Making innovation ‘sticky’—crucial for regions

In too many places, technology innovation is not “sticky” but footloose. Inventions and know-how fly out of local labs and university research centers and into far-flung global value chains—there to be commercialized (and yield jobs) far, far away. No wonder so many regional leaders want to see if they can make it more likely for advances to yield benefits closer to home.

Which is why my team at Brookings, in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in East Tennessee, is convening a workshop this week focused on how regions can better leverage their assets to expand local commercialization in the advanced industries sector. Through presentations, dialogues, best-practice-sharing, and a site tour, we aim to enlist industry, government, higher education, and economic development leaders from across the Southeast to help us identify strategies for ensuring more local innovations are locally commercialized. We will report soon on what we learn.

East Tennessee turns out to be a good place to probe these issues given the presence of two major technology development anchor institutions (ORNL and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville) as well as a growing roster of advanced industries firms, including Alcoa, Siemens, Volkswagen, Eastman Chemical Company, DENSO Corporation, and others.

ORNL is a $1.4 billion hub of the Department of Energy’s world-famous national lab system, with core competencies in multiple energy technologies, high-performance computing, advanced materials, and additive manufacturing. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s research efforts in nuclear energy and materials science stand as an important regional complement to Oak Ridge. These institutions are quintessential national and regional technology hubs of the sort that will be needed to drive future advanced industries development.

Yet, the fact remains that until very recently the region’s scientific competencies have not been well leveraged for localized economic development. As recent Metro analyses of the Tennessee auto industry and the national lab system show, there have historically been too few technology engagements and not enough networking between the anchor institutions and small-and-medium sized advanced industry firms for commercialization to occur. Likewise, federal rules have complicated technology partnerships, and have ensured that ORNL’s institutional partnerships have been are more easily constructed with larger Fortune 500 firms than with smaller ones. The result has been that East Tennessee has historically not benefited from the type of localized industrial scale-up that has benefitted other regions with similar anchor institutions.

But now that may be changing, thanks to a concerted push on the part of East Tennessee leaders in close coordination with the state of Tennessee and various federal actors. Following on the 2013 Brookings auto industry report, a variety of local, state, and federal efforts have sought explicitly to make technology development sticky in East Tennessee. ORNL, UT-Knoxville, and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) together created RevV!—an innovative voucher program that will help small- and medium-sized manufacturers access technological solutions through Oak Ridge researchers. The program will especially help promising small- and medium-sized manufacturing firms solve problems and grow with the help of the lab. Likewise, Tennessee state government moved under Gov. Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative to put in place a Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) to award $10 million in challenge grants to accelerate the emergence of regionally aligned, industry relevant skills development initiatives as in East Tennessee.

Since then, the region’s initiative has attracted federal support. Last year the region won one of the federal government’s initial 12 Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) awards through a coordinated effort of ORNL, UT, and TNECD. And then the region competed for and won the location of the next federal manufacturing innovation institute, the $70 million Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI). The IACMI award and the accompanying $180 million cost share from six states and dozens of private companies only adds to the region’s relevance in the accelerating global push to develop and commercialize lower-cost techniques for producing hyper-strong, light-weight advanced composites for the auto, aerospace, industrial sectors. These successes have already helped the region attract such significant manufacturing and composites companies as Local Motors, CVMR, and Cirrus Aircraft to the region.

In sum, there is much to consider in East Tennessee. A significant set of highly intentional local, state, and federal strategies focused on promoting innovation and localizing its commercialization have been put in place and represent a leading case study of such effort. Look soon for our takeaways.