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May 11, 2023 | Tom Ballard

UTK leading new NSF-funded initiative focused on advancing technology-enabled mobility

Around 60 universities, industries and economic and government agencies are partners in the two-year effort that could lead to a much bigger program.

Yesterday was a good news day for The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) and the Volunteer State.

In an announcement Thursday from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a team led by UTK was one of 44 organizations that received up to $1 million each in the first-ever “NSF Regional Innovation Engines Development Awards” program. It was the only awardee in Tennessee and received the full funding for an effort in advanced mobility.

“We will be focused on two key areas,” said Kevin Heaslip, Director of UTK’s Center for Transportation Research and lead for the Advancing Technology-Enabled Mobility Solutions-Tennessee (ATEMS-TN) initiative. Those areas are decarbonization of the automotive industry initially, but with the potential to later add the aviation and marine sectors, and digitization and autonomous vehicles.

The funding will support the creation of a roadmap over the next two years to outline a statewide transportation mobility strategy. According to the UTK news release, the coalition’s strategic roadmap will include three interdependent emphases:

  • Use-inspired research and development goals that will be developed for vehicle connectivity and security; the integration of complex systems and advances in computing power, sensors and analytics; more efficient and longer-lasting battery production; and new fueling infrastructure.
  • Innovation that will result in the identification of new approaches to speed the transition of inventions from R&D to the market. Statewide strategies to support the incubation and acceleration of high-tech start-ups will be explored and strengthened, and mechanisms will be identified to support the training and success of diverse Tennessee entrepreneurs. New economic development initiatives will be envisioned to create, recruit and retain innovation industries in Tennessee.
  • The creation of comprehensive workforce development goals and strategies to ensure that diverse Tennesseans in communities throughout the state will have access to good-paying jobs in the skilled technical and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas. Plans will be developed to reskill and upskill existing workers and to equip youth and young adults with the skills necessary to participate and thrive in the modern economy.

Heaslip said that the partners will be working through the balance of 2023 ahead of a summit planned for early 2024. And, more important, that work over the next couple of years will position Tennessee to successfully compete in 2025 for up to $160 million in federal implementation funding, also under a different and more expansive part of the NSF Engines program.

“We did not have the organization in place to go after (the bigger) program when we submitted our proposal last September, but now we do,” Heaslip said, adding, “We will be competitive for the big one.”


There’s an adage that it frequently takes a village to build something great, and Heaslip reinforced the importance of that by citing the commitment from the dozens of academic, industry and government partners that have been assembled. “It was a huge team effort,” he declared.

In addition to UTK, the coalition currently includes Tennessee State University; Tennessee Tech University; University of Memphis; UT at Chattanooga; Vanderbilt University; all 40 technical and community colleges governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents; UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute, three state agencies (Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Environment and Conservation, and Department of Transportation); Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Tennessee Valley Authority; economic development organizations and start-up incubators and accelerators; community organizations; and industry partners including AT&T, Bridgestone, Denso, FedEx, IACMI—The Composites Institute, and Volkswagen. The coalition is actively recruiting new members.

As if leading one of the 44 awardees is not enough, UTK is also a core partner in two of the other recipients of NSF Engines Development Awards that were announced on Thursday. One of them is led by the University of Kentucky focused on advanced manufacturing and supply chain logistics, and the other, led by the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, AL, is focused on advancing carbon-neutral crop technologies to develop sustainable consumer goods.

It’s also notable that Thursday’s announcement further solidifies the Volunteer State’s reputation as an emerging hub for innovation in mobility, coming on the last day of the “CO.MOBILITY Summit” in Chattanooga

“These NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF’s vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere. They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation. Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation in communities and to grow their regional economies through research and partnerships. This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation.”

The NSF Engines program has two types of awards. “NSF Engines Development Awards,” also known as Type-1 awards, provide up to $1 million for up to two years. Type-2 awards provide up to $160 million for up to 10 years. The first round of Type-2 awards is anticipated in the fall and will fund NSF Engines across three distinct phases – the nascent, emergent and growth phases.

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