yet, less than two percent of the nation’s counties have more than one-half of the innovation jobs.

As the Brookings Institution noted in this late 2019 report, five top innovation metro areas – Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and San Diego – accounted for more than 90 percent of the nation’s innovation-sector growth during the years 2005 to 2017.

“We need to have more innovation cities away from the coast,” Zacharia declared. Noting that the three key criteria for an innovation center are focused on talent, R&D investments and a supportive ecosystem, he said that all of those reside in the TVC region with high R&D dollars coming into both Knoxville-Oak Ridge and Huntsville.

Zacharia described an emerging national conversation around the idea of selecting 10 cities that would receive $10 billion each over a 10-year period to aggressively advance their innovation ecosystems. As he explained during the recent kick-off of the Techstars study of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge ecosystem (see our recent article), the Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies (GIANT) initiative in France is a model that this region could embrace.

Zacharia’s challenge was simple: put what we have together and go aggressively to the next level.

The panel was moderated by Andy Page, President and Chief Executive Officer of ORAU. Besides Zacharia, other panelists and their topics were:

  • Tennessee Tech University President Phil Oldham discussed the always important issue of workforce development. Noting that he grew-up in a rural area and his institution is located in a rural setting, Oldham said an important way to create a larger and more robust pipeline of tech-prepared students is to “make (career) opportunities more visible . . . bring it to a personal level for them.”
  • Jay Mullis, Manager of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management, described clean-up efforts at the three sites. One of the highlights that he noted was at the East Tennessee Technology Park where clean-up work by UCOR will be finished by the end of the year, more than four years ahead of what had been predicted a decade ago.
  • Preston Jones, Associate Director – Technical at the Marshall Space Flight Center discussed the Artemis project to return humans to the moon and then to Mars.

Prior to the panel discussion, attendees heard pre-recorded comments from Tennessee Third District Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, and NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard as well as live comments from Tennessee First District Congressman Phil Roe.

The third session in the “TVC Virtual Summit Series” is next Thursday (July 30) starting at 1 p.m. EDT. The theme is “Public Power Fueling Economic Growth in the TVC.” Registration can be found here.


EDITOR’S NOTE: We have chronicled the history of the TVC in a multi-part series. You can find links to those articles below.

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