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Analysis: Cromwell still pushing for traction at TTDC
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Eric Cromwell
Nearly five years after the Bredesen Administration began focusing on how to beef-up technology-based economic development, Eric Cromwell is making a fresh push to move the needle.

Despite years of tough slogging, Cromwell's comments during a conference call with reporters suggested he has gotten a second wind. Cromwell, who was named president of Tennessee Technology Development Corporation eight months ago, announced Monday that TTDC's board of directors is creating four new working groups that will drive TTDC efforts to:

♦ Increase private-sector commercialization of university-based research and innovations (Tennessee Strategic Resources Board);

♦ Link entrepreneurs statewide and provide them training and related services (Tennessee Entrepreneurship Network);

♦ Improve the supply of capital for new ventures (Tennessee Capital Formation Board); and,

♦ Support and leverage the efforts of other economic-development agencies and stakeholders (the Tennessee Technology-based Economic Development Stakeholders Board).

The working groups may be forerunners of more aggressive action.

For instance, Cromwell acknowledged that the Capital Formation Board could help pave the way for future creation of a venture-capital fund, although that is not currently in the works. However, the new groups have not been assigned chairpersons or members, who will be drawn from the TTDC board and outside TTDC.

In briefing reporters yesterday, Cromwell was accompanied by state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber, a clear signal of continued interest by the Bredesen Administration.

Still, the modest organizational announcement served as a reminder that Cromwell, 34, has been down this road before.

For example, in September 2004, while director of the Bredesen Administration's Economic and Community Development agency's technology-development program, Cromwell described a similar game plan during that year's annual state economic development conference.

He said then the state would work to strengthen the research community and the development of tech-supporting infrastructure statewide; would support tech businesses and stimulate entrepreneurial growth; and, would fostering collaboration between businesses and researchers on university campuses. At the time, Cromwell also indicated he expected the state to gain traction on support for research, telecommunications, IT and other infrastructure, as well as programs to support creation of networks and communities of entrepreneurs.

During the three years after that, state initiatives did indeed emerge, but they were often driven directly from the governor's office (as in the case of energy initiatives), or gradually picked-up by such group's as the legislature's State Broadband Task Force, the e-Health Advisory Council, Tennessee Tomorrow and Connected Tennessee.

Last year, Cromwell bolted state government, after political and practical factors further delayed funding of the "Innovation Tennessee" effort Cromwell had long championed.

He briefly attempted to launch a venture dubbed LearningTopia, which was to be an educational portal and learning-systems provider. Cromwell's interest in the e-learning sector was fueled in part by his earlier involvement in winning a grant for learning software from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, in 2003, while he was assistant director of the FedEx Institute for Technology at the University of Memphis.

Cromwell had barely begun that venture, however, when TTDC Chairman Dan Marcum and others prevailed upon him to be a candidate for the lead role that was his original aim. Cromwell later told a reporter his decision to take the TTDC helm was partly influenced by his realization that to make LearningTopia succeed, he'd need to move to Silicon Valley -- more fertile ground for such startups -- an ironic and unappealing prospect for the tech advocate and then-new father.

Since its relaunch in 2007, TTDC has made a large grant to the Cumberland Emerging Technologies incubator for equipment; and, repopulated its board of directors and hired staff and consultants. TTDC also recently invited the state's small businesses to apply for grants of up to $4,000 to help smaller companies prepare applications for larger federal research, development and technology transfer grants.

Cromwell stressed during an interview this morning that the grants are reserved for companies that are developing products that are relevant to federal agencies that have set aside funds to support development of specific technologies. Applications will be taken until June 30, or until the $100,000 set aside for the program is exhausted. Cromwell said fewer than ten companies have applied, thus far, a number he attributes to specificity of grant criteria and the difficulty of communicating with prospective applicants.

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Tags: Cumberland Emerging Technologies, economic development, Eric Cromwell, FexEx Institute for Technology, LearningTopia, SBIR, Tennessee Technology Development Corporation

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