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June 26, 2023 | Tom Ballard

UTK rolls out “Team TN” during Monday’s “Tennessee Mobility Showcase”

The event featured Sethuraman Panchanathan, Director of the National Science Foundation, who commended the statewide collaboration.

Monday was a day of innovation celebration at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK).

In addition to the announcement of a six-year, $18 million commitment from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a new Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (see today’s feature article here), it also marked the official kickoff of “Team TN.” The latter is a statewide partnership comprised of more than 100 entities that was one of 44 recipients of a $1 million “NSF Regional Innovation Engine Development Award.”

NSF Director visit on June 26, 2023. Photo by Steven Bridges/Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee.

About 75 people turned out for the “Tennessee Mobility Showcase” where NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan announced the newest award to UTK and also celebrated the diversity of innovation that is underway in the Volunteer State. Credit for getting the NSF leader to Knoxville goes to Suresh Babu, a Governor’s Chair at UTK and Oak Ridge National Laboratory who also is a member of the National Science Board.

“This is a great day for the University and the State of Tennessee,” UTK Chancellor Donde Plowman said in her opening comments. “There are numerous innovation opportunities right here in Tennessee.”

Echoing her comments about how it was an “exciting day,” UT System President Randy Boyd also reflected on the name “Team TN,” noting that it was a term he first coined in 2015 during his tenure as Tennessee’s Commissioner of Economic and Community Development where he championed organizations working together. This time, the focus is specifically targeted at “Technology Enabled Advanced Mobility,” hence the acronym of TEAM, and includes dozens of collaborators.

“Today is the beginning of our impact,” said Kevin Heaslip, Interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of “Team TN.” He’s also the Director of UTK’s Center for Transportation Research and said the role of the partnership is to innovate, train the next-generation workforce, and engage with communities.

Noting that “we’ve always dreamed big in Tennessee,” he cited the roles of TVA in bringing electrification to the region and Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project as two examples of big, bold thinking and execution.

“We will create a strategic plan that will provide a path forward for the State of Tennessee” to win a full Type-2 “NSF Regional Innovation Engine” that, if funded at current levels, could be as much as $160 million over 10 years.

During two presentations – the announcement of the new award to UTK and the kickoff of the Showcase, Panchanathan continually emphasized the importance of collaborations and partnerships. “Working with everyone . . . that’s how we are going to get it done,” he said in relation to “unleashing innovations at speed and scale.” Later, he talked about the old Bell Laboratories model that was “not only what (they could) do in the moment, but (also) set the stage for decades to come.”

Panchanathan attended all of the morning session and was scheduled to have additional meetings in the afternoon.

Boyd talked about the history of the automotive industry in Tennessee, starting with then-Governor Lamar Alexander’s pursuit of Nissan in the late 1970s. That company eventually opened a manufacturing plant in Smyrna 40 years ago. General Motors followed with the Saturn plant in Spring Hill in the mid-1980s, then Volkswagen announced in Chattanooga in July 2008, and Ford followed with BlueOval City last year. In addition to the four original equipment manufacturers (OEM), Tennessee is home to 920 suppliers with 88 of the state’s 95 counties hosting an OEM, supplier, or both.

The official program ended with a panel discussion about regional innovation and workforce development that was co-moderated by Marc Gibson, UTK Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, and Cortney Piper, President of Piper Communications. Panelists included: (1) Lindsey Cox, CEO of Launch Tennessee; (2) Abhishek Dubey, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Vanderbilt; (3) Tachaka Hollins, Assistant Vice Chancellor with the Tennessee Board of Regents; (4) Hendrik Mainka, Project Lead Senior at Volkswagen Group of America’s Innovation Hub at the UT Research Park; (5) Sabya Mishra, Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Memphis; (6) Mina Sartipi, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Director of the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress at UT at Chattanooga; and (7) Robert Turner, Technology Transfer and Information Manager at Tennessee State University.

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