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Mid-TN plan boosts universities, entrepreneurs, accelerators + businesses
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Tom Brewer (TTU)

THREE of Middle Tennessee's state universities are jointly exploring creation of a Distributed Research Park (MT-DRP) to drive technology commercialization and generate attractive jobs in the region.

Tennessee Technological University (TTU) at Cookeville, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) at Murfreesboro and Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville are the core partners in the effort, said Tom Brewer, the TTU associate vice president for research and economic development who is point-man for the MT-DRP effort.

With a strong emphasis on "Ready to Launch" opportunities, one MT-DRP goal is to enhance the partner universities' internal tech transfer and commercialization programs -- making them, among other things, more inviting and accessible.

Great weight is also given to focusing on supporting entrepreneurs who are operating independently or within startups emerging from the state's nine regional accelerators.

MT-DRP would also help established businesses that need research and innovation assistance to pursue marketable technologies or spin-out business opportunities, according to information provided by Brewer and others.

Priority industrial targets include Automotive; Chemicals-Plastics manufacturing; Aerospace and Defense; Transportation, Logistics, Distribution; Business services; Healthcare and Medical Devices; Energy technologies; Food and Agribusiness; and, Entertainment and Media.

A physical campus for a central MT-DRP "technology concentration" facility is among the options that are to be studied.

However, in the absence of such a physical geographic nexus, the "distributed research park" could take the form of collaborative, cooperative or community programs.

If a more "virtualized" park or network proves optimal, its operations would be governed through agreements involving resource sharing, private-sector access, farflung project collaborations and other activities and resources, available at one or more sites in the network.

To illustrate the potential of the MT-DRP to generate jobs, the group points to companies with TTU commercialization ties, including Cumberland Health Analytics; and, Thermofield, which offers a therapeutic electromagnetic-energy system.

The MT-DRP group has begun seeking funding for its planned year-long assessment, research, planning and related efforts.

Once funded, members of the group hope to visit comparable innovation parks; assess the likely economic impact of MT-DROP under various scenarios; and, among other things, gather and examine "best practices" for regional research parks.

A month ago MT-DRP submitted a competitive Regional Innovation Grants application, asking $493,748 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), a unit of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Proceeds would go toward research, modeling and piloting the MT-DRP program.

If funds are available, Brewer noted, at least one feasibility study may be contracted-out to an independent firm. The feasibility study would yield projections of jobs created and numbers of businesses and research entities attracted to the MT-DRP. The study would also address such issues as financial and operational risk management, infrastructure and facilities.

Though MT-DRP has had informal conversations with some potential contractors, no requirements have yet been defined for such work. In the absence of funds to pay a contractor, the work would probably be performed internally, at one or more of the partner universities, he said.

Once one or more MT-DRP models have proven viable, said Brewer, the university consortium would hope to help institutions in other Tennessee regions -- particularly in Memphis and in the University of Tennessee's hometown, Knoxville -- replicate or adapt the model, Brewer explained. The model could be adopted in other states, as well.

Key MT-DRP team members include, in addition to Brewer: TTU Prof. Steve Canfield, Ph.D. (Mech. Eng.); TSU Engineering Dean Keith Hargrove, Ph.D.; and, from MTSU, Prof. Andrienne Friedli, Ph.D. (Chem.), director of the MTSU Center for Advancement of Research and Scholarship; Walter Boles, Ph.D., chair, Engineering Technology; and, Murat Arik, Ph.D., interim director of MTSU's Business and Economic Research Center (BERC), according to the MT-DRP EDA grant application.

Endorsing the recently submitted MT-DRP federal grant request, both LaunchTN and Vanderbilt University's Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization stated their commitments to support the initiative. Neither organization is currently represented among MT-DRP management.

MT-DRP alsp plans to leverage relationships with Tennessee community and technical colleges, and with Tennessee Small Business Development Centers in the region.

MT-DRP is not likely to seek funding from the State of Tennessee until after the project has matured, said Brewer.

Brewer told VTC that he does not believe the universities would abandon the MT-DRP initiative, even if the group fails to win the EDA grant. VTC

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Tags: accelerators, Charlie Brock, commercialization, Cumberland Health Analytics, Economic Development Administration, intellectual property, LaunchTN, postsecondary, research and development, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, Thermofield, Tom Brewer, TTDC, Vanderbilt University

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