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February 25, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Tom Rogers retiring as President and CEO of UT Research Park

His pause for now follows 47 years, the vast majority of the time spent in economic development efforts - from chasing smokestacks to helping entrepreneurs.

After nearly five decades involved in some of the region’s most important economic development initiatives, Tom Rogers is stepping down on April 12 from his role as President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Cherokee Farm Development Corporation that oversees the University of Tennessee Research Park (UTRP).

His decision to take a break before deciding what, if anything, is next comes after working for each of the “Big Three” employers in the community – the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and UT. Rogers also served as President and CEO of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce for eight years and CEO of Technology 2020, one of the nation’s oldest venture development organizations, for 12 years.

Tom Rogers

“I spent close to 10 years at most every organization,” he said other than UT where he has been since March 2019.

Along the way, Rogers has been involved in big recruitment projects like the effort to land Mercedes-Benz’s first manufacturing plant outside of Germany in 1993 – it ultimately went to Vance, AL even after the State of Tennessee offered to relocate a portion of I-40 – and, since 1996, efforts through three careers to grow the region’s start-up ecosystem.

We would say that those entrepreneurial activities have brought him the most recognition and the most satisfaction.

Fresh out of graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rogers joined the planning and budget staff in the Office of the TVA General Manager. Describing it as a “really cool” two to three years, he next had the opportunity to shift to the economic development team where he worked with legendary people like David Patterson, who went on to serve as President of the Tennessee Technology Foundation, and Tom Hunter, former Executive Director of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Rogers and I were both on the founding Board of Directors of Technology 2020, an initiative focused on digital applications and start-ups that was partially funded by South Central Bell, later absorbed into AT&T. He represented the Oak Ridge Chamber, while I was an appointee from UT.

“We had $2 million of South Central Bell dollars, and we were able to secure another $2 million from DOE (U.S. Department of Energy),” Rogers reminded us. That money built a new facility in Oak Ridge’s Commerce Park.

For the better part of two decades, the Tech 2020’s focus was on telecommunications and entrepreneurship, and one of its early creations was Digital Crossing Networks LLC located in Downtown Knoxville. Technology 2020 also secured two federal grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration that funded a companion building to Tech 2020 and the UT Research Foundation’s Business Incubator.

When UT and Battelle Memorial Institute partnered to bid on the management contract for ORNL, Technology 2020 created a new subsidiary called the Center for Entrepreneurial Growth. The latter’s mission was clearly focused on helping ORNL and UT commercialize more of their inventions by helping local entrepreneurs. Later, when then Governor Don Sundquist established the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, Rogers served for several years as the Executive Director the organization that does business today as Launch Tennessee.

“What we had were really smart people who were digging-in,” Rogers said of Grady Vanderhoofven (now with Three Roots Capital), Clint Gwin (now with Pathway Lending), David Bradshaw (now with Pinnacle Financial Partners), Dennis Corley (also now with Three Roots), Bob Wilson (formerly President of RDI Technologies Inc.), Geoff Robson (also formerly of RDI), and Shawn Carson (now with UT, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business) among others. “They were people who just got things done.”

In a article posted March 30, 2016, Technology 2020 noted that it had contributed significantly to the success of a number of area start-ups – Pro2Serve, NucSafe, Protomet, Imtek, Protein Discovery, Gridsmart, Nanotek, and NetLearning.

After I was promoted to become the inaugural Director of Partnerships at ORNL in late 2007, I recruited Rogers to come to the lab and lead the economic and industrial partnerships team. It was there, long after I had retired for the second time, that he created the “Innovation Crossroads” program that has brought so many high-potential start-ups to the region.

Stacey Patterson gets credit for recruiting Rogers to the UT Research Park, and he has clearly pumped new energy into the programming while also launching several new buildings – Innovation South and the Orthopaedic Institute. Under his leadership, UTRP also launched the Spark Innovation Center and its Spark Cleantech Accelerator.

As he looks back on nearly five decades, Rogers says, “Economic development has changed a lot. Fifty years ago, it was focused predominantly on large industrial properties with rail and barge access. The notion of helping people start businesses was not discussed.”

When we asked, “What comes next,” he said, “I’m not sure. I’m still passionate about the start-up world. I’m proudest of ‘Innovation Crossroads” and Spark.”

We concluded the interview with Rogers saying, “It’s been fun.”

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