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Innovators and allies seek $20MM to improve Tennessee research, economy and culture
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Vanderbilt's VINSE will be sharing new designs for science with peers in EPSCoR proposal

Update: UTRF Partnerships Director Stacey Patterson said after publication that "more than half" of UT's 58 percent of the grant amount "goes back out to other institutions and to manage and run" outreach programs. Also, a 9:39 a.m. Nov. 5, a resource document previously provided on the record and posted here was removed as a courtesy to the EPSCoR team, and may be reposted at another point.  A similar abstract remains included. Our story as originally posted:

Three years ago, publication of the "Tennessee Innovation Road Map" brought some unwelcomed news.

In addition to reciting Tennessee's many natural economic and quality-of-life advantages, the Road Map report said the state's innovativeness was perceived in some quarters as hampered by state-government roadblocks.

The report also told of perceptions of meager university collaboration, general parochialism and excess conservatism with respect to both entrepreneurship and the improvement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics research and education.

Following that report, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development agreed to provide $5 million to breathe new life into the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, outsourcing to TTDC the lead role for tech-driven economic development.  TTDC and TDEC had co-sponsored the Road Map's preparation by a consultant.

Now, through an effort coordinated with TTDC, dozens of Tennessee state officials, universities, scientists and companies have collaborated to produce what amounts to a new and ambitious plan to address some of those "Road Map" findings, including the parochialism – and have asked the National Science Foundation for $20 million, to do what needs to be done.

Beyond the cultural factors, the scientists and administrators say in their proposal that the state lacks "critical mass" of human resources, suffers from "geographical parochialism," an industrial base too thin to produce needed synergies and an under-prepared workforce.

If successful, the proposal would – among numerous other impacts statewide – thrust into the spotlight Vanderbilt University's interdisciplinary Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (VINSE), which exists to discover and use nanomaterials and "nanoscale phenomena."

It will be months before Tennesseans know whether their team has won the five-year grant they seek from NSF's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which was created 30 years ago to give a boost to states that typically won little federal research funding.

Immediately, however, the document produced in October by the Tennessee State EPSCoR Committee sheds new light on Tennessee's opportunities to accelerate its technology-driven economic development.

"Alternative-energy technologies" is the chosen EPSCoR development target, with emphasis on solar-energy applications.


The proposal indicates Energy was favored over another candidate – pharmaceutical sciences – largely because of the state's historic Oak Ridge-centered links to U.S. energy history; the momentum spawned by an array of alt-energy industry investments in Tennessee; and, other initiatives launched and generally applauded within the state, many of them with the personal imprint of Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Key to Tennessee's achieving national alt-energy leadership, according to the EPSCoR proposal, is the need to leverage Vanderbilt's VINSE, in order to create a nano-research network among universities in Middle Tennessee.  At present, VINSE mainly supports collaboration among Vanderbilt faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences, the VU School of Engineering and the VU Medical Center.

According to the EPSCoR report, VINSE has every intention of becoming a national leader in the nano-field.  Today happens to be "NanoDay" at VINSE, an event more formally known as the "10th Annual Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Forum," featuring prominent scientists.

Much of the effort that would be led by VINSE would be aimed at enhancing energy efficiency in solid-state lighting and in solar-energy conversion.  The report says that if funding is granted, VINSE would, among other actions, add both faculty and technology to address these target areas, in addition to resources currently onboard.

As a result of VINSE's role, Vanderbilt would receive about $4.6 million from the grant over five years, or about 23.2 percent of the total NSF EPSCoR award.  Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee, as the lead institution in the EPSCoR proposal, would get nearly 58 percent of the five-year award, nearly $11.6 million, with seven other universities sharing the nearly $4 million remainder. [See update note above]

The Tennessee stakeholders were, however, required to contribute a 20 percent match, or $4 million in cash and in-kind support.  Virtually all the cash came in the form of a $100,000 commitment from TTDC, which TTDC Vice President James Stover, Ph.D., told VNC came from TTDC's "Technology Maturation Fund," in line with TTDC's goal of supporting "competitive proof of concept funding" opportunities for commercialization of promising technologies.

The $3.9 million balance of the cost match was "primarily met through commitments from the UT System, the UTK College of Engineering and Vanderbilt University," according to UT Research Foundation Director of Research Partnerships Stacey Patterson.

VINSE would work in parallel with two other "lead institution mentors":  The Sustainable Energy and Education Research Center (SEERC) at UT-Knoxville; and, the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM), the new home for the Bredesen-backed Solar Institute, which planned for UT's Cherokee Farm research campus in Knoxville.

Woven among all three "mentor" organizations are major research "thrusts," including efforts to create new nano-structures and nanomaterials for use in energy conversion, storage and batteries, to improve energy efficiency; and, the development and use of electrochemical devices for those purposes.

The action plan also aims to advance education and recruitment of Tennessee students into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies and related research.  There are special provisions for improving diversity in the research community by focusing some efforts on under-represented minorities, including persons who are rural, minority or economically disadvantaged; and, institutions that do not currently provide significant research opportunities to faculties and students.

If funded, the program would also create internships for students, mini-sabbaticals for high-school STEM teachers, and, among many other items, small "seed" grants to support the work of faculty and graduate students working on campuses that have less research underway.

Partners in the VU VINSE-centered network would include, in addition to Vanderbilt, Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, University of Tennessee Space Institute, Tennessee Technological University and Austin Peay State University.

The EPSCoR Committee is the identity assumed for purposes of competing for EPSCoR grants by the Tennessee Strategic Research Board, which is, itself, a standing operating committee of Tennessee Technology Development Corporation (TTDC).

The EPSCoR Committee's work was driven by the TN EPSCoR Management Team, led by Greg Sedrick, Ph.D., P.E., (at left) who is also dean for academic affairs at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, at Tullahoma.

Among Tennessee institutions and companies that participated in creating the EPSCoR proposal, listed in no particular order:  University of Tennessee - Knoxville; University of Tennessee Space Institute; Vanderbilt University; Tennessee Technological University; University of Memphis; Tennessee State University; Fisk University; Middle Tennessee State University; East Tennessee State University (Johnson City); King College (Bristol); Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Eastman Chemical (Kingsport); Soltility LLC (Knoxville area); Genera Energy LLC (Knoxville, subsidary of UT Research Foundation, focused on biorefinery development); UT Research Foundation; TTDC; Hemlock Semiconductor Group; and, TVA. 

For a summary of the TN EPSCoR proposal provided after original publication of this story, please click here.  For the 2006 TN Innovation Road Map report (pdf), please click here.  For additional information on the EPSCoR competition, please visit the federal solicitation.

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Tags: Austin Peay State University, clean energy, commercialization, East Tennessee State University, economic development, energy, EPSCoR, Fisk University, Genera Energy, Gov. Phil Bredesen, Greg Sedrick, Hemlock Semiconductor Group, innovation, James Stover, Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, King College, nanotechnology, National Science Foundation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, postsecondary education, R&D, research and development, Solar Institute, Sotility, Stacey Patterson, Sustainable Energy and Education Research Center, technology transfer, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, TVA, University of Memphis, University of Tennessee, UT Research Foundation, UT Space Institute, UT-Battelle, Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Vanderbilt University, VINSE, Wacker Chemie


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