An organization that has been around nearly 50 years helping Tennessee manufacturers address problems is not forgetting its heritage while also adopting an aggressive innovation assistance strategy.
The University of Tennessee’s Center for Industrial Services (UT CIS) was established in 1963 as the Tennessee Industrial Research and Advisory Service. Over the ensuing 49 years, its name has changed but its core purpose has remained the same – to help small companies maintain their competitiveness through access to technical assistance and education.
Paul Jennings is only the fourth Executive Director in UT CIS’ history. In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Jennings and Beth Phillips, Economic Development Team Leader, outlined how UT CIS is “moving ahead on several fronts under the innovation umbrella.”
“We’ve been doing economic development and industry services for a long time,” Jennings said. “We and others are in the process of relearning and upgrading our skills to be more effective.”
As the home for the Tennessee Manufacturing Extension Partnership that is part of a national network, UT CIS is fully embracing new innovation products that are being rolled-out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which helps fund the nationwide network.
NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Program (MEP) is taking “significant steps to move from its traditional continuous improvement services to innovation services,” Jennings said. This has an impact on UT CIS since about 30 percent of its funding comes from NIST, and the federal agency monitors each recipient of its funds through a comprehensive set of metrics.
“The traditional MEP metrics will change to reflect this new emphasis on innovation,” Jennings said, adding that it will also affect the skills set needed within the UT CIS staff.
He identified one of the new national thrusts as “innovation engineering,” where UT CIS and other MEPs would help existing manufacturers through ideation, technology scouting, product development, and sales and marketing processes.
“It’s a strategic planning process for innovation,” focused on manufacturers that need to move into new product lines or improve existing products through new technology.
Jennings cited an example of a Tennessee client of UT CIS that has strong expertise in electronics, but is positioned in a dying market. Through the “innovation engineering” process, UT CIS will be able to help the company identify potential new markets and products, vet the ideas as to technical feasibility and market potential, find existing technologies that are most applicable to the new product areas, develop products and get them into the marketplace.
Jennings and Phillips see this new innovation emphasis as a service that can be of great value to organizations like the East Tennessee Regional Accelerator Coalition (ETRAC).
“We have strong relationships with many of them,” Phillips said. In addition to ETRAC that is coordinated by UT, she cited other regional initiatives led by East Tennessee State University’s Innovation Lab, Memphis BioWorks, Roane State Community College and a consortium of entities in lower Middle Tennessee.
“Each regional accelerator is unique,” so UT CIS plans to restructure its service regions to match those of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. This will enable the UT CIS team to be aligned geographically in each region to ensure maximum impact.
On a more East Tennessee regional basis, UT CIS is an active partner in the Advanced Composites Employment (ACE) Accelerator coordinated by Roane State. Through this alliance, Phillips said that UT CIS expects to play a significant innovation role, “connecting companies in the region to Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UT resources for advanced materials, carbon fiber and composites.”
Jennings added that UT CIS will use its portion of the funds available through the ACE Accelerator grant to “buy down some of the cost” so small manufacturers can utilize the expertise at ORNL and UT.
Phillips said the benefit of partnering with Roane State and others on the Accelerator is not just the immediate opportunity to help companies in the advanced materials area, but to also “develop a better understanding about the profile of companies that are the best candidates to draw on ORNL.”
They believe that ORNL will be a key innovation partner and that the new “innovation engineering” tool can be extremely helpful in their work with the ACE Accelerator.
The importance of partnerships with other organizations is also critical to UT CIS in its third innovation initiative – Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) assistance activities. These two programs are frequently used by small business to secure research and development funding to stimulate innovation and development in high technology areas.
UT CIS has focused on providing overview workshops and proposal training to increase the success rate of Tennessee proposals. Because funding is limited, Jennings and Phillips depend on organizations across the state to partner with UT CIS in hosting the workshops.
As Jennings positions UT CIS in the innovation assistance world, he is optimistic about the future.
“We’re positioned well,” he said. “We’re in complete alignment with NIST MEP, UT and the state.”